First Drive JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE DIESEL AND WRANGLER V6
There’s a new kid on the Jeep block. Actually, there are two. Jeep has introduced a brand new diesel engine for its Grand Cherokee range, and revamped the classic Wrangler in more ways than one. We took the off-roaders swimming in the Kruger National Park to find out what they were made of.
Text: Anzet du Plessis
As a kid I had a small, blue toy Jeep, and it was probably my favourite possession. Thus my fascination with Wranglers began.
I took my Wrangler everywhere – outside in the mud, on the paved driveway, even over the arm rests of couches. It was my go-anywhere, do-anything car. Coincidence? I think not.
Growing up, I always imagined that one day I would have a two-door Rubicon, in army colours, and with a big black roll bar. So, when Jeep invited me to the launch of the new engine for the Wrangler and the diesel Grand Cherokee, I was more than a little excited.
We at Leisure Wheels attend many a launch, and it’s easy to become blasé. But this one held such promise of adventure that I was a bit concerned Jeep would not live up to the nostalgia-induced image I had of my childhood dream car.
As it turned out, adventure was not something the organisers would have to manufacture. Our flight had no sooner landed at the Kruger International Airport than it became obvious there would be more adventure than some seasoned journalists could handle. The reason was simple: rain. And this was no ordinary rain. By the time we landed, more than 300mm had fallen in a few days. The entire Mpumalanga province was flooding. Local radio DJs detailed closed roads and washed away bridges. Traffic was a nightmare.
Thus our adventure began. In a fleet of brand new diesel-powered Grand Cherokees and Wranglers with newly fitted Pentastar engines, we headed off to the Kruger National Park, the rain still belting down. Not only were most of us apparently incapable of reading route directions properly, but the group was split up rather early in the trip, which meant we couldn’t really communicate our troubles to each other. My co-driver and I were quite happy, though, as we had been allocated a brand new Grand Cherokee three-litre diesel for our first (and as it turned out, only) drive for the day.
The Grandest adventure
The biggest obstacles we came across at the start of our journey were potholes. These weren’t your regular potholes. The rain had washed away each and every attempt by the local municipality to make the road surface look like anything but Swiss cheese, and we were grateful for the Grand Cherokee’s air suspension system. It is equipped with coil springs and an independent suspension system, so there were no hard thuds, sharp deflections or uncomfortable kidneys. In fact, watching pedestrians and trucks (the only other signs of life on the roads) battling along, we felt completely removed from the storm.
The Grand Cherokee occupies a strange place in my mind. Despite my fondness for it, I tend to forget that it’s an option in the large SUV market.
It’s such an understated vehicle – perhaps because it’s so versatile. Prospective SUV buyers may see it as a serious off-roader while off-roaders think of it as a “soft” car.
With the same underpinnings and 4×4 system as the petrol derivatives, the new three-litre diesel V6 Grand Cherokee is just as much the surprise off-road champion as its petrol brothers. The suspension settings allow for ground clearance of up to 270mm, and increase approach and departure angles to 25 and 23 degrees respectively. At 1943mm in width and 4822mm in length, you’d expect this luxury vehicle to be rather clumsy on a 4×4 track, but from experience I know that this all-rounder can take you just about anywhere.
Driving through the spectacular thunder and lightning storm, we were comfortably snuggled inside on our leather seats with seat warmers, my hands happy on the heated steering wheel. So, not only is the vehicle great in mud and clay — it has every gadget one could want. While getting lost in and around the Kruger Park, desperately looking for our lodge, we were at least kept warm and entertained, and had a built-in GPS to keep us in the right province!
We came across a road that was completely washed away. More disconcerting than watching chunks of tar road flow down the river was the fact that we knew three teams of Jeeps had already crossed this point, and could have been on the crossing when the river washed the road away.
Like typical journalists, we stood and watched the road disappear, cameras in hand. While we were eager to see the river completely take over the whole gorge, we were aware that swimming is in neither the Grand Cherokee nor the Wrangler’s bag of tricks. So we duly turned around and went in search of another route, albeit not too worried about the prospect of sleeping in the cars as reports blared on the radio of vacationers being airlifted out of Kruger.
The next few hours consisted of endless driving in rain that had not subsided for a moment, punctuated by brief “conferences” every time a group of Jeeps came across each other.
Pushing out 177kW of power and 550Nm of torque, the new diesel power plant is the baby of the Grand Cherokee range, and despite the high torque it was not the power-hungry monster on the open road that I had hope it would be. Overtaking needs to be strategic, and there’s none of the raw grit and power that you find in the bigger petrol versions.
