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NEW YORK — Jeep’s chief executive said Thursday that the new 2014 Cherokee is the first Jeep that can offer buyers real off-road capability without penalizing them when they are on the road — where most buyers drive.
The Cherokee, introduced to the world Wednesday at the New York International Auto Show, is Jeep’s replacement for the aged and somewhat one-dimensional Jeep Liberty. Like the Liberty, the Cherokee will be built in Toledo at Chrysler Group LLC’s Toledo Assembly complex.
Mike Manley, Jeep brand chief executive, told The Blade on Thursday that Cherokee takes Jeep into the future.
“Liberty was a very capable vehicle,” he said.
“But when Liberty was conceived there was not the technology” that allowed Jeep to build a vehicle with off-road capability and good fuel mileage.
In other words, the Liberty drove more like a truck than a car — it could climb mountains but couldn’t pass a filling station.
That, Mr. Manley said, kept many buyers away.
Jeep is betting heavily the new and radically redesigned Cherokee will appeal to those buyers in what has become the largest sport-utility vehicle segment in the United States.
“This vehicle gives Jeep access to the full segment for the first time,” Mr. Manley said.
Mr. Manley said he believes the Cherokee, which is slated to be in U.S. dealerships sometime in the year’s third quarter, will become the world’s top-selling Jeep model. Officials haven’t said how many they think they can sell worldwide, but the Grand Cherokee sold more than 223,000 units last year.
International sales will start later this year, with some markets not receiving the Cherokee until early 2014.
In January, Chrysler Group officials listed a May 23 start date for full-scale production of the Cherokee. Since then, there have been various reports from the automotive press and sources that problems have pushed that back.
Mr. Manley on Thursday mostly brushed away the seriousness of those concerns, saying the vehicle remains on schedule for getting into dealerships.
“We’re still in the phase when we’re doing the final calibrations,” he said. “There is always that intense moment of activity in what I would say is the last weeks and months before any vehicle goes into production as everything comes together. Is it more or less than I’ve seen in the past? The reality is no.”
The Cherokee is another chance for Chrysler and its parent company, Fiat, to show their partnership can develop solid vehicles that appeal to American buyers.
The first real test for that was the Dodge Dart, which hasn’t sold as well as officials had hoped. In hindsight, company officials have acknowledged, the Dart’s initial transmission offerings weren’t right for American buyers.
The Cherokee will share the Dart’s Fiat-based platform but will receive a new nine-speed transmission. Eventually that same transmission will also go into the Dart.
Though the Cherokee wasn’t shown publicly until Wednesday, a handful of photographs of the new Jeep were released last month. The reaction to the new design direction was far from universal praise.
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At the New York show, officials said they had expected that.
“The design we used is a progressive design. I think it needs to be, in that segment. It’s a hugely cluttered and competitive segment. We needed to be able to express what the future of an SUV in that market looks like, and I think we did it,” Mr. Manley said.
The Cherokee cuts a profile similar to that of its crossover competitors. Part of that is physics, said Ralph Gilles, who oversees product design for Chrysler Group. To get the fuel economy Jeep was aiming for, the vehicle has to be carefully designed to minimize drag.
But Mr. Gilles said the distinctive front and back ends, along with key Jeep styling cues such as the seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheel arches, differentiate it from the pack.
Officials said they knew the design would be polarizing, but that its popularity seems to be on the rise.
“As time has gone on, it’s grown on people and there’s more people in the ‘like’ camp than the ‘hate’ camp, and that’s what you want. You want attention when you do something new and fresh,” Mr. Gilles said.
There is a difference in seeing the vehicle in person versus seeing it in photographs. In photos, it’s difficult to see the true proportions and stance of the Cherokee. That’s not a guarantee everyone will like it, but forming an opinion on photos alone may not be fair.
The off-road equipped Trailhawk version looks considerably different from the Cherokee Limited that Jeep showed ahead of the show.
More widely flared fenders and a 1-inch-higher stance make it appear far more aggressive and intimidating.
The interior in the Cherokee is much improved from the Liberty. Cheap-looking, hard plastics are mostly gone in favor of softer, more upscale-feeling materials. Jeep also said it was innovative with making the most of the interior storage space.
Chrysler Group officials said the Trailhawk was designed to be embraced by those who are serious about pushing the limits of their vehicles off road, while the other three trim levels are aimed squarely at the heart of the market.
“I think it’s for that person who’s looking for a do-all midsize vehicle,” Mr. Gilles said. “That’s the customer we haven’t been able to reach. The Grand Cherokee is a little more premium. The Liberty was dynamically flawed in some ways; it wasn’t the best-driving car in the world and the fuel economy was not so good, so I think this is someone looking for a great balance.”
Pricing won’t be announced until much closer to the Cherokee’s showroom debut, but Mr. Manley said it will be priced in line with its competitors.
Pricing on the Honda CR-V, for example, starts at about $22,800 and can be optioned up to more than $31,000. The Liberty started at about $24,400 for a two-wheel drive, while an upper trim level four-by-four starts at just under $29,000.
Contact Tyrel Linkhorn at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6134.