Larry P. Vellequette covers Chrysler for Automotive News.
Is Jeep planning a nose job for the 2014 Cherokee, even before its official unveiling this month in New York?
A mule spotted last week by an Automotive News reporter in Los Angeles shows that they're at least testing the idea.
Beneath its covered front fascia, the hacked-up Alfa Guilietta mule -- the Cherokee is based on the Guilietta's platform -- has Jeep's seven-slot grille and a new light placement. The lights are higher and the grille is more vertical than the polarizing design Chrysler Group showed late last month after photos of earlier Cherokees leaked out online.
A Jeep spokesman said the brand has "a number of pre-production vehicles undergoing testing and evaluation at various locations around the country. We don't discuss any details regarding potential future products."
Fair enough. But figuring out what this mule is testing is far easier than figuring out why such testing is taking place.
The mule is identifiable as a test platform for the Cherokee because the Cherokee's body code -- KL -- appears in the window. It was photographed following a Chrysler 300, also sporting manufacturer's plates, that had a camera or other sensing device mounted on its rear roof. Only the front fascia of the Cherokee is hidden from view.
Ralph Gilles, head of design for Chrysler, said that reactions he received on the 2014 Jeep Cherokee design since last month were overwhelmingly positive, but those that said they didn't like the design really didn't like it.
Given Chrysler's silence, we can speculate about a number of possible explanations for this mule:
It could be that the mule is an earlier design that is simply being relocated or scrapped. But given the second vehicle that appears to be involved in the test, this seems highly improbable.
The mule could also be an iteration to make the promised trail-rated versions of the Cherokee far more useful off-road, with higher headlights and greater ground clearance. Insiders on the Chrysler-centric site Allpar.com have noted that at least one version of the front-wheel-drive Cherokee will have a transfer case.
Or it could be that Chrysler was surprised by just how polarizing their initial Cherokee design was to Jeep enthusiasts. Ralph Gilles, head of design for Chrysler, said that reactions he received on the Cherokee design since last month were overwhelmingly positive, but those that said they didn't like the design really didn't like it.
There's a principle in physics called Occam's razor which suggests that when two or more competing theories make exactly the same prediction, the simplest one is usually the best.
But only Chrysler knows for sure, and it's not saying.