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OFF-ROAD TEST

Jeep Cherokee 2.8 CRD Limited (A)





17 August 2008


Cherokee has been on the South African market for a decade and constitutes Jeep’s mainstream model, mixing as it does authentic off-road ability with reasonable tarmac performance, all in a mid-sized package. And now the latest version is here. We tested it

Since the previous model Cherokee was launched here six years ago, Jeep has added a number of model ranges that cover the “soft – roader” and “crossover” segments. As a result, there’s been no need to change the Cherokee conceptually and it continues as a real 4×4 with features like low-range gearing and a solid rear axle to enhance off -road performance.

In this latest incarnation, the styling goes the same way as the Commander, so there’s a bluff countenance and large, flat-faced light clusters. The Jeep visual cues are plentiful: there’s a seven-slat grille, prominent squared-off wheel arches, a high beltline and an upright glasshouse.

Important facts to take note of are a 45mm stretch in the wheelbase (while overall length remains essentially unchanged) and the fitment of the spare wheel under the vehicle, rather than on the tailgate.

On the face of it, engines and gearboxes remain largely unchanged and our test unit was the 2,8-litre common-rail diesel mated to the five-speed auto box. While most SUV importers/manufacturers confirm that diesel engines are no longer the flavour of the month, it is still the way to go in the case of the Cherokee, especially as it is now uprated to a class-leading 130 kW/460 Nm (or 410 Nm with a six-speed manual). The alternative is the rather dated 3,7-litre petrol V6/four-speed auto combo, which really doesn’t do the new Cherokee justice.

Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★

Our two-pedal oilburner was tagged with the Limited badge, which means all the bells and whistles. A list of interesting and somewhat eclectic options is available, including the Sky Slider giant fabric sunroof, though our car’s “as tested” price was unchanged from the R369 900 retail figure, apart from R1500 for metallic paint.

One of the cleverest features of the Cherokee is a removable front airdam so that you can have the best of both worlds: substantially improved underbody airflow for maximum efficiency when cruising to a destination, and an uncompromised approach angle sans airdam once off the tar and down the trail.

The other clever feature – assuming you’re a progressive rather than traditional thinker – is the change to Selec-Trac II, a 4×4 system that allows the Cherokee to be rear-driven or four-wheel-driven at the flick of a switch.

In between 2WD high and 4WD low is 4WD Auto, with the system varying the 35/65 default torque split with an electronically controlled centre clutch. While there is a two-wheel-drive mode, Jeep describes Selec-Trac as a “full-time, active on-demand system that anticipates and prevents wheel slip before it occurs.” Selecting “Low” locks the centre diff and brings a 2.72:1 reduction ratio into play.

Both front and rear differentials are conventional (that is, open) but the control of torque from left to right is taken care of by the combination of traction control and the ABS hardware/soft ware. In addition to this electronic diff -locking capability, two-pedal derivatives get Jeep’s first Hill Descent Control system, with speed thresholds determined by the gear currently engaged.

Accommodation
★ ★ ★

A longer wheelbase has gone some way to making the Cherokee feel much more spacious than before but it still isn’t a car in which you can truly stretch out. That’s partly because of the intrusive transmission tunnel, a lower roofline than before, and the proximity of the front passenger’s knees to the glovebox.

The general ambience is pleasing, though, and will feel very familiar to Jeep owners. That means an upright screen prefaced by a stubby facia, leading into a hang-down centre section that is clearly laid out. The three knurled wheels for the climate control are big, which makes for easy distribution of airflow and heat even while traversing South Africa’s equivalent of the Rubicon. Less impressive is the quartet of dashboard air vents, which look cheap and feel flimsy. This is a valid criticism of the interior in general. While none of the shortcomings is glaring, they highlight two things: a lot of the cabin hardware has changed little compared to the previous generation Cherokee, and American car companies are still not totally in tune with the “perceived quality” thing, and how it can influence car buyers.

