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New models - Jeep - Cherokee - 5-dr wagon

First drive: New Cherokee revisits Jeep legend

Trademark face: The seven-slot grille and round headlights are clearly recognisable as features of the Jeep brand.

All-new Cherokee offers Jeep ruggedness with a dose of refinement

18 Sep 2001

AFTER 18 years and almost three million cars sold, Chrysler-Jeep has finally replaced its XJ series Cherokee with an all-new KJ series model, just in time to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the vehicle that started it all - the Willys Overland/MB model.

A 29-month development cycle has produced a vehicle that shares virtually nothing with its predecessor - the most successful product in the Jeep brand ever.

With the new Cherokee, Chrysler-Jeep Australia aims to inject some much needed life into its medium all-terrain wagon sales, specially after the raft of new models introduced during the past 12 months - Hyundai Santa Fe, revised Land Rover Freelander, Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute - pushed the Cherokee from 10th to 14th in the segment.

The three-model line-up remains although the names have changed a little - the Cherokee Classic and Cherokee Diesel have become Sport and Sport Diesel, while the Limited badge continues as before.

On sale from the first week of October, pricing will start at $42,995 for the Sport - now the entry level model - which is an increase of just over $2500, or 6.4 per cent, on the Classic. The Sport Diesel has been hit with a hike of 9.4 per cent to $43,995 while the Limited is $255 cheaper at $46,995.

The turbo-diesel Cherokee is now more expensive than its petrol equivalent due to the development costs behind the all-new powerplant, on top of those for the new vehicle it powers.

Pricing should remain stable until at least mid-2002 as Chrysler-Jeep locks in the exchange rate at which the vehicles are purchased for a 12-month period - the new Cherokee is set at 54 cents to the US dollar.

It is wider and taller than the model it replaces, although it has been styled to appear smaller. The vehicle itself is fractionally shorter, but with the spare tyre mounted on the rear door it becomes longer by that same margin.

Front and rear overhangs are especially short to maintain good approach and departure angles in an off-road environment. A reduced breakover angle - the point at which ground clearance is reduced to zero when cresting a hill - is the result of the wheelbase being stretched by 73mm on the superseded Cherokee.

In respect to the original Jeep, the trademark seven-slot grille and round headlights have been incorporated to give the new model a traditional face.

Cherokee Sport and Limited are both powered by a new 3.7-litre, SOHC V6 engine derived from the 4.7-litre V8 unit in the Grand Cherokee. The V6 develops 155kW of power at 5200rpm and 312Nm peak torque at 3800rpm, increases of 28kW and 18Nm on the 4.0-litre OHV inline six in the previous generation.

The Cherokee Sport Diesel also picks up a new power unit as Jeep moves the model range into the 21st century.

The outgoing 2.5-litre OHV turbocharged four-cylinder engine has been replaced by a DOHC direct-injection common rail unit of the same capacity and induction type. Power is up from 85kW to 105kW at 3800rpm while torque has increased 17 per cent to 343Nm at 2000rpm.

The V6 engine is only available with a four-speed automatic transmission, although it actually features five effective forward speeds as it has an alternative second gear ratio on kick-down - similar to the unit found in the WJ Grand Cherokee.

Similarly, the turbo-diesel is only offered with a five-speed manual transmission.

Jeep's proven Selec-Trac full-time four-wheel drive system is matched to the V6/auto drivetrain while the Command-Trac part-time four-wheel drive system is part of the turbo-diesel/manual configuration.

The new Cherokee breaks the mould for Jeep as the first model to feature independent front suspension, employing a double wishbone set up with cast iron lower control arms - used for their extra strength over forged items.

The rear suspension is a solid axle, three-link arrangement, similar to that on the Grand Cherokee.

Cherokee also has the stiffest Jeep body built to date and meets all current front, offset and side impact crash test regulations.

The top-of-the-range Limited is separated from the Sport models by colour-coding of the front and rear bumpers, flared wheel arches and side protection strips. It also features front foglights and alloy wheels.

On the inside it picks up leather upholstery, electric front seats, a six-disc CD player, cruise control and an alarm system.

Chrysler-Jeep Australia expects to sell at least 1900 Cherokee's during the next year, a number it says is a conservative projection, but at the same time one that must be achieved to keep the US parent company, DaimlerChrysler, happy and hands-off.

Last year the Cherokee managed just 811 sales while to date this year the outgoing model is only marginally ahead of the same target.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THE look of the new Cherokee is an interesting mix of retro - the original Jeep's distinctive face - and modern styling cues, but it works quite well. It has the macho off-road appeal that many of the current crop of soft-roaders are trying to capture.

The interior is also a breath of fresh air given some of the offerings to come out of the US, but the Americans still don't know how to design seats that you sit in rather than on - although at least they are firm and offer some support as opposed to the soft, spongy lounge chairs in the Grand Cherokee.

But there are a few ergonomic quibbles.

The electric window switches are mounted vertically in the centre console instead of the more intuitive location on the doors. The switches on the doors were for the central locking but as there was no differentiation between the two, it was easy to hit the wrong one.

The positioning of the handbrake on the far side of centre console (for left-hand drive markets) and the absence of a driver's foot-rest were other notable problems.

On-road ride and handling is excellent for a small vehicle with traditional off-road capabilities. It does not bounce around excessively and is reasonably happy being punted through both tight and sweeping corners.

The new engines offer improved levels of performance but they need to as the V6 models hit the scales at a hefty 1867kg and the diesel model at 1735kg.

Off-road the Cherokee still handles rough terrain with aplomb, proving to be nimble and easy to navigate river crossings and log bridges. It has passed Jeep's standard off-road test on the Rubicon Trail in the US, so there is no reason to doubt its ability to head into the outback.

Overall, the vehicle is a big improvement on the outgoing model and a positive sign for a Jeep resurgence in the ultra-competitive medium 4WD class. It offers traditional Jeep off-road capabilities, matched with a new sense of on-road performance and refinement.

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