Dee-Ann Durbin

DETROIT: The Jeep Cherokee is back, with a surprising design that could win some new buyers but lose some old fans.

The 2014 Cherokee midsize SUV made its debut Wednesday at the New York International Auto Show. The remake is so radical that observers might not realize itís a Jeep.

The new Cherokee ditches Jeepís traditional boxy look for a more aerodynamic style. It replaces the brandís signature round headlights with sharply angled slits. The interior is plush and full of luxury options such as automatic parallel parking. Even Jeepís seven-slat grille didnít go untouched ó itís much smaller and creased in the middle to fold over the Cherokeeís nose.

Itís a look more reminiscent of a Honda CR-V than the model it replaces ó the Liberty ó and past Cherokees that helped establish Jeep as a symbol of toughness and off-road adventure.

All this isnít sitting well with some Jeep fans, who say the 72-year-old brand is straying too far from its rugged, utilitarian roots. They bemoan the new styling and softer ride, saying itís more suited for a trip to the mall than the Rubicon trail.

ďItís the ugliest thing Iíve ever seen on the road and to put a Jeep badge on it, let alone call it a Cherokee, is an insult to the name and heritage that Jeep has always delivered,Ē said Micah Myers, a longtime Jeep fan from Lexington Park, Md., who drives a 13-year-old Cherokee.

Chrysler Group, Jeepís parent, acknowledges that the design is polarizing. But Jeep needs to win back the suburbanites who have spent the last decade defecting to a newer batch of car-like, fuel-efficient competitors such as the Chevrolet Equinox and Toyota RAV4. The new Cherokee goes on sale this fall.

In 2002, after Jeep replaced the aging Cherokee with the cheaper, smaller Liberty, a record 171,212 were sold in the United States, according to Wardís AutoInfoBank. Last year that fell to 75,482. The CR-V outsold the Liberty by more than three to one.

ďThey need to do something different, and that kind of vehicle is something different altogether,Ē said Michelle Krebs, a senior analyst at the car-buying site Edmunds.com. ďThey have to stretch that brand.Ē

Jeep ó and other automakers ó are also under pressure to meet increasing U.S. fuel economy requirements. That explains the aerodynamic style and the new nine-speed transmission under the hood. The all-wheel-drive Liberty currently gets 22 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, making it one of the worst performers among midsize SUVs. The new Cherokee will get up to 31 mpg on the highway.

Finally, Jeep needs the SUV to appeal to customers around the world, not just adventurous types. The Cherokee will be built in Toledo, but exported to more than 150 countries, including China.

The Cherokee first went on sale in 1974, when Jeep was still owned by American Motors Corp. In 1984, American Motors released a new Cherokee that was smaller, narrower and lighter than the original, essentially inventing the sport utility vehicle. Sales soared. More than 100,000 Cherokees were sold each year between 1986 and 2001.