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Can Italian tech put this once-rugged off-roader ahead of the pack, or is the Cherokee lost in an increasingly large crowd of superior family SUVs?

The Jeep Cherokee hasn’t been big news in the UK for a long time. From 2010, there wasn’t one at all as parent company Chrysler’s bankruptcy and contraction meant the Jeep was pulled altogether while a solution to the company’s financial woes was found.

But even prior to that, the model was a lowly also-ran. To find one worthy of recall, you need to return to the mid-1990s and the stacked-haybale silhouette of the XJ – one of the very few idiosyncratically American designs that doesn’t look inadequate on British roads.

Jeep's new Cherokee takes on the likes of the Ford Kuga and Mazda CX-5

The subsequent efforts – all based on the US-badged Liberty – were perennial underperformers.

Now the nameplate is back (it’s reappearing in the US, too) and no one can accuse the brand of repeating the same old formula with this fifth-generation incarnation.

For the most part, that’s because it can’t, because Chrysler is now a division of Fiat, and the architecture underneath the new Cherokee is fundamentally Italian.

On top, it’s raked back and cleaved flat in a way no Cherokee has been before. Could this be the sight of a leaf being turned under new management? Let’s find out.

Jeep Cherokee design & styling

Crucial to the identity of the Jeep brand, the original Willys-Overland Quad entered service with the US Army during World War 2. Jeep claims, with some credibility, that this car represents the genesis of the modern SUV. It became a civilian vehicle in 1945.

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The first Cherokee was launched in 1974. It became a unitary design with the second-generation XJ in 1984, living for almost two decades and selling strongly. The XJ was replaced by the KJ Cherokee in 2002 and rechristened Liberty in the US.

You wouldn’t know from looking at the new Cherokee that it comes from very traditional 4x4 stock. The brusque, boxy styling of old has been jettisoned, however, in favour of something far less utilitarian – and far more aerodynamic.

For those with long memories, there are styling nods to past generations in the prominent seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheel arches, but otherwise the new model is every bit the modern crossover to behold. Which is fitting, because the architecture beneath it is hardly military grade. The Cherokee is now built on what Chrysler calls the Compact US Wide platform, a modular piece of hot-stamped, high-strength steel which, in a different configuration, also underpins the Alfa Romeo Giulietta.

Unsurprisingly, adopting Fiat’s hatchback-purposed underpinnings fundamentally changes the nature of the car. Engines are now mounted transversely and a more heavy-duty 4WD system is relegated to the ‘seen but not heard’ end of the options list.

At entry level, the Cherokee is front-wheel drive and has less ground clearance than a Nissan Qashqai. The engine is also Fiat-sourced, with the 2.0-litre, four-cylinder MultiJet diesel unit offered in 138bhp output and mated as standard to a six-speed manual gearbox, while a 2.2-litre Multijet engine comes with 183bhp or 197bhp also is paired to a new nine-speed automatic. There’s also a 3.2-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine, but you’ll need to special-order one of the very few Trailhawk editions to experience it.

Jeep rather bends the size rules of the segment in order to claim the Cherokee is the first mid-size SUV to feature a nine-speed automatic transmission (in our eyes, the Range Rover Evoque earned those bragging rights months before and now its commonplace), but, that aside, it’s still the standout component on an otherwise run-of-the-mill package.

The ZF-developed unit is available exclusively on the more powerful variants of the diesel engine (and the 3.2-litre V6) and is intended to improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions and enhance performance by providing the engine with just the right ratio for any given situation.

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Inside, there are four gear sets and six shift elements of multi-plate clutches, dog clutches and brakes, only three of which are open at any one time in order to reduce drag losses. Jeep claims first gear is specifically designed for “aggressive launches”, while the four ratios at the opposite end of the transmission are overdrive gears intended to improve economy and dampen noise, vibration and harshness at source.

In addition, there are 40 individual shift maps contained in the software code behind the cogs, ensuring that the engine can take advantage of the extra gears at its disposal. That in itself is a good thing, because Jeep has opted not to fit paddles to the steering wheel Instead, manual shifts are by taps of the gear selector — the old-fashioned way.

All Cherokees come with MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link set-up at the back, and electric power replaces hydraulic in the steering department. You can also opt for Jeep’s Active Drive I four-wheel drive set-up. It’s an on-demand system that uses a wet clutch to send power to the rear wheels. The brand’s Selec-Terrain traction control system comes attached.

While those wanting a more rugged four-wheel-drive system can choose the slightly more potent Active Drive II – which offers a two-speed power transfer unit for low-range flexibility.

Jeep Cherokee First drives