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On a Grand Tour





24 March 2011


Text: Danie Botha
Photography: Jannie Herbst

“Did you know that a Canadian company is turning disposable nappies into diesel?”

Colleague Jannie Herbst, driving the Jeep Grand Cherokee V8 Overland on the deserted tar road between Botswana’s Martin’s Drift border post and the town of Palapye, ponders my statement for a moment.

“Mmm. Do they use nappies that have been, you know, used?” he asks.

“Yebo,” I reply. “Used nappies. They plan on turning 180-million nappies into 11-million litres of diesel.”

“That sounds a bit far-fetched. How are they going to do that?”

“Apparently the plastics, resins and fibres, and of course those other products that a nappy is supposed to contain after being used, are turned into a mixture of gas, oil and char, through some fancy chemical process. Pyro? losis. That’s it. Pyrolosis. The final product is diesel.”

“Mmm.”

While Jannie contemplates the prospect of driving a nappy-powered 4×4, I take a peek at the Jeep’s trip computer, that lives between the speedometer and rev counter, in front of the driver. It says 13,1 litres/100km!

I had driven the first leg from Randburg to the Grobler’s Bridge border. We had been slightly behind schedule, and I had pushed on a bit, occasionally exploring the grunt of the 259 kW V8 HEMI V8 engine while overtaking trucks on the N11 between Mokopane and the border. The average fuel consumption had hovered around the 15 litres/100km mark.
Jannie smiles behind the steering wheel.

“Did you know,” he starts, dramatically, “that the HEMI engine is equipped with a system called multi displacement system, or MDS? It shuts down four of the eight cylinders under lighter work loads, and helps save heaps of fuel. That’s when this green Eco light comes on.”

“What green light?”

I had not seen any green light while I was driving.

Jannie points it out on the instrument panel, directly in front of him. It is seemingly permanently illuminated, on this quiet road.

“Mmm,” I reply.

We’re on our way to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and will meet up with tour guide André van Vuuren and five other 4x4s at Rakops, in the heart of Botswana.

The 52 000 square kilometre reserve is bigger than European countries such as Switzerland and Denmark. It’s also bigger than Lesotho and Swaziland – combined. So it’s pretty big, and wild.

From the town of Serowe we turn north, heading towards Lethlakane. It’s a long and quiet stretch, and I keep an eye on the average fuel consumption.

Near Mmashoro it drops down to 12,8 litres/100km. That green “Eco” light remains permanently on. With fuel economy in mind, it’s time to share some more of my vast knowledge of alternative fuels with Jannie.

“Did you know that a Californian cosmetic surgeon apparently saved the fat from liposuctions he had performed and used it to power his SUV?”

“Mmm. Don’t you need to focus on the Jeep a bit? You have to write an article about it.”

Fine. I take out the Jeep’s paperwork, commonly referred to as press releases.

“Nearly two decades ago Jeep invented the premium sport utility vehicle (SUV) segment with the introduction of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. More than four-million sales later, Jeep improves the formula and hits the sweet spot of Jeep 4×4 capability and on-road refinement with the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.” – The press release.

The Jeep Wagoneer had set the luxury SUV ball rolling in 1963, and its “massive estate car design was the most car-like 4×4” of its time. The big Wagoneer was replaced by the smaller Grand Cherokee in 1991, but by then most other manufacturers also boasted a big, luxury 4×4 SUV model.

Jeep’s history of ownership is a checkered one, though. Kaiser-Jeep owned the brand when the original Wagoneer was launched. In 1970 American Motor Company (AMC) became the owner, with Renault acquiring a controlling share of AMC in 1983. By 1987 AMC was sold to Chrysler, and in 1998 Jeep was listed under DaimlerChrysler AG’s inventory. In 2007 the owner was Chrysler LLC.

But the financial crisis in 2009 saw Chrysler LCC enter into a bail-out deal with the US government and Fiat Auto also came on board as a major shareholder – and the company is now known as Chrysler Group LLC.

Today, after decades of braving stormy seas, the Jeep ship seems to have found calm and stable waters. And it shows in the product, too.

There is no question about it: the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee is a major improvement over the previous model. It’s bigger, both in numbers and in presence. While the previous Grand had a compact feel to it, the new version is visibly bigger and more imposing.

It looks Grand too, with modern, beefy lines replacing the long-in-the-tooth styling of the previous range. It now has the kind of presence that make bystanders stop, and point.

Back to the press release.

“The next generation of the iconic Jeep Grand Cherokee delivers the perfect blend of on-road refinement, superb craftmanship, world-class design, improved fuel economy, innovative features and legendary, real-world capability.”

In the on-road refinement department, the latest Grand Cherokee is way better than the previous model. Like in, waaaay better.

Now featuring fully independent suspension all-round, and with a new Quadra-Lift air suspension system as standard on the Overland V8 model, the ride quality, comfort and stability is on par with the best SUVs in this class.

In previous versions the driver was mostly detached from the driving experience, merely guiding the vehicle to a destination. It was never horribly bad, but never great either. Now the ride is sporty and involving, yet still comfortable, refined and vastly composed. This Jeep feels more like a BMW X5 than a wallowy American 4×4.

Casting an additional safety net is the Jeep’s electronic stability control (ESC) system. This includes features such as electronic roll mitigation, hill-start assist, trailer-sway control and hill descent control.

The Grand’s new five-speed automatic gearbox is also a revelation. It is silky smooth, and gear changes are hardly perceptible. Cruising in top gear at a true 120km/h, the 5,7-litre engine is barely ticking over. Still, the V8 has enough firepower to maintain that cruising speed up hills and down dales, without continuously “hunting” for the ideal gear ratio.

We drive through the town of Mopipi. The outside temperature gauge is showing 35 degrees Celcius. The average fuel consumption is still pegged at 12,8 litres/100km.

“Did you know that a team from a university in the UK built and tested a racing car that ran on a fuel mix that contained 30% biodiesel?” I ask, temporarily distracted from my paperwork.

“Yes? And?”

“The biodiesel was a byproduct of chocolate waste, and the car itself had a steering wheel made partly from carrots and a front wing made partly from potato starch. But the engine was 30% powered by chocolate.”

“Mmm. Heck of a thing.”

Oh well, back to the press releases.

“It also offers a world-class interior cabin.”

Interior cabin? That’s a new term. Wonder where the exterior cabin is?

But the Jeep’s interior certainly is a plush affair. Rich and classy leather and wood finishes abound, as does a new aura of quality and class. These are not words we would have brandished about to describe the previous Grand.

The older Grand Cherokee certainly was luxurious, but it didn’t have the same quality and solid feel about it as the latest version.

As could be expected, the standard specification list for the top Overland V8 model is a comprehensive one. It gets all the traditional bells and whistles such as dual-zone climate control, electric adjustment for just about everything that can be adjusted, cruise control, and six airbags.

And then there’s the really nice stuff. Like a new dual-pane panoramic sunroof (CommandView) that extends from the windshield to the rear of the vehicle. An electrically powered rear tailgate. SmartBeam headlamps (bi-xenon units) that automatically adjust to on coming traffic (and they work really well).

An infotainment system with Uconnect Navigation and voice-activated communication that also incorporates the premium sound system and a built-in hard drive to store all your favourite music on.

Unfortunately the GPS system only features mapping for South Africa. According to the system, we are currently driving in the ocean.

We arrive at Rakops, and navigate our way through the dusty roadworks in the town to the filling station where we are supposed to meet Andre and his charges.

Andre is there, and our timing is perfect. They had just finished refuelling and are ready to hit the road to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

“Sooooo. This is the new Grand Cherokee.”