Chrysler began shipping the new Jeep Cherokee Tuesday, giving dealers a long-awaited entry in the fast-growing compact crossover SUV market.
Distribution of the Cherokees had been delayed while the company tinkered with the new nine-speed automatic transmissions to make them shift more smoothly.
Company spokesmen confirmed that trucks hauling Cherokees began leaving a Toledo, Ohio, factory on Tuesday morning, heading for Jeep dealers across the U.S. Cherokees are far more sleek-looking than the boxy model they replaced, the Jeep Liberty, and they should be able to go head-to-head with the top sellers in the compact crossover market, the Honda CR-V and Ford Escape.
The compact crossover segment is among the fastest-growing in the U.S., with sales more than quadrupling in the past 13 years to more than 1.6 million, according to LMC Automotive, an industry data and research firm. The segment is important to U.S. automakers trying to take sales from the Japanese automakers that have long have dominated the market. The segment's growth rate is second only to midsize crossovers such as the Toyota Highlander and Ford Edge.
Dealers have been clamoring for the Cherokee since the summer. Several reported getting orders in advance. Chrysler said it planned to start deliveries between July 1 and Sept. 30. But distribution was delayed while engineers tried to smooth out the new transmission.
"The company will not ship vehicles until we are fully satisfied the Cherokee meets customer expectations for performance, refinement and quality," spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in a statement last week. The Cherokee, she said, has an all-new transmission and three advanced four-wheel-drive systems.
Chrysler built about 12,000 Cherokees but held them at the plant, at rail yards and other locations around the U.S. until the transmission computer control software could be updated.