NEW PRODUCT IS the lifeblood of any motor manufacturer and Jeep has come out of the blocks at a sprint with its new Grand Cherokee, a fashionable looker that’s ready to expand brand presence in the mid-size SUV segment. Key rivals on the roadgoing side are the X5 and Range Rover Sport, while those who want a more rugged-out-the-box vehicle would likely consider the Land Rover Discovery 4 and Land Cruiser Prado. The territory commands premium finishes, sparkling performance, remarkable-for-their-size handling, high levels of safety, superb ergonomics, all the latest connectivity options and a full creature comfort list. Buyers in this league receive a free nudge up the street cred index along with the hefty price sticker, which usually tops R700 000 before all those pricey options. These cars are a mark of arrival, not really for going exotic places. How then, does Jeep’s skill set compare?
If you like the X5 and admire the ML, and have a penchant for bling, then the Jeep will step right up. It looks chunky and purposeful, features short overhangs and its bulk is well disguised. The seven-bar Jeep signature grille is hard to ignore, especially with the bi-xenons blazing. Out back it reminds of a wider Fortuner somehow, though the tail light rhombus is angled the opposite way. A sturdy roof rack adds a touch of utility, chrome window surrounds and sill protection strips add plenty of shine, with the whole rather handsomely offset by huge alloys (20 inch on our test vehicle). Yes, it has presence in spades and, at last for Jeep, more appealing proportions.
At first and second glance the cabin and its associated finishes are a quantum step up from previous generations. Quality stitched leather dash covering, generous, supportive seats in light cowhide trim, and an appealing curved dash are reminiscent of Volkswagen’s Touareg. The platform has links to the Mercedes ML though and those Euro design cues are clear in the general shape of things. That includes the foot operated parking brake which unfortunately adds clutter to the footwell. There’s a lot to like: driver focused instrument pod, also rather Merc-like, wide centre pod and hangdown with a manageable button fest, plenty of supersized cup holders, enormous panoramic sunroof, self-opening (though rather glacial) tailgate, acres of rear legroom and a capacious boot squared off to actually hold tons of stuff, along with packing space below the tray. Standard Overland specification is very high for the segment and for the price, including keyless entry reversing camera, climate control, a full airbag suite and the like. But the devil is in the details, and here there are some crits. The Jeep faithful might like the two-part wheel with its leather-meets-Korean wood finish. I didn’t, nor was I impressed by the tactile quality of some of the switchgear which felt thin and plasticky in comparison to the Germans, and in the case of the aircon/HVAC panel, pushed right in after an overenthusiastic prod. The interface logic between steering wheel controls and the audio/nav controls I found typically Chrysler clumsy, perhaps a fault of having to integrate the one-system-for-all MyGig set-up. But these are minor niggles. SA vehicles all feature air suspension, with the 3.6-litre coupled to Jeep’s Quadra Trac II permanent four-wheel drive and two-stage (read proper) transfer case, and it’s all switch actuated from the cabin. An extra ‘Selec-Terrain’ panel allows the driver to select ride height and terrain settings, which adjusts throttle, gearbox, brake and traction settings to seek an optimum. The default is Auto, and there’s Sport (its ‘Aero’ 15mm lower height automatic at higher speeds), plus modes for Snow, Sand/Mud and Rock (maximum height). It works a treat, elevating, literally, the Jeep above those more tar focused rivals.
Two petrol engines are the only initial choice in the local Cherokee range, though a VM Motori 3.0-litre V6 diesel is being prepped for release in the fourth quarter. So it’s either the smooth but epically thirsty 5.7-litre Hemi or the newly developed Pentastar 3.6-litre V6 in our test unit. New VVT valvetrain technology, improved fuel injection, better combustion and higher outputs for lower emissions and less fuel count all sounds impressive. In practice the 210kW/347Nm V6 feels stretched when powering the 2.2 tonne heft of the car, erring towards a jarring rasp when accelerating hard. It’s let down by what seems to be a mismatched five-speed (Merc-sourced W5A580) conventional auto that needs more ratios. On long upward slopes the car slows appreciably and feathering the throttle leads to a harsh kickdown to maintain progress; similarly at cruising speeds, downchanges punctuate any elevation changes. In town, I found it easier and more fuel efficient to use the tip function (at the lever, not via paddles) rather than let the ’box think for itself. An eight-speed is in the wings for release within two years according to a Chrysler insider website, and that will improve things.
There’s such a thing as typically American and the Grand Cherokee embraces this mindset. The air suspension works a treat at soaking up bumps and uneven surfaces. It manages the feat of being well damped and compliant, so body lean is not alarming, though its best work is done at fluent medium pace rather than boy racer charge. Sit back, dial in inputs using the heavily assisted wheel, crank up volume on the rather impressive nine-speaker surround sound system, and simply cruise. It’s also more impressive than you might imagine off the tar, with the extra ground clearance afforded by the (quick acting, closed-circuit) air springs adding to its capability. With low range engaged, it’ll tackle some serious climbs and drop-offs without damaging the hardware. Towing and boat launching (max weight 2268kg braked) should be a breeze, too.
There’s plenty to recommend the newest Grand Cherokee. It has the best silhouette yet, plus comes superbly kitted and capable of tackling a wide range of terrain right off the showroom floor. There are some minor drivetrain quibbles with the five-speed auto, but a solution is in the wings. The petrol errs on the thirsty side as our test figures show, and here the forthcoming diesel (with its broader torque spread) might well be the better choice. Price-wise, at R582 000, in this segment there’s little to touch it for space, spec and status.