NEW YORK – The reborn ’14 Jeep Cherokee literally had a rough climb to get to its place in the spotlight.

The new vehicle dramatically took center stage Wednesday as a driver maneuvered it up an uneven stack of big blocks at the New York International Auto Show.

The grand entrance is intended to show the midsize SUV’s ruggedness, even though the new Cherokee is one of the prettiest vehicles to bear the 70-year-old Jeep name.

Mike Manley, CEO of Chrysler’s Jeep division, says the debutante lives up to the reputation of the original Cherokee that had global sales of 2.5 million before ending a 17-year run in 2001.

Although the original model was a darling to many ardent offroaders, its appearance was boxy, utilitarian and no-nonsense.

Its namesake successor is sleek and stylish, leading many enthusiasts, upon seeing early photos, to wonder if it’s just another pretty face unworthy of wearing a Jeep nametag.

Manley insists that’s not the case. On the sidelines of the auto show, he calls the new Cherokee “gorgeous.” But he insists a tough cookie is wrapped by chic sheet metal. “It definitely has Jeep DNA.”

He discounts the possibility the vehicle’s appearance may drive off some hardline buyers who harbor strong feelings about what a Jeep should look like.

“We tried to design a vehicle for this generation and the next, so the styling had to be progressive.” Manley tells WardsAuto. “Our share in this segment was so small, we knew we had to come into market with something that resonates with a lot of buyers, but still is fundamentally true to Jeep. I think we’ve done that. It’s certainly a vehicle for now, but it also will take us into the future.” 

The new Cherokee will appeal to a broad range of consumers, from families to empty-nesters to offroaders, he says. “It has the utility, offers ride height that a lot of people like, but it also offers new technology. So the buying audience is really broad.”

The midsize SUV enters a big segment with annual collective sales of about 2 million units. The Cherokee replaces the Liberty, which had replaced the original Cherokee. The Liberty had a 10-year run ending in 2012. It never fully met the auto maker’s expectations, holding just 3%-4% market share of the segment.

“Everybody loved the Liberty, but it was a niche player,” Manley says. “It was always rugged and had great capability, but it was just known for that. It came with some compromises. It didn’t have the technology that the new Cherokee has, technology that gives it improved fuel economy and better ride and handling.”

Engine offerings are a new 3.2L Pentastar V-6, Chrysler’s 3.6L Pentastar V-6 workhorse used throughout the lineup and a 2.4L Tigershark.

Jeep touts the trio as fuel-efficient powertrains with outputs that support rugged driving conditions.

The auto maker also heralds the Cherokee as the first SUV with a 9-speed transmission, developed quickly to bring to market. Three new 4-wheel-drive systems of varying ranges are offered. So is a traction-control system with five modes: auto, snow, sport, sand/mud and rock.

Production starts in May in Toledo, OH. The Cherokee hits showrooms in the fall.

“Feedback from dealers has been positive,” Manley says. “This vehicle opens up the entire segment for them.”

sfinlay@wardsauto.com