A MODEST proposal to Chrysler officials: Change the name of the 1990 Jeep Cherokee to the 1990 Jeep Custer. It better describes the circumstances in which the Cherokee finds itself -- surrounded by potentially fatal competition.
That's too bad. The Jeep Cherokee is a fine four-wheel-drive, sport-utility vehicle. But Gen. George Armstrong Custer was a fine U.S. soldier, too. Look at what his competitors did to him.
Seems to me that you Chrysler folks are making the same mistake that Custer made -- overestimating your strength and underestimating the power of your rivals. For example, for the longest time, you had the four-door sport-utility market all to yourselves. Your biggest U.S. rivals, General Motors and Ford, were dreaming of more and more two-door Chevrolet Blazers and Ford Broncos, even though the market had made a decided turn toward families needing four doors.
The Japanese were happy to bring in two-door sport-utility vehicles because they were classified as trucks and not affected by the quotas that restricted cars. But several years ago the Japanese decided that the 25 percent U.S. tariff on trucks was more onerous than the quotas on cars, so they got the U.S. government to start calling four-door sport-utility trucks "cars."
Naturally, Japan began shipping more and more four-door sport-utility vehicles, and naturally Ford and GM reacted to the Japanese by producing similar four-door vehicles of their own -- which is why the Jeep Cherokee's name should be changed.
Background: The Jeep, America's legendary four-wheel-drive vehicle, is the descendant of the Willys-designed General Purpose Car, commissioned by the Department of Transportation in 1940. Chrysler began producing Jeeps in 1987, after buying out American Motors, which had been building Jeeps since 1954.
Like all Jeeps, the Cherokee is a rugged machine, designed to take abuse on shopping and hunting trips. The mid-size Cherokee, however, is especially geared to hauling people. The Cherokee is available in Sport, Pioneer, Laredo and base models, and the top-line tested Limited version.
Complaints: Chrysler needs to rework the Cherokee Limited's front seats -- fancy, leather-covered things that are too narrow for normal adult bottoms and backs. Other recommended fixes: Take some of the power out of the overpowered power steering, and remove that big, mounted spare tire from the rear cargo area.
Praise: Despite its shortcomings and market vulnerability, the Jeep Cherokee remains my favorite "dream range" ($25,000 and under) sport-utility ride. It's tough as all get out, and the addition of a four-wheel anti-lock braking system to the Limited model makes it quite safe to use.
Head-turning quotient: Good enough to support scalpers' prices.
Ride, acceleration and handling: The Cherokee Limited rides like a truck because it is a truck, no matter what the government says. But it's a good truck ride, which means that it does not beat you up badly. Acceleration is terrific, thanks to a 177-horsepower, four-liter, straight six-cylinder engine that is as good as any available. Handling, however, gets only a "good" rating. You've got to concentrate to take this one around curves without getting into trouble.
Sound system: Chrysler-installed AM/FM stereo radio and cassette with Jensen speakers. Excellent.
Mileage: Barely 20 to the gallon (20.2-gallon tank, estimated 385-mile range on usable volume), mostly highway, running with four occupants, light cargo and air conditioner in use part time.
Price: Base price on the tested Cherokee Limited is $25,775. Dealer's invoice price on that model is $22,952. Price as tested is $26,225, including a $450 destination charge. The base price on the Cherokee Base 4WD (2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine) is $14,695; dealer's invoice is $13,202.
Purse-strings note: The heart says buy. The mind says compare with the Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Blazer, Nissan Pathfinder, Mitsubishi Montero, Toyota Land Cruiser or Isuzu Trooper.
Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.