Despite some of the hard and rough-edged plastics, the Cherokee delivers in a practical sense, with plentiful oddment space and – in Limited guise – no shortage of equipment. Both front seats are electrically adjusted with a dual setting memory function for the driver, there’s a height-adjustable wheel with menu-driven controls for the driving computer and vehicle settings on the front of the spokes. Changing radio channels and volume is easily done via buttons behind the spokes.

Passing the ti me in the back isn’t any great hardship, though it is still a vehicle which lends itself to being a four-seater rather than a five-seater – a fact to which the positioning of the rear cup holders alludes. There is a 60/40 split, and while there isn’t a central armrest, the backrest angle can be adjusted for more comfort.

The increase in luggage volume is a major step forward and there’s now a claimed 419 litres under a retractable cover. The rear seats fold and dive to create just over 1400 litres of volume with a flat and reasonably low floor. If very long loads need to be accommodated, the front passenger seat can also be folded flat.

Performance
★ ★ ★ ★

The uprated engine is hard to match for sheer torque and the result is strong performance in a variety of conditions. In fact, there’s so much twist effort that we lit up the stability control warning light in our standing starts, despite the grippy nature of Gerotek’s long straight. There’s enough outright urge to comfortably exceed Jeep’s 180 km/h claim, and we also came close to matching the 0-100 km/h claim of 10,5 seconds.

Not that sprinting and going flat out matters much in 4×4 land and we were more impressed by the quick in-gear response, the tranny and engine teaming up well to provide excellent overtaking acceleration. For example, it covered the 60-100 km/h kickdown test in about the same elapsed time as the V6-engined Cadillac SRX we tested some months back. Unfortunately the brakes aren’t in the same league as the engine and they’re not only short of bite in simulated emergency situations but lacked consistency when subjected to a set of 80-0 km/h stops in rapid succession.

Ride/ handling
★ ★ ★

While anti-roll bars are fitted both front and rear, the Cherokee has decent axle travel so it’ll keep at least three wheels on terra firma much of the time and will claw its way over most obstacles without losing traction. When the grip runs out the electronic diff locks intervene, the driver’s only real contribution being to keep the throttle well down, rather than modulating it to minimise wheelspin.

It is an approach that has become the rule rather than the exception and it definitely requires less driver finesse. It is also arguably less fun, but it does mean a more competent SUV without the need for complex (and expensive) differential technology.

The bottom line is that the Cherokee will get just about anywhere without too much angst for tyros and experts alike, the undercarriage seldom troubled by the surface below – despite minimum clearance (at the front of the vehicle, incidentally) being an unexceptional 181mm.

Robust tow hooks confirm that the Cherokee is a serious bundu-basher, but the front passenger would have more comfortable off-road passage with a decent grab handle on the A-pillar or above the door. It is a particularly strange omission.

As in the past, Cherokee seems to strike a respectable balance between tarmac manners and off-road ability, with a leaning towards the latter that will probably please real dual-purpose motorists.

Sure, the nose starts to run wide pretty early on and stability at more than 160 km/h is mediocre, but overall handling is where we think it should be. The steering is accurate and suitably weighted and the Cherokee feels obedient and predictable in normal driving. It is softly sprung so the tail will rise and fall above that solid axle, but it doesn’t qualify for the wallowy tag by a long shot.

Verdict
★ ★ ★ ★

If you’re not prepared to live with compromise, then don’t buy an SUV. If you’re that serious about offroading then we suggest a Unimog, or if tarmac is the only surface on which you’ll be riding then a supermini or a sedan should be all that’s on the shopping list. Or Jeep’s Patriot or Compass.

The Cherokee makes a decent fist of both requirements, and while there are some issues regarding fit, finish and ergonomics, the latest Cherokee is the real deal. It moves with the times to capitalise on the advances in electronic control systems yet stays true to what both Jeep and Cherokee stand for. Which in this day and age is easier said than done.