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SON OF A LEGEND: 2015 Jeep Cherokee boasts unexpected on-, off-road mettle

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chasing a legend can carry serious risks for any automaker.

Consider Jeep’s resurrection of the Cherokee, a hugely popular, compact SUV designed, manufactured and first sold in 1984 by American Motors Corp. and continuing through subsequent corporate owners for the next 18 years.

Fiat Chrysler is hoping the reborn Cherokee has the makings of a repeat success.

With its striking – some say bizarre – front-end styling, the Cherokee cuts a polarizing figure, but looking beyond the frontal design, there’s plenty to appeal to SUV shoppers.

Compact SUVs/CUVs are the hottest automotive niche right now, and the Cherokee offers true Jeep off-roading ability that trumps nearly all of its segment competitors. In addition, it can be dressed up or down with utilitarian or luxury features to meet a wide swath of buyers’ desires.

For a true, tough 4×4, the Cherokee delivers unexpected competence on the road. The SUV’s heft (particularly with the optional V-6 like our tester) can be felt in corners, with a modicum of body lean, but it never feels unstable. And the steering is spot-on accurate.

Under way, instantly noticeable is the Cherokee’s utter solidity. Bumps and dips elicit nary a quiver in the tight body structure.

This also pays dividends in the vehicle’s remarkable highway quietude. Road and wind noise approach luxury-car levels, somewhat uncommon for such a capable off-roader.

jeepinteriorOur Limited 4×4 test model demonstrated Chrysler’s newfound aptitude with cabin design. Seating surfaces were swathed with handsome, two-tone leather, while the dash and doors featured attractively grained soft-touch plastics. The front buckets proved to super comfortable, supportive and nicely bolstered without being overly confining.

The optional V-6 makes a healthy dose of power, but its delivery is somewhat muted by the nine-speed automatic transmission. It hesitates to downshift and often seems flummoxed about which gear to choose.

Otherwise, the Cherokee is nicely well-mannered.

With its handsome cabin, available features, solid build quality and on- and off-road capabilities, the Cherokee seems poised to extend its predecessor’s legend.