Jeep Cherokee, travelling a well-worn trail

The new Cherokee sparked a mini internet maelstrom last month when photos of a prototype leaked online and were met with withering scorn. The company responded by releasing photos of the real thing to quell the uprising.

This turbulence is just the latest twist in the saga of the Cherokee, which launched in the 1980s before the term "SUV" had even gained currency. The four-door version was such a popular alternative to minivans and station wagons of the era that sales far outpaced corporate parent Chrysler’s expectations, encouraging Ford to develop and release the standard-setting Explorer in the early 1990s.

The Cherokee was so durable that it survived not one but two assassination attempts, first when the Grand Cherokee was to have replaced it in 1992 and later, when its replacement had to be relabeled Liberty to sell alongside the Cherokee until the ire of the boxy Jeep’s fans faded.

For 2014, however, comes a Cherokee wearing controversial sheetmetal adorning a chassis from Fiat Group, Chrysler’s parent.

That kind of pedigree has rightfully given Cherokee loyalists pause, but at least in the metal, the final product looks much more successful than those internet photos originally suggested. The front end, tall and pointed with underslung circular headlights like those on the Nissan Juke, is the most distinctive element here. Otherwise, styling hews closely to trails blazed recently by the redesigned Ford Escape and new Mazda CX-5.

The off-road maestros at Jeep continue to demonstrate that they could likely make a dilapidated old Yugo worthy of the Rubicon Trail. Cherokee will be available with various levels of four-wheel capability, with off-road enthusiasts and owners of mountain cabins gravitating toward Trail Rated Jeep-grade 4x4 systems that feature a low range for serious rock crawling.

This is the first Chrysler product to offer a new, smaller 3.2-litre version of the corporate V6 engine. Rated at 271 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque, it bolts to a nine-speed (yes, nine) automatic transmission that the company says is worth an extra 2mpg on the EPA city test cycle compared to a six-speed transmission. Complete fuel economy numbers were not shared, but the company says the base 2.4-litre four cylinder engine, producing 184hp and 171 lb-ft of torque, will achieve a highway rating of 31mpg.

A driving demonstration on an indoor obstacle course at New York's Jacob Javits Convention Center revealed impressive climbing ability and resistance to tipping. Another laudable feature is its ability to disconnect all the wheels from the drive system, making the Cherokee appealing for RV drivers who tow a smaller car, like a road-going dinghy, behind their camper.

If Jeep drivers value off-road ability over polarising styling, the Cherokee should succeed in converting even die-hards to this latest edition. But the Cherokee's fraught, death-defying past suggests that the vehicle often takes the harder path.

Look for it to arrive in showrooms during the third quarter of the year in Sport, Latitude, Limited and Trailhawk trim levels, at prices to be announced.