Here is something a bit different: a road test from our very first issue, which was published in 1998. The Vehicle being tested? The 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Chrysler is well on the comeback trail in South Africa, and no model is more important than the flagship Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited, which is not only freely available in right-hand drive for the first time, but is being built to higher-than-average American quality standards at a sophisticated plant in Austria.
It comes to us having already won widespread acclaim overseas, with one influential British motoring mag proclaiming: “Big new Jeep buries Discovery … the Disco reigns no more, beaten by the superb Grand Cherokee.”
And the truth is that Jeep alone has a pedigree to rival that of Land Rover’s. After all, it was Jeep that started the whole 4×4 revolution on the battlefields of Europe and Asia during World War II, with the subsequent civilian Jeepster of 1948 qualifying as the world’s first-ever SUV (sports utility vehicle).
Dramatically mixed fortunes and near bankruptcy were to follow, but 1997 sees a revitalised Jeep range take its place as one of the great American icons, along with the likes of Coca Cola, Levi jeans and McDonalds hamburgers.
More to the point for local buyers is the fact that where many American vehicles were once known for sub-standard quality and crude engineering, the Grand Cherokee is being favourably compared to internationally respected trendsetters like the Discovery and Mitsubishi Pajero, while invariably offering more features for the price.
Features & equipment ****
If you haven’t travelled in a top-of-the-range 4×4 recently, this is one that could change your perceptions, offering everything you’d expect from a luxury saloon. Slip behind the wheel and you’re greeted by acres of sumptuous leather and wood veneer. The equipment list includes twin airbags, ABS, electrically adjustable and heated seats, and, yes, even compartments for your sunglasses and electric gate opener in the overhead roof console.
You also get an instantly recognisable shape that achieves a family familiarity with traditional styling cues like the vertically slatted grille and squared wheel-arches.
And what makes the Jeep a particularly appealing proposition is the fact that with a price tag of R251 500, it is within a few rands of the standard R249 950 Discovery V8i, while offering many of the features of the yardstick R298 950 Discovery ES.
Other logical rivals must include the Ford Explorer XLT (R270 082), Mitsubishi Pajero 3.5 V6 (R270 082), Toyota Land Cruiser Prado VX (R247 700).
If you’d just climbed out of a high-roofed Disco, Pajero or Prado, the lower-slung Jeep seems an almost tight fit, although it is designed to pamper five in absolute luxury.
Where the smaller and cheaper Cherokee currently offered in South Africa has a rather cheap and plasticky aura to its cabin, the Grand Cherokee exudes quality and class, thanks to the use of top-grade materials and a more contemporary design. Coming within months is a similar upgrade for the Cherokee’s interior.
The driver’s seat of the Grand Cherokee, which boasts a his and hers memory position, is well shaped to provide plenty of back support and side bolstering, and seems to suit testers of all shapes and sizes.
The driver faces an array of six dials, dominated by a 230 km/h speedometer and 7 000 r/min tachometer.
Most of the controls are well positioned and easy to reach, one glaring exception being the dashboard-mounted overdrive button, which is obscured by the steering wheel and fiddly to find in a hurry.
While the overhead console is a nice touch, with its place for sunglasses and an electric gate opener, it does mean that you have to take your eyes off the road to scan the multi-function trip computer. The trip mileage is also reflected overhead, rather than alongside the total distance readout.
Rear-seat passengers generally praise the shape of the seating and generous elbow room, but legroom isn’t exceptional, with the low-roofed design necessitating a knees-up position that is less than ideal on long journeys. The seat folds in a 60/40 split, to enlarge the load area.
The internally mounted spare wheel compromises luggage space, but there’s still enough room for the average family’s everyday needs beneath the roller security blind. Going on an expedition would be another story though, with the Grand’s space falling well short of the norm, and hardly bettering the narrower Cherokee’s modest load capacity.
Still, we think that the majority of owners will be satisfied with the positioning of the spare, which doesn’t spoil the vehicle’s rather dashing lines. With the rear hatch opening upwards, mounting it on the rear is not an option. We’ve seen some owners resort to putting the fifth wheel on a roof-rack, but this is an inelegant solution that does nothing for aerodynamics.
A host of recent improvements to the long-serving 4,0-litre in-line six have enhanced smoothness, quietness and responsiveness, but the engine is hardly a paragon of refinement.
Power and torque peaks of 135 kW at 4 700 r/min and 290 Nm at 3 950 r/min are enough to make the relatively lightweight Grand Cherokee eager from low revs, with acceleration figures that are super competitive, along with one of the highest top speeds in the class.
But when you do have to run it hard there’s little pleasure in listening to the engine’s labours, which (like the Prado) has none of the audio character of a rival Discovery or Pajero.
On the open road it cruises effortlessly, aided by tall gearing and a smaller than average frontal area that reduces wind drag, and enhances fuel consumption. An overall average of 16,8 litres/100 km, including off-road testing, is excellent by the standards of this thirsty class of vehicle.
True to popular American tradition, no manual transmission is offered, the top Jeep coming with an electronically controlled four-speed automatic that does the job well enough, but lacks the silky smoothness and immediate responses of Ford’s class-leading five-speed auto.
The Grand Cherokee uses Jeep’s Quadra-Trac 4WD system, which automatically diverts power to the axles that need grip. On normal dry tarmac that means 100 percent power to the rear wheels, but the system senses wheel slip, apportioning additional drive to the front axle via a centre viscous coupling.
Low range is engaged by shifting the auto into neutral and pulling a second smaller lever across from “4 All Time” to “4 Lo”.
Although the ABS-assisted disc brakes didn’t feel exceptional, they coped admirably, with no evidence of fade in repeated hard usage.
Ride, handling ****
Jeep has biased the handling characteristics towards tarmac ability, which is sure to suit the profile of most owners. Like their American counterparts, most South African 4×4 owners spend most of their time on good surfaces.
Good all-round visibility and a tight turning circle makes parking a breeze, with an equally undemanding personality on the road at most speeds. Understeer is the dominant characteristics in fast cornering, although on mid-corner corrugations the tail can step out momentarily before the Quadra-Trac 4WD system redistributes power to restore the handling balance.
Live axles are coupled to a coil-sprung suspension that works well on the road, providing ride comfort that’s near the top of the class. But push the Jeep hard off-road and it doesn’t feel quite as rigid as a rival Land Rover or Toyota, with its speed-sensitive steering also disappointing with its lack of feel.
Plus points include good approach and departure angles; although the modest ground clearance and limited wheel travel sometimes hamper its progress. Over bumpy terrain the throttle sometimes seems a little too sensitive, with care needed to avoid unwanted wheelspin or kangaroo-like progress. That said, it coped well with all our usual obstacles at the Gerotek Proving Grounds, near Pretoria.
Testing the Grand Cherokee in the company of more serious off-roaders, we were always aware of the lack of a rugged ladder-frame chassis, but its makers would no doubt rightly argue that this has benefits in mass, also making for easier access because of the lower-slung body.
For our money this is America’s best luxury 4×4, striking a fine balance between style, individuality and on-road ability, while still being capable of going places that few owners would dare. It is definitely a viable alternative to the Japanese and British establishment, offering an impressive list of features at the price.