Though it can upset loyal brand customers, discontinuing of a model for a year or two before introducing its replacement can be healthy. The forced break with continuity and tradition forces both product planners as well as consumers to examine their preconceived notions of that brand or model, and take a fresh look at a model they might not have previously considered. Jeep hopes that will be the case with the new 2014 Jeep Cherokee, which is a complete clean-sheet re-think of Jeep's small/midsize product strategy. Based on what we've seen so far, it's a galactic improvement over the outgoing Liberty.

Contemporary Crossover, Still a Jeep

The biggest change between the 2014 Cherokee and the Liberty is its platform. Unlike the Liberty, which used a quasi-unibody platform with a live rear axle and longitudinal layout, the transverse-engine Cherokee is built upon the unibody CUSW platform that also underpins the Dodge Dart compact sedan. The Cherokee shows the versatility of this platform, which is loosely based upon the Alfa Romeo Giulietta chassis, by matching or surpassing the Liberty's approach, breakover and departure angles, and providing what should be to be a much smoother on-road ride, better aerodynamics, and vastly improved fuel economy.

Before official specifications were revealed, many Jeep loyalists were concerned that the crossover would be a Jeep in name only, like the soft-roader Compass and Patriot. Jeep has preemptively addressed critics by offering not one, but three four-wheel-drive systems; two offer a low-range option, one which has a rear locking differential, a key piece of hardware and bragging rights for off-road aficionados.

A big part of the 2014 Cherokee's story its fuel economy, which is said to be 31 percent better than the Liberty for V-6 models and 45 percent better on I-4 ones. However, it's important to keep in context that for the last few models years, the Liberty was only offered with V-6 power. As for the engines themselves, the base mill is Chrysler's 2.4-liter "Tigershark" four-cylinder, which is an adaptation of the so-called "World Engine" with Fiat's MultiAir variable valve lift technology. Jeep has not yet released official EPA figures, but claims a respectable 31 mpg highway for the two-wheel-drive Cherokee equipped with the four-cylinder.

The upgrade engine is a smaller-bored version of the familiar corporate Pentastar V-6, this time in 3.2-liter form. Still port-injected, the engine produces 271 hp and 239 lb-ft of torque, an improvement of 61 hp and 4 lb-ft over the Liberty's old 3.7-liter SOHC 12-valve V-6. The most radical change in the powertrain department is the adoption of a nine-speed automatic transmission. Yes, you read that right. More than double the number of ratios of the Liberty, and three more than most of its competitors. In Jeep-speak, the gearbox is called the 948TE. It's a license-built ZF 9HP, the same one that was recently touted in the 2014 Range Rover Evoque.

Lowdown on Low Range

In terms of how that power hits the pavement (or trail) the Cherokee will be offered in front-wheel-drive, Jeep Active Drive I, which is the standard, single-speed four-wheel-drive system, Jeep Active Drive II, which has a low-range ratio, and Jeep Active Drive Lock, which is essentially Active Drive II with a locking rear differential, available exclusively on the off-road-oriented Trailhawk model. All four-wheel-drive systems are offered with four terrain modes: Auto, Snow, Sport, and Sand/Mud. The Trailhawk's Active Drive Lock adds a fifth mode, "Rock" which is available only in low-range, and optimizes power application for climbing obstacles. Both the Mud/Sand and Rock Modes can distribute up to 100 percent of power to the rear axle. But during normal on-road driving, the four-wheel-drive systems disconnect the rear axle, resulting in improved fuel economy and less mechanical drag. Jeep is claiming an industry-first for this feature.

Also, thanks to ratio spread afforded by the transmission's abundance of speeds gives low-range-equipped Cherokees an impressive crawl ratio. Equipped with the Tigershark four-cylinder, the Cherokee has a crawl ratio of 56:1, and 47.8:1 with the 3.2 Pentastar. For comparison, the Grand Cherokee has a crawl ratio of 44.1:1 and the Wrangler Rubicon a ratio of 73.1:1.

