Jeep is back with two petrol beasts – the new Gladiator and Grand Cherokee L
Huge, hunky, hungry and powerful, two American giants have landed locally to satiate off-road, big car lovers.
The last time I test drove a Jeep Cherokee was almost a decade ago. It was memorable for all the wrong reasons. In a bid to outrun my fellow motoring scribes, I got somewhat overzealous in the acceleration arena. Next thing, I was pulled over by a crew of equally over-zealous traffic cops on a notorious stretch of the speedtrap-infested N1 near Modimolle. I was ordered to get out of my steed and climb into the back of a cop van. The thought of spending a weekend in a holding cell in Hammanskraal had me pleading with the officers for forgiveness.
As I stood under the bridge beside my Cherokee, surrounded by cops, I kept hearing When The Music’s Over by The Doors: “Cancel my subscription to the resurrection, send my credentials to the house of detention.” An hour later, I walked away with a hefty fine, but thankfully sans handcuffs.
Then all went eerily silent on the Jeep front. No invites to launches and no testing of new products. I wondered if I’d perhaps been blacklisted for Louise Hamilton behaviour. Turns out I was just being paranoid because for what felt like the longest time, Jeep in SA, under the umbrella company of Chrysler, was dead quiet.
In early 2021, along with 15 other brands, Jeep became part of the huge Stellantis N.V. conglomerate. Details of the new product began to filter through on local motoring websites. And so it came to pass, that in June, the first Jeep to be launched in years, the mighty Gladiator, landed on SA soil.
Reminiscent of the iconic Willys used by the US military in the 1940s and popularised commercially from 1953, the new Gladiator is the largest and most expensive bakkie launched to date locally, and only available in the top-spec Rubicon in SA.
Underpinned by a normally aspirated 4.0-litre V6 Pentastar engine, paired with an eight speed auto box, the Gladiator is good for 209kW and 347Nm. It’s a thirsty beast, slurping gallons of fuel. On launch day, I watched its consumption steadily climb to around 18l/100kms, although admittedly, I was pretty heavy on the pedal. Unfortunately there are no immediate plans to bring out the more efficient 3.0-litre V6 diesel in the foreseeable future.
The Gladiator has a bunch of physical tricks: you can remove the doors and fold the windscreen down and, thanks to its three removable roof panels, it can be transformed into an open top, making it the only convertible bakkie in SA. (A soft top is also optional.)
On launch in the area of the Cradle of Humankind, we headed to the Hennops off-road trail near Hartbeespoort Dam which allowed the Gladiator to show its serious off-road credentials.
On a particularly gruelling track that forced the massive Jeep over seemingly impossible obstacles and deep, treacherous dongas, with the diff locks engaged, the 5.5m beast sailed through, often balancing, almost balletically, at 45° angles.
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For serious off-road lovers, this is a dream machine underpinned by Jeep’s legendary Rock-Trac 4×4 system, 35-inch FB Goodrich off-road tyres, Fox aluminium shocks and a ground clearance of 249mm.
On normal roads, the Gladiator is less impressive with noticeable road and engine noise, mainly due to those removable roof panels. While its power is adequate, its performance is not exactly speedy, and during my drive it felt, at times, like the engine was working hard.
I did, however, find the cabin surprisingly comprehensive with premium touches like the nine-speaker Alpine premium sound system, heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control and a keyless-start button. There’s a 7.0-inch driver information screen embedded in the instrument cluster, which is pretty easy to figure out, and also clearly displays all one’s off-roading data.
Safety systems include Adaptive Cruise Control, Forward Collision Warning with Active Braking, a rear-park camera, as well as blind spot and tyre pressure monitoring. The electric window controls, on the centre console, took some getting used to but their placement is due to the Gladiator offering removable doors.
In the US, the Gladiator has sold in excess of 90,000 units since launch in 2020, and according to Jeep SA, limited stock has been quickly ordered up by eager bakkie-loving locals.
Less than eight weeks later, after years of Jeep drought, I was back in an American steed – reminiscent of my Modimolle nemesis – the all-new Grand Cherokee L.
Named after the North American Cherokee tribe, the Grand Cherokee has been around for over three decades after debuting at the Detroit Auto Show in 1992. While the name plate has served the US manufacturer well, with millions of units sold, members of the Cherokee tribe have not exactly been enamoured with the commercialisation of their heritage.
Last year, Chuck Hoskin Jr, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, called on Jeep to refrain from cultural appropriation and rethink its naming strategy: “I think we’re in a day and age in this country where it’s time for both corporations and team sports to retire the use of Native American names, images and mascots from their products, team jerseys and sports in general… I’m sure this comes from a place that is well-intended, but it does not honour us by having our name plastered on the side of a car.”
In response, Carlos Tavares, the CEO of Jeep’s holding company, Stellantis N.V., told the Wall Street Journal the company was “open to changing the name” on two of its models – the Jeep Cherokee and Jeep Grand Cherokee – if it became “necessary”.
Clearly it hasn’t, as more than a year later, the new Grand Cherokee L has landed on SA shores with its name plate intact. Offered once again, similar to the Gladiator, with a single petrol powertrain by way of a 3.6-litre Pentastar V6, producing 210 kW/344 Nm and paired with an 8-speed auto box, the new 5.2m beast comes in three trim levels: Limited, Overland and the top of the range, Summit Reserve.
The “L” in the Grand Cherokee L means it is longer, and the giant SUV is now offered in a 6- or 7-seat configuration. With its large, bold grille and uber macho stance, the new Jeep brandishes noticeable front-end presence.
It’s in the luxurious cabin where one sees the most significant changes – it’s dripping with premium features and tech, including heated and ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel, a wireless charging pad, a digital rearview mirror and a full-colour Head-up Display. Both the Overland and Summit Reserve derivatives are equipped with a high-end McIntosh audio sound system with 19 speakers, a 950W 17-channel amplifier and a 10-inch subwoofer, and there are a whopping 12 USB ports in all derivatives.
Our launch route saw us heading from Pretoria into the surrounds of eNtokozweni (formerly known as Machadodorp). If there was anything to gripe about, it was the intrusive lane-keep assist tech which was not intuitively easy to switch off and, just like the case of the Gladiator, a diesel derivative would be most welcome in the present lineup.
Along the route we experienced a stretch of gravel, of which the Grand Cherokee made dust, but it was hardly indicative of what this beast is capable of achieving off-road. With a bunch of selectable 4×4 terrain modes, including Rock, Snow and Mud/Sand, there’s also adjustable air suspension and three 4×4 systems including Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II with rear electronic limited slip-differential. Its superior ground clearance of 277mm outdoes its Gladiator cousin by almost 30mm.
On open roads, the Grand Cherokee felt like a horse champing at the bit, hungry to be set loose, but unlike my encounter in 2012, after noticing the N4 was teeming with cops and speedtraps, I switched to adaptive cruise control and relaxed into a sedate 120 to enjoy a remarkably quiet drive. When a cop jumped out from under the bridge, my heart lurched in déjà vu panic. As he slowly walked around our black Jeep, I pleaded: “Officer, I had cruise control on. I swear I wasn’t speeding!”
He looked at me, somewhat perplexed. “I like this car. I want this car. How much does it cost?”
Jeep Grand Cherokee L Limited – R1,299,900
Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland – R1,479,900
Jeep Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve – R1,679,900
(Includes a 5-year/120,000km warranty, 5-year/100,000km maintenance plan and roadside assistance.)
Jeep Gladiator – R1,259,900
(Includes a three-year or 100,000km maintenance plan and five-year or 100,000km warranty.) BM/DM