With a Wrangler behind us, we decided to head for the lodge. There was no point in trying to get to the driving challenges the Jeep team had set out for us.
However, we somehow lost our companions in the heavy rain, and our navigation system insisted on taking us on a road that we knew from radio reports was closed. We found a half-detailed map in the car, which we used to get to, what we hoped, was the right crossing. Here we came across a few more Wranglers and, in a group, headed up the N4 towards the Bongani Mountain Lodge entrance.
The powers-that-be must have thought we were far from having had enough adventure in our Jeeps. We finally found the entrance to the lodge, and headed towards the gate on a narrow dirt road. Now, this dirt road is probably, by dirt-road standards, a pretty decent road. Add to that, however, the fact that the area had had more rain than in any season since the year 2000, and that we were probably the 10th Jeep to be taking it that evening, and it had turned into an obstacle of its own.
In a terribly slow convoy, we headed deeper and deeper into the bushy hills. There are no street lamps here, but we could see light emanating from small settlements along the way. We could only hope the inhabitants were as warm and comfortable in their homes as we were in our cars.
When we finally found the lodge gate, there was another “rain conference” in session. Wranglers dotted the darkness, their headlamps all turned towards the middle of the road so that people could see just how incredibly wet they were getting.
What was on the agenda? Well, the lodge was apparently inaccessible. A small concrete bridge, which to date had had no problem carrying vehicles across a river to the lodge, was now completely under water. Still, a few Grand Cherokees had made it across, the water coming up to the bonnets! The Wranglers would have no issue, then, but that wasn’t the biggest problem.
The road from there up to the lodge is an intricate “S”, and winds up the mountain to the very top. With the intense rains, boulders and rocks had been loosened. The concern was that one (or many) could dislodge while the convoy made its way up, hitting and possibly rolling one of our vehicles. As if that wasn’t enough of a gamble, the rain showed no signs of letting up. This meant that the river might rise even more, and that we would be unable to get out the next morning for our return flight to Johannesburg.
The final decision made, we all (now properly soaked) got back on the road and set our navigation systems to a new lodge. Thus began an hour-long trip in (still) pouring rain on what was the most boring part of the day – a good tar road.
This was when we realised that Jeeps just are adventurous. Despite every obstacle, the entire group was still in high spirits. The Grand Cherokee had served us well, though the new diesel engine felt slightly under-powered on the open road.
Handling is much the same as in the petrol derivatives – direct, and with much less body roll than you’d expect from an engine of this size. Turbo lag was impossible to detect, and the five-speed automatic gearbox is, at least in this Jeep, quick and effortless on the change.
When we reached our destination, we took a moment (still standing in the rain) to appreciate the vehicles that had kept us safe and (reasonably) dry all day.
A short trip in a long Wrangler
If the Grand Cherokee’s new engine is the least impressive in the model line up, the new Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited’s new 3,6 litre petrol V6 power plant is the most impressive. It is responsive, has 63kW more power and 32Nm more torque than its predecessor, and loves the revs.
With the whole world looking fresh from days of endless rain, we swapped our SUV for the real-Jeep-deal and headed to the airport. This, the Rubicon, is what made the Jeep nomenclature synonymous with adventure off-roading. It’s tough, it’s agile, it’s incredibly capable and it’s now more versatile than ever.
Just like my plastic Wrangler, this new rendition of the famous “army bakkie” can go anywhere. They’ve always said that, but now, “anywhere” includes the open tar road – an “obstacle” which it previously traversed with some discomfort to its passengers.
While the engine responds well to being pushed into the revs, it’s not unnecessarily loud or boisterous. You have plenty of power, without feeling as though you’re driving an old Defender.
The handling has improved immensely, and my grandfather would no longer be able to say that “high-speed corners are the only obstacles Wranglers can’t get around, excuse the pun.” While the Unlimited, which is the big five-door version, still feels a little bit boaty, there’s definitely more to the new Wrangler than just its engine.
Because of the disruptions, we were unfortunately unable to test the Wranglers much at all. This, of course, means that we at Leisure Wheels will have to get our hands on one in the near future. Watch this space!
JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE CRD AUTO
Grand Cherokee Limited 3.0 V6 Auto
Grand Cherokee Overland 3.0 V6 Auto
JEEP WRANGLER 3.6 V6
Wrangler Sahara 3.6 V6 2-door Auto R369 990
Wrangler Rubicon 3.6 V6 2-door Manual R389 990
Wrangler Sahara 2.8 CRD 2-door Auto R405 990
Wrangler Sahara Unlimited 3.6 V6 5-door Auto R394 990
Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited 3.6 V6 5-door Auto R414 990
Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited 2.8 CRD 5-door Auto R430 990