That's a Jeep Cherokee? 2014 model surprises

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(AP) - The Jeep Cherokee is back, though no one recognizes the 2014 model _ with sleek, modern styling, a long list of safety features, pleasant handling and comfortable on-road ride _ as a Cherokee.

Remember, the last vehicle to carry the Cherokee name was a 2001 sport utility vehicle that had slab sides and noisy ride.

In contrast, the new Cherokee looks distinctly different from any previous Cherokee _ or Jeep, for that matter.

It also has the segment's first nine-speed automatic transmission. It uses a platform that's based on cars from Jeep owner Fiat of Italy.

The new Cherokee offers safety equipment that's on luxury cars and includes nifty storage places and hooks, plus sliding fore and aft back seats, that some other SUVs do not. The 2014 Cherokee even has 40.3 inches of legroom in the back seat.

Still, the new Cherokee, which retains 4X4 off-road capability and weighs more than many other five-passenger SUVs, isn't tops in fuel mileage.

The best mileage rating from the federal government is 22 miles per gallon in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway when the Cherokee has the base, 184-horsepower, 2.4-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine.

This is lower than other five-passenger, four-cylinder-powered SUVs that intersect the Cherokee's price range, such as the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4.

Note that the Cherokee also offers an optional, 271-horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6.

The 2014 Cherokee has a starting retail price, including destination charge, of $23,990 for a front-wheel drive Sport model with the turbocharged four cylinder and nine-speed automatic. No manual transmission is offered.

The lowest starting price for a new Cherokee with four-wheel drive is $25,990, or $2,000 more. This is with the four-cylinder engine.

The lowest starting MSRP, including destination charge, for a 2014 Cherokee with the Pentastar V-6 is $26,985, and this is for a front-wheel drive model.

In comparison, the 2014 Ford Escape, which has a similar wheelbase but is 4 inches shorter than the 15-foot-long Cherokee, has a starting retail price of $23,595 with 168-horsepower, non-turbocharged four cylinder, six-speed automatic and front-wheel drive. The Escape is offered with a 178-horsepower, turbo four cylinder, too. Prices start at $24,945 in a front-wheel drive Escape.

Another Cherokee competitor, the Toyota RAV4, is 2 inches shorter than the Cherokee in overall length. The RAV4 has a starting MSRP, including destination charge of $24,160 for a front-wheel drive model with 176-horsepower, non-turbo four cylinder and six-speed automatic transmission.

The test Cherokee in Deep Cherry Red paint drew attention.

Some agreed that the new take on Jeep's trademark seven-slot grille at the front of the Cherokee is reminiscent of an early-era Norelco electric shaver.

No matter the debate on styling, this Jeep felt solid in its handling and ride. There was a hefty feel to the 4,000-pound tester, which was a Limited 4X4 model with V-6.

Doors closed with acceptable quality sounds, and the vehicle moved over potholes and other road imperfections with decent management of shocks and vibrations. It was not a "cush" ride but it was well-controlled, with even body sway in curves nicely held at bay. At the same time, the ride did not feel overly firm. The Cherokee uses a MacPherson strut front suspension with four-link rear with trailing arm.

Steering had good on-center feel and felt normal, for an electric power rack-and-pinion setup.

Brakes worked strongly, with progressive, linear response to brake pedal pressure, and the Cherokee rode like a tightly constructed, cohesive piece _ nothing like Cherokees of old.

The engine sounded confident and provided strong power smoothly, though nine gears seem like more than what's needed.

All these gears certainly didn't seem to help fuel economy. The vehicle averaged 21.6 mpg in city/highway travel. This compares with the federal government's rating of 19/27 mpg for this model.

Note that no V-6 is offered in some competing five-passenger SUVs.

To further dispense with the idea that this Cherokee is historic or somehow retro, one only needs to get inside.

This is a modern SUV with a communication display between gauges right in front of the driver. The driver sets the display to show information he or she wants and can rotate through a series of information screens without turning to either side.

Another, bigger display atop the center of the dashboard provides access to audio, navigation and the like.

Attention to detail was unexpected. There's a bit of a shelf at the base of the dashboard center stack where a power connector and USB port reside, making for a handy spot for a phone.

A covered storage spot is atop the dashboard. There are hooks in the cargo space to hang those pesky plastic grocery bags that otherwise roll around on the floor. The Cherokee's front passenger seat cushion hides a usually unused storage spot.

Another nice touch was the key fob button to open the power liftgate also would close the liftgate.

Seats were comfortable, front and back. The premium, leather-trimmed, black seats in the test vehicle gave good support, though the swirling tufted sections seemed a bit overdone.

Because of the Cherokee's sleek profile, there is a tad less headroom in the back seat _ 38.5 inches _ than in Ford's Escape, which has 39 inches.

Cargo room in the Cherokee grows from 24.6 cubic feet to 54.9 cubic feet when rear seats are folded.

A bit more room can be had for long items in the Cherokee, because the front passenger seatback can fold down, too.

Maximum towing capacity for the Cherokee is 4,500 pounds.

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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