JEEP DESPERATELY NEEDS the new Grand Cherokee to be a success. The tension is palpable, as this mostly all-new mid-size SUV is critical to the future of Chrysler’s best brand. And yes, new Grand is good to look at. It’s bold, modern and athletic, with short overhangs and chamfered curves, and so it should be being based on Mercedes’ ML platform. Gone are the clunky and awkward washboard side panels of the previous effort, gone is the complicated sub-frame mess that ran riot under the bodyshell. Here’s a solidly engineered effort, though with the loss of a solid rear axle in favour of an all-independent multi-link rear axle set-up, and radical Europeanising of the interior, I can’t help but feel it’s made from the world’s new cookie cutter: shades of Fortuner at the rear, some new Touareg in the side profile, a dash of, dare I say it ML and X5 to the profile. One can’t help but feel that the McDonalds world franchise philosophy has hit a home run with Jeep too. That aside, the prominent wheelarches are great, the seven-bar grille as distinctive as it can be, while liberal use of brightwork on the sills, side panels, window liners, rear bootlid and grille makes an avowedly American bling statement.
Jeep vehemently decries any link with Mercedes, preferring to relegate that darker chapter of its recent history to mutters of this being an all-Jeep product. Reality and marketing are poles apart, and the Cherokee is probably better for the wide-ranging engineering inputs that have shaped its more worldly, Euro-styled latest effort. There’s lots to like. Two petrol engines are on offer: the largely unchanged 5.7-litre Hemi V8 in range-topping Overland trim and the new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 in entry ‘Limited’ and upscale ‘Overland’ trim. The V6 is packed with new injection tech and variable cam timing to make 210kW/347Nm and deliver a credible claimed 11.1 litres/100km fuel index. It’s mated to the same old Mercedes-sourced five-speed W5A580 torque converter slushbox which is one of the few downsides of the package. That in turn is coupled to a proper two-speed transfer box and traction is via Jeep’s Quadra-Trac II 4WD system with an ABS-controlled limited slip diff and now with a ‘Selec-Terrain’ dial to match 11 or so input parameters to the terrain (choose from Auto, Sand/mud, Sport, Snow and Rock). Pioneered by Land Rover’s Terrain Response, it’s now de rigueur for off-roaders of the more serious ilk. The 5.7-litre version (best visible external cue is the twin rear exhaust against the V6’s single exit) is only available in Overland trim and the slightly more upscale Quadra-Drive II 4WD system which uses Selec-Terrain plus an electronically governed, hydraulically operated clutch-pack rear limited-slip diff capable of full lock-up.
All versions available in SA are supplied with a closed-circuit air suspension system with rapid responses, able to shift ride height from 180mm at normal/highway speed on the road to a 270mm clearance for rock climbing, at speeds up to 40kph. It all works a treat. On the launch in the Waterberg, the Jeep proved so much more capable than expected over a challenging range of terrain, from sand to rutted tracks, dongas, steep muddy descents, tricky rock strewn climbs and almost every other combination available in southern Africa. Truly impressive. This was using standard tyre pressures on distinctively on-road biased Kumho tyres. The only detractor was some bump-thump telegraphed to the cabin particularly in the 20-inch equipped 5.7 Overland derivative which in addition packs a 2.3 tonne heft (160kg more than the 3.6-litre versions, which run on more trail friendly 18-in rubber). The 5.7 with its 259kW/520Nm outputs and more sophisticated 5/6-speed545RFE auto with two different second-gear ratios (for upshift and kickdown), is the more fluent on-road cruiser than the V6, which suffers more laggy and harsh upshifts to maintain pace. On-tar fuel economy indicated just over 10 litres for 130km on the V6, and around 17 litres for the V8 over that distance.
New positioning sees the SA offering focused upscale with high specification on all three models offered. The interior materials are superb, the design a quantum leap on the predecessors and indeed for anything from the Jeep stable. The keyless entry, massive sunroof, climate control, infotainment system, full leather, electric seats and crucially the full off-road air suspension armoury is standard across the board. Overland spec adds navigation, a more sophisticated version of the nine-speaker audio package and the option of 18 or 20in wheels, among other choices. Metallic paint is R3k extra, the sunroof is a R15k outlay on the base model, and the Off-Road Adventure Group II (sump and diff guards and the like) a R12k option on the 5.7. Each step up the Cherokee derivative rung massively undercuts on price anything comparable from the rivals. The positives add up fast: it offers a really very upmarket, very European interior that delivers on premium materials and in large part the tactile experience; it has genuine off-road ability via a proper transfer case and air suspension; plus adds loads of rear legroom and a hefty bootspace. Price points are R531 990 for the Limited 3.6, R581 990 for the Overland 3.6 and R637 990 for the 5.7-litre V8 Overland. Naturally the full current safety armoury is on offer. While not quite on the performance or crisp handling league of the X5 on the road, it should be a match for Touareg, while being equally strong and capable off the beaten track. Most owners would probably prefer not to scratch the paintwork. For those with travel further north in mind, a VM Motori sourced 3.0-litre turbodiesel capable of running on 500ppm fuel is on the cards for the third quarter. Pricing and outputs have not yet been confirmed, but it could well be the pick.