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Beauty and the beast


COMFORT ZONE:  Jeep's Grand Cherokee

COMFORT ZONE: Jeep's Grand Cherokee

COMFORT ZONE: Jeep's Grand Cherokee

WHEN you have two vehicles called Yeti and Grand Cherokee, you tend to know that you are not dealing with city runabouts. However, while these two vehicles -- from Skoda and Jeep respectively -- are at either end of the SUV concept, they both come laden with extras that make a feather-bedded softie out of Marlboro Man.

The Yeti is an extraordinary able and well-built vehicle that goes under the "crossover" tag to appeal to both the country set and the urban family. In its brochure, it is pictured in 4x4 form perched on a rocky hillside overlooking a lake; while two pages later, it strikes a pose of urban coolness on a city street. I make no secret of the fact that it is one of my favourite cars launched in the past couple of years and it seems my feelings are strongly echoed in Britain. Last week, it was announced that in the Which Car? survey of 52,563 people, Skoda came out top as the 'Most Satisfying Brand to Own'.

The Czech manufacturer, which is controlled by the VW group, scored a top-ranked satisfaction rating of 88.4 per cent, putting it ahead of every other car manufacturer in the survey.

As well as being named the overall most satisfying brand, four Skoda models made it into the survey's top 10 products -- the multi-award winning Yeti (4th); the flagship Superb Estate (6th); and two generations of the Superb Hatch (9th and 10th). All of them achieved approval scores higher than 94 per cent -- an exceptional performance. The top car was the version of the Toyota Yaris Verso built between 2000 and 2005.

Here, Skoda has steadily increased its share of the market, achieving a record 5.6 per cent share in 2010 with a stated goal to become a Top Five bestselling car brand by 2016.

So there was probably an understandable bit of smugness around as I drove the Yeti in its Greenline version until early last week. With the Greenline, Skoda has done everything to save consumption and better CO2 emissions from modifying aerodynamics, lowering the chassis, fitting lower resistance tyres, installing a start-stop system, introducing brake energy and regeneration and saving weight by ditching the spare wheel. It has paid off by now giving between 60 and 70mpg and cutting emissions so that the Yeti falls into the €104 road tax band.

It also means that a Yeti Greenline with its 1.6TDi engine and the very top spec is available for €26,235. True, you will be working the gear lever hard to make fast progress and it is only in 2WD but it is a lovely, safe and very responsible car in a compact but very useful body. It evokes some of the same feelings I had when I first drove the Subaru Forester. While it doesn't have the same AWD ability of the Subaru, it does have the same fetching blend of practicality and style.

I shuddered a bit when I was told that I would be driving the Jeep Grand Cherokee rather than the much smaller Jeep Compass as arranged. For some time I have been keeping the test of the Toyota Landcruiser at bay as really I don't have much use for such beasts in my day-to-day driving.

The Grand Cherokee totally dominated my garage and pushed the household's Hyundai i10 into a far corner between a pile of old takeaway coffee cups and the hedge trimmer. It might be a beast of a machine, but inside it goes out of its way to pamper with every possible aid and comfort. It is also massively powerful, with a three-litre TDi V6 e engine, which will power you to 100km in just over eight seconds. Yet it also comes in at the other end of the emission and consumption chart. Road tax is 10 times that of the Yeti and there's even a massive Overland version with road tax double that again at €2k.

For all its comfort and power, the Grand Cherokee is a bit ungainly when cornering at any reasonable speed. There are settings for taking it across mud, rock and other surfaces at which I'm sure it will do the job very well. If it doesn't, you can always set up home in the vehicle.

There won't be many Grand Cherokees sold. There are more efficient vehicles with better dynamics out there. Yet there is something rather reassuring about its very existence. It plays to our love of the pioneering spirit, and climbing into it is like mounting a horse and leading a wagon train to new frontiers. When I drove it down to Avondale in Co Wicklow, I felt I wanted to power through the forest and across the river rather than politely park in the car park and walk up to Parnell's one-time home.

I don't have €60,000 for it either but at a lot less than half that, the Yeti could be a distinct possibility.

Sunday Independent