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Future models - Jeep - Cherokee

Driven: Jeep revolutionises the Cherokee

Desert warrior: The Trailhawk version of the new Cherokee proved itself very capable in the rough stuff, and it's coming to Australia.

Behind that polarising face lies a vastly improved – and still tough – Jeep Cherokee

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Jeep logo30 Sep 2013

By MIKE COSTELLO in CALIFORNIA

A SERIES of production delays at the Toledo plant in the US may have delayed Australian deliveries by a few months, but Jeep’s local arm plans to hit the ground running when the all-new Cherokee compact SUV hits showrooms in May 2014.

The company will offer almost the full gamut of configurations: both front-drive and four-wheel drive, petrol and diesel, manual and automatic, as well as four specification levels including the hardcore, trail-rated Trailhawk hero from the get-go.

Pricing will be aggressive, from around $30,000 driveaway, with models such as the Subaru Forester and Nissan X-Trail cited as key rivals. The new model plays more definitively in the compact SUV space, Australia’s busiest SUV segment by some margin.

While Fiat Chrysler Group Australia will not be drawn on the numbers, it is understood the company views the new Cherokee as a potential top-seller for the Jeep brand, perhaps even pushing the wildly successful current Grand Cherokee, which sells an average of close to 1000 units per month.

It will form a crucial part of the local subsidiary’s plan to keep its stratospheric recent growth in Australia bubbling along. Coming off a low base, Jeep alone grew 108.3 per cent in 2012 and is up 22.5 per cent again this year (to the end of August) with next to no previous-generation Cherokee sales included.

We spent time last week behind the wheel of the new Cherokee in California, and can attest to one thing above all else: It’s rare to drive a car that is so fundamentally different from its predecessor that it feels, for all intents and purposes, unrecognisable.

The term ‘clean-sheet redesign’ could have been created specifically for this model, which combines a new car-like architecture with a hi-tech cabin and a polarising exterior design that remains a hot topic months after its world premiere at the New York auto show in March.

It swaps the old model’s unibody construction and live-axle underpinnings for a lighter and stiffer car-like monocoque chassis shared with the Dodge Dart, independent all-round suspension and electric steering.

The benefits are obvious: fuel economy improves by between 30 and 45 per cent, dynamism is light years ahead of its truck-like predecessor, refinement improves, and it becomes a more viable contender for younger, image-conscious buyers.

Jeep is also spruiking the new model’s more upmarket and hi-tech, connected cabin, longer list of passive and active safety equipment and “world-class craftsmanship”.

But a Jeep isn’t a Jeep unless it can handle the rough stuff, is it? Importantly, approach, departure and break-over angles are similar to the old hardcore Cherokee, and two out of three four-wheel-drive systems offered have low-range gearing.

The trail-rated Trailhawk variant even gets heavy-duty tyres, integrated tow hooks, skid plates, a locking rear axle, a higher 220mm ride height and a five-mode ‘Selec-Terrain’ system with hill-descent control.

As well as the Trailhawk, Jeep will offer three other specification levels in Australia from launch in May next year: base Sport, mid-range Longitude (projected to be the top seller) and flagship Limited.

The Sport will be a front-drive-only proposition, powered by a 137kW/234Nm 2.4-litre ‘Tigershark’ four-cylinder petrol that is a claimed 45 per cent more frugal than the previous base 3.7-litre V6 Cherokee.

Both the Longitude and Limited will be four-wheel-drive only, with either a 199kW/316Nm 3.2-litre Pentastar V6 or 125kW/360Nm Fiat 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine under the bonnet, both of which are 30 per cent cleaner than their predecessors. The hardcore Trailhawk will be limited to the Pentastar from launch, but may get a diesel in time.

All petrol engines are matched exclusively with the same ZF nine-speed automatic found in the facelifted Range Rover Evoque. The diesel will also get a manual option, though homologation is yet to be finalised on the oil-burner.

Now let’s get two important points out of the way: first, we’ve taken the new Cherokee across a rather tortuous off-road circuit in the Californian wilderness, and can attest to its prowess. Steep inclines, sharp and rocky outcrops, and very loose sand proved no bother.

Second, that controversial nose design appears softer and more palatable in the flesh – though it will still raise some eyebrows from onlookers. The Cherokee also looks smaller than it is and, from some angles, has a surprising resemblance to its Grand Cherokee big brother.

