For Jeep, the name Cherokee comes freighted with expectations. Over the years, the company has sold more than 2.5 million Cherokees, the boxy second-generation model becoming the most iconic SUV of the Eighties and Nineties. So why hasn't there been a Cherokee for the past 13 years? Because Jeep didn't have a small SUV worthy of the badge, and it knew it. The Cherokee's hard-won reputation was never squandered by attaching its name to, say, the vehicle known as the Compass. The implication is that Jeep believes the new Cherokee can live up to our romantic memories of the 1984–2001 models.

The 2014 Cherokee comes in four trim levels. The one that matters, in terms of Jeep's credibility, is the Trailhawk – the one that's supposed to uphold Jeep's good name when the terrain gets bumpy. It's got skid plates, low-range four-wheel drive, and an electronic terrain-selection system similar to Land Rover's: Tell it what kind of surface you're on, and it'll tailor the throttle and the traction-control systems to optimize forward progress. Big, red tow hooks jut from the bumpers – presumably for pulling out lesser vehicles.

The Trailhawk stands taller than its fellow Cherokees, courtesy of a one-inch suspension lift and tires that are about 30 inches in diameter. It also has an electronically locking rear differential, the sort of boon to traction you see on trucks like the Ford Raptor but rarely on small crossovers. Basically, the Trailhawk includes a lot of features that owners of prior Cherokees would have to pay an off-road shop to install, possibly in a warranty-voiding procedure.

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Between the beefy power, the nine-speed transmission, and tough off-road gear, a loaded Trailhawk has beneath-the-skin stats more comparable to those of a Range Rover Evoque than to the domestic crossovers'.

The skin itself is a matter of some debate. The front end looks vaguely extraterrestrial, with daytime running lights scything across the top of the fenders. I like it, but then my taste runs toward the Nissan Jukes and Lincoln MKTs of the world. There are millions of banal crossovers on the road already – what's wrong with looking different?

It's also important that its look doesn't simply rip off the Grand Cherokee, a vehicle that is very much still with us and remains a few notches above the Cherokee in terms of price and performance. Still, a decked-out Cherokee treads pretty close to the Grand's territory, which also means it's more capable than most vehicles of the small-crossover ilk. For one thing, the Cherokee offers a V-6, which is a rarity in the class, and the big-bore sounds and power are commensurate with the Jeep's lofty ambitions. The V-6 is a 3.2-liter version of the Grand Cherokee's 3.6-liter V-6, and its 271 horsepower handily outpunches everything in its class – as does its 4,500-pound tow rating. The nine-speed transmission actually trumps the Grand Cherokee's eight-speed, and the junior Cherokee offers interior finery to rival its big brother's. Charmingly rustic it's not.

While Trailhawk buyers surely dream of summiting craggy mountain peaks, most won't ever engage that locking differential and plunge into something they're not sure they're getting out of. Which means that the on-road behavior – the part Jeep doesn't much brag about – is really the more relevant part of the vehicle's package.

Amazingly, the Trailhawk's off-road prowess doesn't impose a noticeable toll on day-to-day drivability. The V-6 pulls strong; the four-wheel independent suspension delivers a smooth ride; and it gets a reasonable 25 miles per gallon on the highway. Even diehard fans of the last generation have to admit that a Cherokee Trailhawk is more powerful and capable than any pre-2001 model – alien headlights and Alfa parts notwithstanding.

The Cherokee is also fully up to date in terms of its driver-aid electronics. These include a system that can autonomously brake to help avoid a collision, and another that will steer the car into either parallel or perpendicular parking spaces (the first of its kind on any Chrysler product). On the other side of the coin, the dual-pane sunroof can imbue the Cherokee with an old-school Jeep open-air sensibility.

Jeep took a chance by declaring that this vehicle is different enough from its competitors, and from its own immediate predecessors, to warrant the return of a hallowed name. Thankfully, the product stands up.