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Car reviews - Jeep - Cherokee - Limited 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Off-road ability, high level of standard equipment
Room for improvement
Grumpy engine, still imprecise on-road

Jeep logo30 May 2002

By BRUCE NEWTON

CAN there be many better-known names in the off-road world than the Jeep Cherokee?

It tells you something about how different this vehicle is to its predecessor that in the USA Jeep decided to call it the Liberty.

Here that's not possible because Subaru already has dibs on the name for its mid-size passenger range - but at least it's all-wheel drive too.

There, the resemblance ends, but truth be told the new Cherokee hasn't got that much in common with the vehicle it replaces.

Determined to offer an off-roader with plenty of capability on-road as well, Jeep came up with $1 billion-plus plan that has resulted in not only a five-door wagon, but also a massive new plant in the US state of Ohio in which to build it.

In a nutshell, Jeep offers the Cherokee with a new 3.7-litre petrol V6 engine and a 2.5-litre turbo-diesel sourced from Italian diesel specialist VM, underpinned it with a new suspension which eschews live-axle front suspension in favour of independent coils, wrapped it in a car-like monocoque chassis and draped a body over the top that measures larger in all the vital attributes.

In Australia we get three choices - the Sport petrol and diesel, and the Limited petrol, which we have tested here.

The Limited is the luxury version, externally identified by its colour-coded body cladding and chunky alloy wheels, while inside there's leather trim, powered front seats, six-disc CD player, cruise control and steering wheel mounted audio controls.

Mechanically, however, there's less to distinguish the Limited and Sport in petrol forms.

The single overhead camshaft 12-valve engine produces identical power and torque in both: 155kW at 5200rpm and 312Nm at 3800rpm and is also mated exclusively to the same 45RFE automatic transmission already seen in the Grand Cherokee.

These two cars also get the more sophisticated Selec-Trac four-wheel drive system. Jeep calls it a full-time system, but you can still run in rear-wheel drive, as well as part-time and full-time four-wheel drive high range, as well as four-wheel drive low range.

Ask for a manual transmission Cherokee and you'll have to opt for the diesel, which gets the less sophisticated Command-Trac four-wheel drive system.

With its substantial ground clearance, excellent low range and the assistance of a limited-slip rear differential in the rear axle, the off-road ability of the Cherokee remains impressive - even with the change to independent front suspension.

However, it's on the road where Jeep is really looking for improvement and here the verdict is less clear.

While the front suspension is new, the rigid axle rear end remains and it does seem to still cause some skittishness on wet or greasy roads - our recommendation is stick with part-time four-wheel drive whenever it starts clouding over.

Up front the new suspension works a treat, combining well with a new light but relatively accurate rack-and-pinion power steering system (in place of the old recirculating ball set-up), while overall the underpinnings provide a comfortable and compliant ride.

There has been some controversy over the suspension, however, with Jeep recently announcing changes to the springs, jounce bumpers and shocks, which lowers the vehicle by 22mm at the front and 19mm at the rear for better on-road handling.

Officially, Jeep denied any connection with instability found by two magazines when testing the Cherokee, including a roll-over by US publication Autoweek.

The new V6 is an engine in the true Jeep mould, being gutsy, a little agricultural and noisy when revved and also quite thirsty - not a surprise considering weight is a substantial 1867kg.

It's not the only source of noise entering the cabin, however, with the big 16-inch wheels becoming somewhat intrusive on coarser-chip bitumen, while there was also a hint of wind noise off the big mirrors.

Inside there's a series of plusses and minuses. The equipment level is excellent, visibility and headroom outstanding and the fitment of standard dual frontal and side airbags very welcome - along with ABS and EBD. But the presentation is uniformly dark, the radio head unit continues to be a typically confusing Chrysler Group item and the rearward travel of the driver's seat is still too limited for the taller people amongst us.

Rear seat space, by contrast, is excellent compared to the old car, but the disappointing aspect here is the lack of flexibility of the bench seat. Yes, it split-folds, but the seats don't flip up or come out as most of its rivals do. You can't put a mountain bike in the luggage area without pulling the front wheel out and that's disgraceful for this type of vehicle.

That the tailgate opens the wrong way - toward the gutter - is one of the hints that Cherokee started life as a left-hand drive design. Others are the poorly shaped footrest, the park brake on the wrong side of the gearshift in the horizontal centre console and the bonnet release in the passenger's footwell.

None of these are major issues on their own, but considering the Limited is around $50,000 on the road, you might expect better.

Having said that, there's no doubt the new Cherokee is leagues ahead of its ancient predecessor. Excellent off-road ability, a high standard of equipment and improved on-road behaviour work in its favour.

However, we'd like to have seen better economy and sophistication from the engine, along with more intelligent use of interior space.

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