Three off-road systems are available depending on specification, though we only put the Trailhawk through its paces.

‘Active Drive 1’ adjusts torque delivery to each axle depending on slip.

‘Active Drive 2’ adds low-range that locks front and rear driveshafts and allows for a 56:1 crawl ratio for scarily steep terrain. Both systems are available in the US across Sport, Latitude and Limited.

The Trailhawk’s ‘Active Drive Lock’ has a locking rear diff and a dial that adjusts power delivery for snow, mud, sand and rocks. It also has an automatic mode with a CPU that does the thinking for you (it’s intuitive, too), plus a ‘Selec-Speed’ system that leans on engine braking to limit speed to 1km/h increments, controlled by the transmission’s manual mode.

This system worked brilliantly: just nominate a gear – fourth gear holds the car at 4km/h, for example – point it at a sharp incline or decline, some rocks, mud, water or slippery sand, and it simply mows on through. Where our Wrangler lead car went, we followed.

But it’s on the paved stuff where the new Cherokee took us by surprise. On a sublime stretch of sinuous mountain passes, cutting through the quaint weekend getaway locales presumably belonging to Hollywood A-listers going incognito, it showed a level of dynamism above a Honda CR-V and not shamed by the class-leading Mazda CX-5.

The new electro-hydraulic steering system possesses excellent levels of feel and feedback, turn-in is sharp and positive with much less ‘slack’ on-centre than the Grand Cherokee, and body control is kept relatively under control.

There’s some minor bodyroll and understeer, but nothing to concern the average buyer.

The ride quality on our 18-inch wheels with Continental rubber was also pliant, while the slipperier shape and 36 per cent stiffer body kept noise and vibrations in check. The only major point of contention here was a propensity on the part of the tyres to squeal early and often, but Australian versions will have different rubber anyway, apparently.

No diesel was available, but we had spirited runs in the V6 and four-cylinder petrols.

The 3.2 Pentastar – a shrunken Grand Cherokee unit – returned around 14.0 litres per 100km under heavy throttle, but is claimed to use around 10.5L/100km with more sedate driving. It had plenty of mid-range grunt and gusto, and a lovely bark further up the rev range.

The 2.4 ‘Tigershark’ unit battles harder to haul the 1700kg kerb weight, especially on overtaking moves or uphill commutes, and runs out of puff earlier. But on early impression it’s on a par with most class rivals, with the exception of the turbocharged VW Tiguan and its wider torque curve.

The ace up its sleeve should be that class-leading nine-speed auto, although we found a few teething issues. First, it’s slow to respond to gearshifts in manual mode, and second, it has a tendency to hunt for gears on inclines, which is perhaps not surprising for a ’box with so many ratios to spread power delivery across.

Moving inside the car, the cabin is a marked improvement, echoing the simple and uncluttered fascia of the Grand Cherokee and Chrysler 300, dominated by either a colour display or touchscreen, nifty TFT dials and a delightful chunky steering wheel. Thankfully, and not common for the class, all contact points are soft-touch.

All versions we drove came standard with daytime running lights, climate-control air-conditioning, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming with hands-free voice control, a five-inch colour touchscreen infotainment system, six-speaker stereo, three 12-volt sockets, two USB ports, an SD card slot and aux input.

The Longitude models add foglights and body-coloured wing mirrors, while the Limited models get a larger 8.4-inch infotainment screen, dual-zone climate control, soft leather seat trim, reversing sensors, reversing camera and automatic headlights.

A range of optional packs are also offered Stateside, including tech such as radar-cruise control that works to standstill, an automatic parking system, collision detection with autonomous braking, lane departure warning and even wireless mobile phone charging.

The front seats are wide but lack thigh support, while two adults will be happy for leg- and headroom in the rear. The middle seat is cramped, but the bench moves fore and aft, tilts, and tumbles to free up cargo space.

 A maximum boot space of 1401 litres with the 60:40-split rear bench folded down is useful, but is also narrow between the arches and falls shy of the Nissan X-Trail’s 1649-litre capacity.

Ten airbags are standard in the US, although their curious counting system equates to only eight for Australia, since we don’t divide the rear-side units.

Euro NCAP will test the car in the coming weeks, and Jeep expects a five-star result, unlike the four-star Grand Cherokee.

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