Car reviews - Jeep - Cherokee - 5-dr wagon range
Off-road ability, styling, improved cabin’s functionality, value, safety message
Room for improvement
Still not great for on-road refinement or dynamic capability, cabin presentation falls behind others for perceived quality
28 Feb 2008
AS SOME SUVs continue to become more car-like, we motoring journalists who are not full-time 4x4 writers sometimes forget that – long before there were Toyota RAV4s and Honda CR-Vs – there was only Jeep and Land Rover, making duty-specific vehicles that didn’t have to handle like a BMW, glide along like a Citroen or have the finish of a Lexus.
And here, with the Jeep KK Cherokee, we have the latest in a long line of purpose-built 4x4s.
Since the firm already has the Jeep Patriot and Compass, it doesn’t need to create a city-friendly SUV. And the upcoming Dodge Journey too will fill that soft-roader role for owner Chrysler.
But the latest Cherokee is easy enough to be driven in everyday traffic, with ample manoeuvrability thanks to a smaller turning circle than before, even if the steering is connected to a huge wheel while the gearing is a tad too low for some folk.
Indeed, this Jeep is probably a great deal better in its handling and roadholding than you might expect from a ladder-chassis 4x4 from America. Despite its height and relative narrowness, the Cherokee has plenty of grip and a surprising amount of steering finesse, backed up by a fairly supple ride.
That it also comes standard with a full suite of safety gear – from six airbags and ESP electronic stability control to sensors that keep the Jeep from rolling over – is further evidence of a truck-tough SUV that has learnt some manners for when it is taken downtown.
We also suspect that Jeep’s taskmasters Chrysler does listen to criticism.
The previous Cherokee – the awkwardly styled KJ – was a packaging mess, with tiny rear doors, a deficit of decent legroom, not enough adjustment for taller drivers to get comfortable, and a plasticky interior with plastics that even Chery’s pickers would reject.
And of the styling, one tester described it as looking like a hot poker was shoved up the Jeep’s exhaust!
Well, we can tell you that a longer and wider wheelbase has worked wonders with both the styling and packaging.
Now the Cherokee, boasting better proportions and cleaner surfacing, looks more like its popular 94—01 XJ Cherokee predecessor – which is no bad thing for a rugged 4x4 – while the larger doors (with windows that drop all the way down) and bigger openings make entry and egress into back of this SUV less of a strain than before.
It still isn’t great though, we must add, and there is probably less knee and legroom in the now-wider back seat than you might expect.
The cabin is a vast step forward over any previous Cherokee for fit and finish, and looks far more modern in appearance. But, Cadillac CTS aside, it follows in the steps of every modern American vehicle in seeming more downmarket than it probably really is.
We particularly enjoyed the simple symmetry and functional layout of the dashboard, with the instruments being a picture of clarity, the ventilation adequate and all controls within easy reach.
There are some smart details too, like the front passenger seat that folds flat to increase longer cargo loads, even though the corresponding 60/40 split/fold back seat is still set up for left-hand drive, so it’s the two-thirds bit of the backrest and not the one-third part that folds to meet the folded front seat. Never mind.
But the rear backrest does recline for added comfort the cargo floor can be flipped over so the non-carpeted plastic side’s raised edge keeps wet things from soaking the surrounding carpet the back window flips open for quick loading there are now more options to choose from, like GPS satellite-navigation and Bluetooth connectivity and there are spots aplenty for all your bits and pieces.
However – and this may be peculiar to right-hand drive models – the amount of floor tunnel intrusion into the driver’s footwell is unacceptable. Even after a short period behind the wheel, having no place to rest your left foot will become painfully obvious. And there isn’t the space for a footrest either.
We also feel that there could be more steering wheel height adjustment for taller drivers.
Getting rid of the back-mounted spare wheel and split tailgate for a one-piece unit has also improved cargo access, reversing vision, and effort for people who may have struggled with the weight of the wheel and doors.
Weight also seems to be one of the reasons why neither the 2.8-litre common-rail CRD turbo-diesel – reasonably quiet, adequately accelerative, probably very economical – nor the 3.7-litre V6 petrol – smoother, quite punchy in the lower-rev ranges – feel especially powerful on-road.
But off-road is where they perform at their best, and where also the Cherokee shines brightest.
This is due to a combination of good ground clearances, tough separate chassis/body construction and a trick electronic 4WD system that offers RWD, 4WD high range and 4WD low range, as well as a newfound ESP/ABS-related Hill Descent functions.
Make no mistake, this is still very much a Jeep – even if the high number of plastic underbody trays that an alarming number of the press vehicles at the Fraser Island launch location lost suggests that the company will have more than a few spare parts request for these, while drivers should be careful when traversing the really rough stuff.
When you factor in the very well equipped base Sport’s price – under $45,000 with the high-tech turbo-diesel – the latest Cherokee makes a lot of sense, especially for people who will actually use this 4WD for what it was designed to do.
It’s still tough, but also more cultured and refined than ever.
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