When it comes to automotive role models, it’s hard not to want to craft your all-new ride in the style of those trendsetting Germans—dramatic looks, Autobahn power, and plenty of grip in the slippery stuff.
That impulse has yielded striking new designs in a trio of once-bland small and midsize SUVs, one of which (Jeep’s Cherokee) returns to the market after a long absence.
The first to get a total makeover was the Ford Escape. The long-running favorite was reinvented with bold and fluid design cues similar to those seen in the new Focus—and a face that looks a little like a Porsche Cayenne’s. A multi- layered, multi-surfaced dash is stylistically edgy. And great pains have been taken to give the Escape a decidedly more pleasurable and carlike ride. It’s no race car, but the turbo 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine gives it plenty of zip—with a non-turbo 2.5-liter or a turbo 1.6-liter four-banger being the other options. To the joy of gear-toting parents everywhere, it features a motion-activated electric lift gate. Just wave your foot under the bumper.
Earlier this year, Toyota’s venerable RAV4 was also reinvigorated in an all-new model that has transformed it from the ugly duckling your mom drove to a sleek, modernistic ride—almost a scaled-down version of its big brother the Highlander. Gone is the iconic rear-door- mounted spare (an optional electric lift gate subs in); if you like the steeply raked angles and aggressive nose, you’ll also appreciate a completely updated interior with plush faux-leather padding. There’s only one available engine, a 2.5-liter four- cylinder, but a new six-speed automatic transmission makes those 176 horses feel sporty.
The most outrageous makeover is the all-new Jeep Cherokee’s. Far from the rugged box you remember from back in the day, the 2014 Cherokee arrives looking, frankly, like a mutation of the new Escape, with a front end that reminds comic-book fans of antihero The Punisher—tiny slits for headlamps and a toothy, chrome-edged, seven-bar grille. The new Cherokee has more comfort and poise for the pavement, and buyers have a choice of three 4WD systems, all with serious off-road chops. (Get the Trailhawk version for Wrangler-like mud-and-rock agility.) A nine-speed automatic transmission gets the four- cylinder version as much as 31 mpg. And the Cherokee is the last of this crowd to offer a V-6, for 271 horses of giddy-up.
Base price » $22,700
Highway mpg » 28 (2.0-liter, 4WD)
Ski-trip nicety » Full-time 4WD system
Base price » $23,300
Highway mpg » 29 (AWD)
Ski-trip nicety » Dynamic torque control for even power
Base price » $22,995
Highway mpg » 28 (four-cylinder, 4WD)
Ski-trip nicety » Selec-Terrain options include snow mode
The kind of Space Age features we were promised many years ago have finally arrived on everyday automobiles, with night-vision cameras, intelligent crash- prevention radar, and rear- and side-traffic safety sensors now the norm in cars both fancy and utilitarian. Predictive radar—and crash- avoidance sensors that will even stomp on the brakes for you if you’re distracted by your overly complicated navigation system—were once the domain of safety pioneers like Volvo and high-end brands including BMW. Now they can be found in Subarus (the inexpensive but efficient EyeSight camera system), Jeeps, and even the Chevy Impala, with its Forward Collision Alert system. BMW, of course, continues to set the standard higher: Its newer systems can read and display roadside speed signs and spot the thermal images of animals in the road, warning you on a jet-fighter-style heads-up display when you’re about to squash Bambi or take Bullwinkle through the windshield.