Friday 30 September 2016

Into the West: tough road for the Cherokee

Trails top rivals in key areas, writes our Motoring Editor

Published 02/07/2016 | 02:30

Cherokee - a lot less than the sum of its parts.
Cherokee - a lot less than the sum of its parts.

It was only fitting, I suppose, that a chunk of my drives in the Jeep Cherokee should have been in the wonderful company of two American friends - and that we drove into the West (of Ireland).

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America is the land of the Jeep. It was born and reared there. But we in Europe also have our take on what a 'jeep' should mean nowadays. It is quite a different perspective.

I'm sure you know the word 'jeep' is trademarked but widely abused. Technically, it should only be used in connection with a Jeep vehicle - not everything that resembles a 4x4.

Whatever about the name, the genre has evolved so much internationally that we live in an era of SUVs/crossovers where only a minority of vehicles are designed for, or capable of, the all-terrain demands for which 'jeeps' were famous.

So this American icon has had to reinvent itself. In doing so it has lost and gained. Gone with the predominantly gas-guzzling big petrols (here anyway) are the more individual looks. My version was quite bland outside and inside. To be fair, they retain the famous grille but you would be hard pressed to pick it out from a car park swollen with competitors. It could be anything and I think that is a pity.

Gone too is that feeling of it being an American icon (my friend, incidentally, drives a Honda CR-V). It is now just another mid-size SUV, albeit with some impressive hardware in the case of my 4x4 'Limited' version. I appreciate that maybe I didn't notice the level of grip and traction the 4x4 quietly gave me in the course of drives around Connemara.

But put this up against an Audi Q5 or BMW X3 or Volvo XC60 and I'm afraid it pales where it matters for most buyers - in how it looks and drives.

Of course it would beat the socks off a lot of them in a straight off-road lug-it and pull-it competition. Yet that is not what most people want. They want - and there is no better phrase - 'car-like' quality in their SUVs/crossovers.

The Cherokee didn't have such qualities in striking abundance. And even its undoubted off-road abilities might not so easily set it apart from the likes of the Land Rover Discovery Sport. Therein lies perhaps the central point for the Cherokee. The Land Rover, despite some shortcomings of its own, shows how it is possible to build on an off-road all-terrain heritage while embracing the modern idiom of SUV/crossover - and, yes, 'car-like' qualities.

The Cherokee has made strides but not of lengths approaching those instilled in the Land Rover.

It does, however, pack an awful lot of equipment and, on paper, that gives it a price advantage on several rivals.

In fairness, too, over some roads and drives - especially motorways - it came across as quite smooth and comfortable.

But as soon as we strayed on to more ordinary routes, things changed noticeably. Anywhere there were uneven undulations or poor surfaces - and there were many on the stretches covered - I'm afraid its composure noticeably diminished.

It never, despite leather and huge touchscreen, quite attained the sort of comfortable, easy-to-use feeling of an Audi Q5 or BMW X3.

In one way, is that such a mortal sin? Maybe, by being what it is makes it different and an alternative? I'm not sure that is such a strong argument but it is a consideration for buyers seeking alternatives.

Small things annoyed. The steering (although electric) was quite heavy. The bucket seats didn't suit me - too narrow - though I appreciated the lumbar support.

It fared better on the practicalities. That 2.2-litre diesel engine would pull all day though it was gruff enough at lower speeds. It cruised well; the 9spd auto transmission kept the revs to Wicklow and into the West (and back) to a ridiculously low level. That remained its big attraction: an ability to travel at 110kmh/120kmh in ninth gear, nice and quiet while sipping the diesel.

And there was a decent boot (though we hadn't that much luggage), with cargo ties and handy ways of carrying things that others often overlook. Rear-seat room was okay - we had the seats pushed back to their maximum for passenger comfort.

My American friends were impressed with the parking-aid system - the rear-camera and colour display were particularly helpful. In a way that typified the Cherokee: good in some areas; poor in others.

But overall, I found it didn't have the level of appeal that the class leaders do. In many ways it felt a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Facts & figures

Jeep Cherokee 'Limited' 2.2-litre (2,184c) diesel, 9spd auto, 200hp 4WD; 5.6l/100km/49.7mpg; 150g/km, €390 road tax. Price: €55,850.

As tested: €57,200. Equipment includes: Nappa leather, front bucket seats (heated/ventilated), dual-zone air con, cruise control, 7ins TFT display, 8.4ins touchscreen, SD media hub, DAB, 18ins alloys, bi-xenon headlights, electric driver seat/lumbar support, front fogs, 60/40 split/fold/slide rear seats, parking aids, cargo ties.

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