Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tribal affiliations

I've gone on record as saying that the Jeep XJ Cherokee is the only SUV I've ever seriously considered owning - which is still true - so I feel compelled to weigh in on the new Liberty replacement bearing that most dignified name which was revealed yesterday.

Disregard the nose for a few minutes. (Seriously, just try. Please.) Like a craft-minded actor, start with intention. The great success of the XJ was that it took the off-road paradigm and made it work splendidly in everyday life while avoiding both excess and compromise. It was a practical box on wheels that could go literally anywhere capable of supporting its not-immodest weight. It was a Land Rover Discovery or Mercedes Geländewagen brought to the masses, a wonderfully functional and unpretentious vehicle that remains one of the great designs of the Eighties, and it enjoyed a well-deserved long production run. It was the perfect evolution of the Jeep ideal and has deservedly eclipsed its large and clumsy predecessor in the popular mindset. Nothing has ever really replaced it.

Photo: Bryce Mullet
It still stands in stark contrast to the less ambitious products from other makers which would gradually evolve into what we now call crossovers. Take the libertarian ruggedness of a proper SUV and domesticate it for suburban desires and you end up with...well, kind of a strange creature that does a lot of things fairly well but does nothing with any kind of greatness.

This is my biggest worry with the new Cherokee. Given that it's allegedly based off the Giulietta/Dart platform, is it going to be capable of real off-road duty in the same way that the XJ was? Will it even try to retain the kind of tool-like honesty and sincerity that goes with the name? Is that even still possible in this market?

On a very superficial level it looks like it's going to line up against such hardcore safarimobiles as the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape and Hyundai Santa Fe in the wilds out at the corners of the mall parking lot during Christmas shopping season. The hallmarks are all there: moderate body cladding, posh interior, alloy wheels with M+S tires, trendy silhouette (aft of the front fenders, at least), a distinct sense of domestic normalcy winning out over the kind of focus and intensity that gets Outward Bound alumni up in the morning.

I don't know if these impressions will turn out to be happily wrong, but for now it's not a good vibe. Something to ponder as we get to the styling issue.


First, I'm not totally rejecting the idea out of hand, but having Jeep be a style leader is like having Barbour revamp their line with tech fabrics and annual color adjustments. This was the company that got endless brickbats for changing to (horrors!) square headlights on the Wrangler. The whole point of a Jeep is that it does what few if any other vehicles can do, and it does so without a lot of fuss or cosmetic silliness. The Wrangler is still one of the most amazing and wonderful vehicles available to the public, even though it is still visibly a development of a primitive machine created over seventy years ago.

Yes, I know I'm sort of avoiding the issue, but I need some time here. Really, I somehow feel bad saying this: As much as I appreciate that Jeep is doing something creative and ambitious, that is just one horribly ugly front end.

This is just such an unbelievable case of what and why and huh? Really: This is a Cherokee?

If this is all as it will truly come to pass, I wish they'd retained the Liberty name instead. The XJ was something great in its directness and capability. If a paleface is allowed to say this, it did justice to its namesake people. This is something very, very different, and I don't see it living up to a very noble reputation.

Time will tell. For now, I am sadly unimpressed.

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