Car reviews - Jeep - Cherokee - 5-dr wagon range
Huge leap forward in terms of cabin refinement and perceived value, car-like road-holding, strong safety credentials
Room for improvement
Looks will split buyers, bulbous nose makes off-roading awkward, nine-speeder lacks refinement with V6 and carries tall gears, high price of entry
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14 Nov 2014
By BARRY PARK
WE’RE at the bottom of a hill that the locals like to call the Widowmaker.
Short, rough, extremely steep, and given that the hills fringing Wilpena Pound have been deluged with rain over the last week, it’s enough to test the ticker of anything that claims to be an able off-roader.
Which is interesting, because we’re sitting at the bottom of the Widowmaker in the softest-looking Cherokee ever to come out of Jeep's stable. For its fourth generation, the entry level to the range is a rather highly priced $33,500 2.4-litre four-cylinder front-wheel-drive with extremely limited ability once the bitumen ends.
However, we’re in the range-topping $47,500 Trailhawk, the “trail-rated” Cherokee that attempts to live up to the promise of Jeep’s long-standing hardcore off-road pedigree, featuring a V6 engine, all-paw grip, a low-speed tractor gear-set and – for when things get really tough – an electronically locking rear differential.
The inside of the Cherokee is very different to the harsh rock-strewn slope in front of us. We sit on comfy, supportive brown leather that’s not overly bolstered to allow for some side-to-side movement, surrounded by a quite a modern, albeit a little chunky, interior presentation.
The dash laid out before us is modern and classy. A large colour screen sits in between the tachometer and speedometer, displaying a host of information including the one we’re interested in – the temperature of the nine-speed transmission sitting behind the 200kW/316Nm 3.2-litre V6 under the blacked-out bonnet.
The centre console is a throwback to the original Willys Jeep, featuring the same trapezoidal shape as the original, but housing a big colour touchscreen with audio, climate, sat-nav and mobile phone controls.
In front of the gear-lever, a nicely bezeled dial tops a long row of LED lights to indicate which of the five driving modes match the view outside the Cherokee’s windows.
The rear bench is comfy enough for three adults, and the boot space – 700 litres with seats up and 1555 with the rear seats folded – is handy with a high-lift tailgate, even if the floor is quite high off the ground.
It’s odd, too, that while the road ahead of us barely qualifies as a rough bush track, we’re sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle fully loaded with optional driver-assist technology. Things like radar cruise control that can automatically avoid a low-speed rear-end shunt, a lane-keeping assistant and a blind spot monitor have little to do with what is in front of us, but much to do with how we arrived here.
Anyway, the view outside the window is rocky, so we select the rock/mud setting. The drivetrain gives a slight nudge as the throttle is dulled and the transmission is remapped, and there’s a reassuring “clunk” from the rear as we push the button to engage the rear diff lock.
Before we set off, though, it’s interesting to contrast the range of ability built into the all-new Cherokee that abandons the previous generation’s ladder-frame chassis for a more car-like uni-body.
At first, the new Cherokee with its waterfall nose and Euro hatchback styling raised howls of derision as Jeep’s loyal following worldwide asked how such a soft-looking off-roader could meet Jeep’s own tough benchmarks. In response, Jeep released a video showing the new Cherokee rock-hopping over some serious terrain, reducing the doubtful noise to a mumble.
It does look so much softer. It appears longer, wider and lower than previous Cherokees, and is certainly more urban-friendly as a result. So soft, in fact, that if we were sitting here in the base-model 130kW/229Nm 2.4-litre four-cylinder version, it would already be time to turn around and go home at the front gate.
Yes, the four-pot is suited to the city. Much more economical than its more expensive V6-engined siblings, the entry-level Sport drives only the front wheels (the previous-generation base Cherokee sent its drive to the rear).
We drove it the day before on a transport leg that covered country kilometres, showing itself up to be a comfortable cruiser. The previous third-generation Cherokee on its truck-like ladder-frame chassis was a leap forward in terms of how well it drove in the city, but still showed it was better suited to the rough and tough of the bush.
This generation, though, takes it a step forward. This Cherokee is the most car-like yet in the way it drives and handles.
The suspension is very well sorted, soaking all the lumps and bumps of the rural South Australian roads without any fuss, and almost faultless in its ability. Even on a long section of gravel, the Cherokee showed good poise even when pushed into a corner with a bit more aggression than was called for, and soaked up corrugations without fuss.
A surprise, though, is the steering. It’s a little dead on centre, but either side of it the feel is extremely crisp and communicative for a soft-roader, even as you rise through the range.
There is a difference between the two engines though, and it is all down to the transmission. While the gear-changes with the 2.4-litre engine slur nicely and almost imperceptibly, the more torquey V6 judders a little mid-change as it shifts up the range.
It seems odd, too, that at 110km/h the Cherokee was sitting at less than 2000rpm in seventh gear, with the two remaining ratios unavailable via the Tiptronic-style manual gear selector. Jeep says the final four gears are all overdrives, so they must kick in at much higher speeds. That requires more investigation.
Anyway, back to the Widowmaker. It’s time to release the electric parking brake (as well as turning off the lane diversion monitor, parking sensors and crash-mitigation system – don’t need these here), select first gear and see what the new, softer Cherokee is made of.
In short, it is very capable, even on our road-focussed Yokohama all-terrain tyres running at road pressures. The Cherokee easily wallows its way up the rocky rise, sending only a small shower of rocks down the slope before the SUV’s electronic system intervenes to stop the wheel-spin from the front tyres digging them up.
The off-road system is clever, sending up to 100 per cent of the engine’s torque to the rear wheels when needed. The locked-in diff makes turning a bit more difficult, but works well to push us up the incline.
Arriving at the top is interesting thanks to the Cherokee’s bulbous nose.
Previous generations have featured falling bonnets, but the low driving position and a pedestrian impact-friendly skin over the engine have robbed the Cherokee of forward vision.
As our drive continued, we had to stop a number of times to check where the road ahead was going, particularly when cresting a rise. It was also easy to lose sight of features such as large rocks on the track itself, resulting in a workout for the heavy underbody armour the Trailhawk wears.
Other SUVs have creases on the bonnet that help with recognising where the front wheels are placed, but because you see so little of the Cherokee’s bonnet, it’s guesswork.
Yes, it’s capable off-road, but given the remote SA location in which the car was launched, we’re yet to get a feel for how the Cherokee translates to the city.
Given our initial impression, the softest-looking Cherokee so far may well turn out to be the most city-friendly too.
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