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ROAD TEST: Jeep Cherokee 3.2L 4x4 Limited
Johannesburg - Clint, my Jeep-fanatic friend, was horrified. Sure, the new interior's a big improvement, but how, he wailed, could they make the new Cherokee look like a Kia from the outside?
He has a point. Apart from the traditional slotted grille which still gives the American vehicle an unmistakable bloodline to the original Willys Jeep, the new Cherokee does look distinctly Sportage-like, perhaps with a twist of Toyota Rav. In any case, more like something a soccer mom would drive to the mall than a vehicle for crunching through the Okavango.
With its sleeker new curves and LED daytime running lights, if you removed the rear badge nobody would guess this was a Jeep from the back. It's too "soft-roader" looking for my friend's old-school taste, and as the present owner of a previous-generation Cherokee and an original Willys, and prior to that a Wrangler, Clint clearly prefers his Jeeps more boxy and masculine.
As with the swish new styling, the introduction of two-wheel drive models into the new-generation Cherokee range displays a less hardcore approach by this iconic producer of dirt-taming 4x4s. For customers who just want a high seating position and the "ruggedness" that the iconic Jeep badge imparts, these front-wheel drive Cherokees will happily commute their owners around the urban jungle during the week, and comfortably whisk families off to destinations on the weekends and holidays.
The new Cherokee might look about as intimidating as a baby panda bear, but it's still pretty rugged if you want it to be. For Clint and his mud-splattered mates, Jeep makes a proper donga-duelling version called the Cherokee Trailhawk 4x4 which has been tested on the infamously harsh Rubicon offroad trail in the United States. The 3.2-litre Trailhawk is a real offroading "meneer" with its elevated 224mm ground clearance, low-range, rear diff lock, and a five-mode Selec-Terrain traction system (Rock, Auto, Snow, Sport and Sand/Mud) that allows it to go pretty much anywhere it likes.
GOOD FOR MEDIUM TRAILS
The model on test here, the Cherokee 3.2 Limited 4x4, isn't quite as hardcore and fits in-between the two-wheel-drive versions and the Trailhawk on the bundu-bashing scale. It rides slightly lower (at 200mm) than the Trailhawk, and lacks the diff lock and Rock mode, but otherwise its all-wheel drive and remaining Selec-Terrain modes still give it decent proficiency at getting dusty in the great outdoors.
Switching between the various modes is a simple task of twirling a knob on the fascia, and Selec-Terrain changes the responses of the transmission, brakes, and stability control to suit the particular surface. Ultimately, the 3.2 Limited 4x4 doesn't have the ground clearance for intense rock-crawling, but mild-to-medium offroading is well within its capabilities.
Whatever one's views of the exterior styling, Jeep's done a masterful job of the interior. The old Cherokee's cabin, which had all the styling flair of a precast concrete wall (except with a couple more shades of grey), has been transformed into a classy and modern environment. The best way to emulate the Germans in their class-leading cabin quality is to get a German to do it, and that's precisely what Jeep did by hiring Klaus Busse, formerly of Mercedes-Benz, as its interior-design chief.
Kudos go to the man for the way he's mixed styling flair with rich-feeling textures, and this goes hand in hand with a lot of new high-tech multimedia. A large touchscreen on the fascia is used to control the navigation, audio, vehicle settings and climate control, and for the most part it's simple and intuitive to use. A neat touch is that you can also display your digital photos on the screen.
The roomy cabin of this mid-sized SUV is family-sized and the boot, which is accessible through an electronically-operated tailgate, swallows a sizeable heap of luggage (and yes there's a full-sized spare), and the rear seats can fold flat. Cabin stowage space is plentiful as well and includes lidded bins between the front seats and atop the dashboard.
The 3.2 Limited 4x4 costs an eye-watering R563 990 but comes with a lot of standard spec including a six-year/100 000km maintenance plan, leather seats, climate control, a customisable instrument cluster, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlamps with LED daytime running lights, electrically-powered driver seat, heated front seats, a reversing camera, and a nine-speaker Alpine audio system with Aux/USB/SD and Bluetooth connectivity, to mention a few.
Safety's top-notch too and the seven-airbag Cherokee was the safest SUV in its category in last year's Euro NCAP crash tests.
A long options list allows you to spec your Cherokee with extra-cost techery like a wireless cellphone charging pad, a park assist system, adaptive cruise control, and lane-departure and forward-collision warning.
There's a choice of two normally-aspirated petrol engines across the four-derivative range: a four-cylinder 2.4 and a V6 3.2, which replace the 151kW/314kW 3.7-litre V6 petrol that powered the previous Cherokee. All are paired with a new nine-speed automatic transmission.
The new 3.2 feels gutsy with its 200kW and 315Nm outputs, and gets this heavy vehicle cruising along in a fair hurry. Notable is how much more refined the new Cherokee is than its predecessor, with significantly lower levels of noise and vibration. Ride comfort's a particular highlight and this SUV filters out nasty road bumps very effectively.
The nine-speed 'box changes gears relatively quick and smooth but I missed having a manual override which would prevent a kickdown every time I touched the throttle. To save fuel the drivetrain automatically switches between two-and four-wheel drive as conditions demand, but our test vehicle was still a relatively thirsty beast that averaged 12.2 litres per 100km in town/freeway commuting.
Sorry Clint, but boxy is out and curves are in - so says Jeep. The new-age styling might divide opinion but under the sleek skin the Cherokee's morphed into a more refined and comfortable beast.
The all-wheel-drive versions also retain the brand's bundu-bashing abilities (especially so in the Trailhawk version).
But class doesn't come cheap, and pricing has taken a major leap over the previous Cherokee that sold for just over 400 grand.
Jeep Cherokee 3.2L 4x4 Limited
Engine: 3.2-litre, V6 petrol
Gearbox: Nine-speed automatic
Power: 200kW @ 6500rpm
Torque: 315Nm @ 4300rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 8.1 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 209km/h
Consumption (claimed): 9.5 litres per 100km
Price: R563 990
Warranty: Three-year/100 000km
Maintenance Plan: Six-year/100 000km