It's too bad Jeep fans can't experience the Cherokee with a blindfold first. It's unexpected, awe-inducing actually--and not in a great way. The novelty of a non-rectilinear shape is a direct challenge to time-honored, square-jawed Jeep tradition. It actually brings down the driving experience, if only for a little while.
We'll give the 2014 Cherokee begrudging respect for trying something new, to a point. We're ready for the next look of SUVs, but here, the controversial look feels incomplete. It feels like a redux of the Compass, which blurred its lines not in the wrong ways, but in unfinished, unconvincing ones.
The Cherokee's wan, thin nose is the first problem. Breaking up its LED running-light eyebrows from the headlamps sounds like a clever idea for cool looks after dark, but in daylight it delivers an Aztek-like effect--a tiered face that looks like it's always being woken up too early. A Jeep should look wide and awake, like it's up before reveille. The lighting only amplifies the thinly drawn seven-bar grille--once a point of pride for Jeep, now an effete afterthought. (You could smoke a pork butt on the grille of a Commander, for god's sake.)
From that nose on back, the Cherokee doesn't even have the convictions of its argument. This is not a Cherokee from the past--so why does it so strongly resemble a Hyundai Santa Fe from the side, or a Kia Sorento from the rear? It's washed clean of all the rectangles, but doesn't have anything new to show in those softened contours. Here's the roundabout point: if you're going to go all-in on a new shape, go all in.
The sheetmetal divides but doesn't conquer. The Cherokee's cabin, in contrast, does a Genghis Khan job on Jeep's old demons, just like today's Grand Cherokee did on the last one. It's sporty, not at all trucklike, and finished in fine fashion.
Jeep says the interior shapes are influenced by birds of prey, with a fluid feel. That heady ode-to-nature stuff seems funny to us, since the Cherokee's cabin is wrapped up as tightly in petroleum derivatives as our retirement accounts. But they're good derivatives--even the Dart doesn't have as much of the nice stuff that sits on the Cherokee's stitched dash cap, the console cover, or even its steering wheel.
It's a handsome look tipped into several color schemes named for--you guessed it--places like Iceland and Mount Kilimanjaro and Morocco. (We would call them "grey" and "brown" and "gold".) The SUV theming is far from humorless, thank goodness. Jeep designers have penned in some great Easter eggs, like the 1941 Jeep Willys you'll find when letting the Cherokee park itself, or like the small but perfectly formed Jeep that rests at the base of the windshield, climbing over a sensor like it's a Moab boulder. You'll be happier inside looking out, than most Jeep traditionalists will be, outside, looking in.