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Modern takes on an old SUV

Are you shocked and slack-jawed about the 2014 Jeep Cherokee that will arrive later this year? Who can really blame you.

Are you shocked and slack-jawed about the 2014 Jeep Cherokee that will arrive later this year?

Who can really blame you. After all, it was the immensely popular - and very square - XJ-designated Cherokee that introduced truckloads of buyers to the virtues of four-wheel-drive as far back as 1984.

For the next two decades, it remained steadfastly unchanged until the Liberty stepped in for the 2002 model year.

With the Liberty's retirement, however, Chrysler-Fiat's off-road division has resurrected the Cherokee brand, but with a significant - and controversial - shift in direction.

For starters, instead of the brick-like original, the latest model has some seriously modern sculpting going on. All by itself, the pinched and pointy-nose grille says plenty about the risk that Jeep's designers have undertaken in creating the new Cherokee. Then there are the eyelet headlights that would have been impossible to imagine on any production car, Jeep or otherwise . . . until now, that is. It's as if the designers snuck a futuristic concept model out the back door and ordered up full production before any of the higher-ups got wise to the plan.

The rest of the sheet metal appears pretty tame by comparison, but encasing the body in protective lower cladding gives the Cherokee a handsomely rugged silhouette.

The interior is also as modern as the outside. In the last few years Jeep has switched from utilitarian hard plastic dashboards to creating inviting soft-touch shapes. All but the most basic Cherokee models feature 12.7 or 21-centimetre touch-screens, depending on the trim level, that operate climate, communications and infotainment systems. The split-folding and fore-/aft-sliding second-row seat is standard, while an available fold-flat front passenger seat has storage beneath the flip-up bottom cushion.

Concurrent with its ground-breaking design, the 2014 Cherokee takes a fresh approach with its power-train offerings. Base models feature a Fiat-designed 2.4-litre four-cylinder worth 184 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque.

Optional is an all-new 3.2-litre V6 that's rated at 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. It's a subset of Chrysler's 3.6-litre V6 that's the base engine in the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Wrangler plus numerous other models such as the Ram pickup.

In the case of the Cherokee, selecting the V6 provides a 2,040-kilogram towing capacity.

Both engines are connected to nine-speed automatic transmissions; it's the first use of that gear changer in any Chrysler.

That's also five more ratios than the outgoing Liberty had, while Jeep claims it helps produce crisp off-the-line launches and contributes to the Cherokee's 6.3 l/100 km highway rating for the 2.4 and 6.7 l/100 km for the 3.2. Jeep hasn't released city numbers yet.

Front-wheel-drive is the Cherokee norm, but buyers will be able to choose from three different four-wheel-drive setups, depending on trim level. Active Drive I, optional in the Sport, Latitude and Limited editions, is a single-speed unit that kicks in automatically whenever tire slip is detected.

Active Drive II, also available in the same models, comes with a two-speed transfer case and is designed for off-road use with either the four or six-cylinder engines.

However, for rock crawling and boulder hopping, Active Drive Lock, as the name implies, locks up the rear differential in low range. This system is standard in the Cherokee Trailhawk, which is a "Trail Rated" rig outfitted with an off-road suspension (that increases ride height by an 2.5 centimetres), skid plates, unique alloy wheels with all-terrain rubber, blacked-out trim and a full-size spare.

Pricing for the base Cherokee Sport will likely start in the upper-$20,000 range

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