The Jeep brand is so quintessentially American that you almost expect to find a miniature Stars and Stripes folded up neatly in the glove compartment. So it must have been hard for patriotic Jeep fans to see the marque fall into foreign hands: Italian ones, to be exact. The new Cherokee is one of the first Jeep products to emerge since the Fiat took control – and yes, it represents a radical departure from the norm, as DEON SCHOEMAN finds out.
It’s been three decades since the first-generation Cherokee XJ pioneered the medium SUV segment by offering a form factor significantly smaller than the Wagoneer, and eschewing that legendary all-terrainer’s ladder frame chassis for a car-like monocoque.
A lot has changed in those 30 years, too. The SUV segment has become a lot more crowded, and in the South African context, is now contested primarily by European, Japanese and Korean marques.
Chrysler, once a proudly American company and one of the US auto industry’s Big Three, is now owned by Fiat. And thus, the new Cherokee becomes the first Jeep to benefit from the collaboration between Auburn Hills and Turin.
But here’s the million-dollar question: is the new Cherokee still a real, dyed-in the-wool Jeep? That’s exactly what I was hoping to find out as I jetted into a cloud-embraced George airport earlier this week for a first encounter with the newcomer.
Judged on aesthetics alone, this latest Cherokee is a head-turner, although traditionalists may argue that it attracts attention for all the wrong reasons. After all, the Jeep nameplate still conjures up visions of a boxy, functional shape, and a prominent seven-slot grille framed by large, round headlights.
The new Cherokee embraces the historical significance of those front-end features, yet reinterprets them (and the vehicle as a whole) in a thoroughly modern, even futuristic, fashion. The result, as the accompanying images show, is very fresh, very contemporary … but not very Jeep.
Or so it seems. On closer inspection, that’s not quite true. Even though the Cherokee’s front-end is softer and rounder, with the obvious intention of reducing drag, the seven-slot grille has indeed been retained, even if it now straddles a front crease line that effectively divides the nose into an upper and lower section.
More surprising is the lighting: the Cherokee’s slim, tapered daytime running lights occupy the space usually reserved for those classic round headlights, resulting in an almost reptilian visage. The faired-in dipped and main beams are tucked into the front apron, while separate fog lamps are integrated into the bumper.
At this stage, it’s important to point out that the Cherokee model under scrutiny here is the range-topping Trailhawk, which has been specifically designed to conquer the rough stuff.
That intention is initially illustrated by the utilitarian black finish of the front and rear bumpers, as well as the side mouldings and the wheel arch extensions.
The Trailhawk also bears the ‘Trail Rated’ seal of approval: an accolade only afforded those Jeeps that have successfully negotiated the notorious Rubicon Trail in the rugged Sierra Nevada. And anyone who’s crossed that torturous 35 km stretch of rocks and boulders will know just what a daunting challenge it really is.
Apart from the black bits, the most notable visual difference is the unique front-end design, which has been adapted to offer an improved approach angle. Frankly, it creates a snout-like appearance that’s less appealing the mainstream versions. But off-roaders will recognise the benefits of the steeply angled chin.
For South Africa, the new Jeep range offers three trim levels: Longitude, Limited and the Trailhawk on test here. While the latter is all about uncompromised all-terrain capability, the Limited places the emphasis on luxury, while the Longitude’s focus is on all-round value.
All Jeep Cherokees except the front-wheel drive Longitude (which is fitted with a Fiat-sourced 2.4-litre MultiAirfour-cylinder engine) are powered by the same 3.2-litre Pentastar V6. It promises 200kW of max power and 315Nm of torque, and delivers that urge to both front and rear wheels via a new nine-speed automatic gearbox.
The Trailhawk’s 4×4 drivetrain features a transfer case with low range, as well as a rear diff lock, in line with its go-anywhere credentials, while the Limited relies on a simpler all-wheel drive solution that distributes the engine’s urge between the front and rear axles as conditions and traction demand.
