Jeep… Cherokee? Is that you?

I have a few things to say after my first glimpses of Jeep’s new take on the iconic Cherokee.

2014 Jeep Cherokee first look

What’s in a name?
2014 Jeep Cherokee left front lightsLooking at the pictures that Chrysler released on Friday of the upcoming Cherokee made me ponder a question. At what point does an automotive model designation become just that, a designation–or worse, an abuse of that designation?

Granted, it is not unprecedented for auto companies to rummage up once-abandoned model names. Heck, the bow-tie crew just breathed life back into the Stingray moniker but, in that case, the name was merely frosting on an already delectable cake. So am I showing bias or is there a difference? Actually, I think I’m getting ahead of myself, so please allow me to make my point.

Let’s consider a few recycling jobs that raised some eyebrows but avoided what I’d consider abuse: Ford’s Taurus, Chevy’s Impala and Dodge’s Dart.

Ford Taurus 2006 and 2008The full-size Ford that picked up the once powerful Taurus name had originally been used on a mid-size car. Not a huge change but its reintroduction forced people to realign their understanding of the Taurus from being a popular volume model to a more exclusive, and more expensive, top end model. Overall, I’d say it worked since few were passionate about it and consumers had largely divorced themselves from the label during the model’s slow and unceremonious fall from the top spot.

Chevrolet Impala 1996 and 2000How about the prancing antelope? After being cut from the lineup post 1985, the Impala name was brought back in 1994 (with “SS” attached to it) only to be shelved again after 1996. Then, in 2000, Chevy asked consumers to once again consider the Impala name, only this time it was attached to a considerably smaller, non-performance oriented, and front-wheel-drive car. There wasn’t much of an outcry. The reason why, I feel, had to do with what was expected of the model. Apart from the rare SS variety, late-model Impalas were typically understood to be mundane transportation. The 2000 version, although dramatically different in appearance, fulfilled the expectations of consumers.

Dodge Dart 1976 and 2013And Dodge’s Dart? Of the three examples, this may have generated the most resistance. Over the years, the name was used on cars defined as full-size, then mid-size, and finally compact. However, last used in 1976, the “compact” Dart wasn’t far off in size from today’s full-sizers. Nevertheless, it is remembered by many as a smallish, affordable and somewhat sporty car; much like the new version introduced for 2013. I think the new car’s sporting attitude ultimately afforded Dodge a pass with the Dart name. (Personally, I think Neon was a credible alternative.)

Then you have some vehicle names that never left the arena but were harvested to christen an entirely different type of vehicle. Two examples of this method would be the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder. As their rugged names suggest, each began life as truck-based SUVs–more than two decades ago. With consumers’ tastes shifting towards car-based, soft-roader CUVs over the last half-decade, Ford and Nissan transplanted their well-known model names to modern products with little in common with the originals. But here, too, the changes seemed relatively innocuous. Why? Probably because the majority of Explorers and Pathfinders are used for commuting and carting kids. So, even though these two examples represent substantial changes under a model name, most consumers got more of what they were looking for. No harm, no foul.

2014 Jeep CherokeeSo why then am I writing this post about the forthcoming Cherokee?

Typically, the name-game effort is aimed at reinvigorating sales by playing on humans’ predilection for nostalgia. But it seems lately that names are increasingly used merely as a marketing ploy to tether positive mental identifications to either high-value or risky products that share little in common with their fore-bearers. Rather than picking up where a legacied model left off and refining the original formula, familiar insignias are now frequently employed as psychological consumer enticements.

Whereas some Ford Explorers and Nissan Pathfinders were actually used off-road, that wasn’t their claim to fame. Historically, however, it was Jeep’s. Cherokee SUVs especially.

Unfortunately, this Cherokee is different than those before it. Much like the less-than-admired little Patriot and Compass twins, this next new Jeep will don a FWD architecture, leaving its RWD history in the dust.

2014 Jeep Cherokee

Am I predicting doom and gloom? No. My problem is mostly with the name. This new CUV will probably do very well in the marketplace reaching an audience that no SJ or XJ could. Although, I doubt I’d ever gravitate towards one.

Besides its un-Jeep-like running gear, I can’t say I’m a fan of this new sucking-on-a-lemon look. In fact, it appears Chrysler has picked-up on some negative reactions. Autoweek reported that later the same day the pictures were released, Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s head of design, tweeted “have faith” and “we are shifting some paradigms around… it is time.”

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