With all this driveline wizardry, Jeep did not lose sight of the importance of capability. To that end, the Cherokee has a maximum trailer towing capacity of 4500 lb. Though 500 lb lower than the Liberty's, that's still considerably higher than the 2500 lb and 3000 lb ratings more commonly found in the class.

Dimensionally, the Cherokee is fractionally bigger than the Liberty in length and width, but is about five inches shorter in height. In terms of weight, the Cherokee is meaningfully lighter than the Liberty in most configurations. Jeep did not release weight for four-cylinder models, but the front-drive V-6 tips the scales at 3811 lb, while the Trailhawk comes in at a stout 4106 lb. The outgoing Liberty 4x4 weighed in at 4290 lb, with the 2WD weighing 4076.

Inside, it's mostly the same space-wise, with Cherokee passengers having about the same amount of space as those riding in Liberties. However, in terms of interior styling and features, the Cherokee blows its predecessor into the weeds. Starting with the overall style, the Cherokee's sculpted dash and console look like some actual thought was put into the design process, compared to the Liberty's angular cabin that looks like it came from the early 1980s designed with a straight-edge on a drafting table.

Material quality is improved as well as style. The Cherokee gets soft-touch material on the door uppers, door armrests, upper dashboard and center armrest. Nappa leather seating surfaces with driver's side memory seats are available, as is a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seats, a wireless device charging pad, and Chrysler's massive 8.4-inch center touchscreen display (a five-inch screen is standard) with available streaming media apps Pandora, Aha, and iHeart Radio. Also available is adaptive cruise control with active braking and the 2014 Cherokee also gets the distinction of being the first Chrysler product to get park assist.

The Look: Love It or Hate It

As for the exterior design, specifically the front-end styling, it's a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. In an early media preview, Jeep reps sandbagged the styling by saying "You're probably going to hate it." One thing's for sure, it's a radical departure from Jeep's traditional look. Particular scrutiny has been given to the design of the front lighting, which some have compared to the Nissan Juke's. Like the Juke, the Cherokee's upper light strip consists of LED running lights and directional signals while the actual headlights are mounted lower on the front fascia.

On most Cherokee models, the headlights are housed in an integrated one-piece body-colored molded front bumper cover. On the Trailhawk, the headlights are surrounded by a gray plastic accent piece that covers the bumper and lower fascia that comes up and around the headlights. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we prefer the styling treatment of the Trailhawk, which also includes two bright red tow hooks, which Jeep representatives proudly claim are fully functional. Around back, all Cherokees get standard LED taillights, which are an horizontal design, mounted high, bordering the rear glass.

Pricing has not yet been released, but for context, the Liberty 4x2 starts at $24,320 before incentives, going up to $34,330 for a fully-optioned Limited Jet Edition 4x4. We think a fully decked-out Cherokee Limited V-6 4x4 may crest that total, but we don't see the Cherokee going over $40,000, even with the most lavish level of equipment. Considering a Honda CR-V starts at around $23,625, a Ford Escape goes for $22,865 for the price-leader S trim, and a Subaru Forester goes for $23,820 with an automatic, the starting price on a front-drive, four-cylinder Cherokee will likely start around the $23,000 range. Official pricing should be released closer to the Cherokee's anticipated on-sale date this Summer.

2014 Jeep Cherokee
BASE PRICE $23,000-$29,000 (est)
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD /4WD, 5-pass, 5-door, SUV
ENGINES 2.4L 184-hp / 171-lb-ft SOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.2L 271-hp / 239-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 9-speed automatic, single-speed/low-range 4WD optional
CURB WEIGHT (V-6) 3811 lb (V-6 4x2) - 4106 lb (V-6 4x4)
WHEELBASE 106.3-107.0 in (Trailhawk)
LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT 182.0 x 73.2-74.9 x 66.2-67.8 in
0-60 MPH 7.5-9.0 sec (TT est)
EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON 19-22 / 28-31 mpg (est)
ON SALE IN U.S. Summer 2013