Why nine gears? Well, Jeep argues that it allows more efficient use of the engine output by keeping the power unit in its optimum rev range at all times, while also benefiting shift speeds and overall refinement. In practice, the auto box is best left in auto, despite the option of manual override, and in that mode, cog swaps are certainly seamless, although kick-down can be more incisive than expected.
The Cherokee’s interior has a lot in common with the latest, larger Grand Cherokee – and that’s a good thing. The overall impression is of fresh, contemporary styling with more than a dash of Eurocentric style, while the surfaces and finishes exude an upmarket appeal that’s underscored by tactile quality.
The instrument cluster combines analogue dials for speed and rev count with a configurable TFT display that allows a choice of different information screens to be called up. The centre stack is dominated by a large touch-screen display that is home to Jeep’s U-Connect system. U-Connect is a portal providing intuitive access to functions such as Bluetooth telephony and audio streaming, navigation, the sound system and more.
Access to the luggage compartment is via a motorised, remote-controlled tailgate, revealing a cargo area that looks less generous than the stats suggest: Jeep claims 412 litres of space under the tonneau cover, and a total of 591 litres to roof height.
Cleverly, the rear bench seat can slide forward, reducing rear passenger legroom, but boosting cargo capacity to 500 litres and 714 litres respectively. Of course, the rear bench set can also be folded down, creating a large expanse of cargo space.
At just under two tons, the new Cherokee is no lightweight, and it makes full use of the V6’s urge. At 8.4 seconds for the zero to 100km/h dash, sprinting capability is more athletic than expected, while top speed is pegged at 180km/h – a limitation imposed by the hard-core 4×4 drivetrain.
According to Jeep, fuel consumption in mixed driving conditions comes to 10 litres/100 km, dropping to 7.7 on the open road. But after two days of driving in a variety of conditions, admittedly with some intent at times, we managed no better than 14 litres/100 km.
The gearbox goes about its cog-swapping tasks with unobtrusive refinement and seems to make the most of the V6’s output, which is us well: the 3.2-litre Pentastar is peakier than expected, and under duress, the gearbox changes down two or even three gears to extract the optimum urge.
The Trailhawk’s on-road manners are impressive, with sure-footed handling in corners, and excellent stopping power. The steering offers decent heft, if not ultimate precision, but it’s a balance that works well both on and off the road.
Talking of which, a short detour onto some rocky, undulating 4×4 terrain, including a steep and muddy incline, proved that Trailhawk’s promised off-road prowess is no idle boast. Switching from high-range to low-range mode is as simple as pushing a button, and a rotary controller allows selection of a choice of driving modes.
The Jeep’s electronics can be tasked with controlling both ascents and descents, leaving the driver to concentrate on steering only, while the low-range gear set harnesses the V6’s grunt to good effect, allowing it to clamber over rocks, and wade through water, with effortless ease.
The driving modes, by the way, can also be employed in high range and on tar – the Sport setting, for example, sharpens throttle and steering responses, and adds some athletic urgency to the Cherokee’s dynamics.
Depending on model and options selected, the electronic gadgetry on offer also includes a rear parking camera with front and rear park distance monitoring, automated parallel and perpendicular parking, active cruise control, collision avoidance, and lane departure warning.
Those systems are backed up by more conventional safety kit that includes seven airbags, all-disc ABS braking, electronic stability control with roll mitigation, hill start assistance, active head restraints in front, tyre pressure monitoring and auto-activated headlights and windscreen wipers.
Apart from the iconic Wrangler, the Cherokee has always been the mainstay of the Jeep range – and frankly, the outgoing model had long since passed its sell-by date. Its replacement represents a quantum leap on all fronts – technology, efficiency and safety.
The Trailhawk continues Jeep’s hallowed reputation for all-terrain excellence, while the two-wheel drive models (offered in both Longitude and Limited execution) also acknowledge that not all Jeep owners want (or need) to go off the beaten track.
Most of all, the new Cherokee is still an authentic Jeep – and that will please both the brand faithful, and newcomers to the marque. DM
Jeep Cherokee 3.2 Trailhawk
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