New Cherokee has an upscale feel
Jeep Cherokee 2.4L Longitude
Talk about betting the house. Jeep's long-standing Cherokee has taken on a completely different persona in its latest metamorphosis. Besides the early millennium version that went a little softer than usual, Cherokees have always been a boxy collection of right angles, as if they were putting on a tough frown to show they could be proper bullies off the beaten track.
The latest Cherokee, however, has gone both soft and radical in its exterior design as it aims to plunge headlong into the modern crossover market where everything besides the ride height has to be 'car-like'.
It's a pleasant-enough design from the side and back and if there is any angle that's going to offend anyone it's the front end with its Juke-like two-tier lighting system. Head on, it even looks a little gremlin-like, although that effect pretty much disappears with the more macho-looking, black-bumpered Trailhawk version.
On that note, the four-wheel drive Trailhawk is the only one to go for if you want a proper off-roader and it'll reach most corners of the wilderness with its Selec-Terrain system with Rock Mode and a diff lock.
However the two bottom models in the four-model range are actually front-wheel driven and hence you won't want to put anything more than very mild off-roading on its to-conquer list. Like the vast array of so-called 'softroad' SUVs out there, these models are unashamedly aimed at the urban dweller who seeks a comfy city ride and occasional country getaway vehicle with extra clearance for dodgy roads.
QUANTUM LEAP CABIN
Yet a lot of this Cherokee's new orientation makes sense when you step into the cabin. The previous versions were hard and scratchy plastic Tupperware parties on wheels, but the new interior is an absolute quantum leap. Much of the surfacing is soft to the touch and the vinyl-wrapped upper dashboard with its exposed stitching looks really classy. It gives you the kind of sensory experience you'd expect in a fully-fledged luxury vehicle, although in the case of the entry-level 2.4 Longitude as featured here you'd have to pay extra to complete the cushy experience with leather seat trim.
One thing you won't pay extra for is Jeep's UConnect infotainment system, which is a one-stop shop for the snazzy Harman audio system as well as the navigation system, phone integration and even the climate controls. Luckily, though, you can still play with the fan speed and temperature with conventional buttons below the main screen. It's all easy enough to figure out and use and it also offers a voice command function if you prefer to do things that way.
The interior is big enough for a family of five and offers reasonable stretching space for those in the back. The back seats can also slide backwards and forwards and in their normal position you'll be able to cram 591 litres worth of luggage into the boot.
NEEDS MORE OOMPH
If you're heading out onto the open road though, the 2.4-litre model is not always going to provide the most effortless driving experience. The normally aspirated petrol engine does feature some modern technology, like Fiat's efficiency-enhancing Multiair system, but the 130kW/229Nm motor doesn't quite feel up to comfortably pulling this 1604kg Jeep at Reef altitudes.
As a result, the nine-speed autobox does tend to hunt a bit and labour the engine when you’re trying to keep a decent pace on the open road. A more modern turbocharged petrol or diesel engine would be the ultimate match for this vehicle, but for now the only other alternative is a brawny but potentially thirsty 3.2-litre V6.
The rest of the structural and mechanical package is actually downright brilliant as the Cherokee is based on the Fiat Chrysler group's Compact US Wide architecture, which is basically an enlarged version of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta's platform. What you experience as a result is a cushy ride, meaty and accurate steering as well as road holding that's rather decent for a vehicle of this height.
If you dig the new Cherokee's design and you're looking for a two-wheel drive SUV with a refined and luxurious feel, this new Jeep really plays the part of a downsized Grand Cherokee that's only really sacrificing performance and off-road ability. It is on the pricey side at R479 990, but with a more powerful engine I might just give it the nod.
Jeep Cherokee 2.4L Longitude
Engine: 2.4-litre, four-cylinder petrol
Gearbox: Nine-speed automatic
Power: 130kW @ 6400rpm
Torque: 229Nm @ 3900rpm
0-100km/h (claimed): 10.5 seconds
Top speed (claimed): 196km/h
Consumption (claimed): 8.3 litres per 100km
Price: R479 990
Maintenance plan: Six-year/100 000km
Hyundai Santa Fe 2.2 CRDi (149kW/436Nm) - R510 400
Kia Sorento 2.2 CRDi (147kW/436Nm) - R433 995
Mitsubishi Outlander 2.4 GLS (123kW/222Nm) - R439 900