18 January 2002

TRENDIER CHEROKEE KEEPS FEET ON GROUND

Jeeps previous Cherokee

had a reputation as a no-

nonsense, unpretentious

off-roader. The new one is

undeniably trendier, but has

it retained its core values?

John Henderson took to

the mud to find out

WITH the new Cherokee, Jeep claims to have successfully bridged the gap between the Freelander class and "real" off-roaders by combining a trendy, compact body with excellent off-road ability.

The original Cherokee was already ten years old when launched in Britain in 1993, yet its early sales far exceeded expectations. There are now 32,000 on our roads. It only had one update – a new fascia and minor bodywork changes in 1997 – in spite of leaf sprung rear suspension and styling as dated as purple polyester flares.

The new car has thoroughly modern looks, inside and out, yet its nose is reminiscent of the World War II Jeep. Its 29mm wider than the old Cherokee, but 166mm of extra height makes it look narrower. Its wheelbase is also 73mm longer, improving interior space but slightly reducing ramp break-over angle.

A 3.7 litre V6 petrol replaces the four-litre straight six and at 211hp it is almost 20% more powerful, though torque is only 6% up at 235lb ft. Performance is about the same, too, because the new car is 207kg heavier than the old.

It is also the first Jeep to get a common rail, direct injection, 16-valve turbodiesel, though this 2.5 has already been seen in the Chrysler Voyager. Power is 24% up on the old TD at 143hp while torque increases 17% to 253lb ft. But it is 256kg heavier, so performance and fuel economy are about the same.

But this is the most refined diesel from Jeep yet. Even from cold there is no diesel clatter or vibration and, unlike the Grand Cherokee TD, there are no harsh periods at any speed. It pulls remarkably well from low speeds in fourth and fifth and on the open road retains flexibility and refinement to well above the motorway speed limit. This is so good its difficult to understand why Jeep is adding a 2.4 petrol next year with only 2hp more power and 88lb ft less torque.

Unfortunately, the TD and 2.4 are only available with Jeeps Command-Trac part-time, off-road-only 4WD while the automatic-only V6 gets the Selec-Trac system with two- or four-wheel-drive on the road. The V6 feels much more positive in 4WD on the road, turning in more crisply and holding its line better through bends. Its straight line stability is also better, which bodes well for towing though you cannot use low ratio on hard surfaces for manoeuvring trailers.

The rack and pinion steering is precise and responsive with much better road feel than most off-roaders, yet off-road there is little kick back – even on a boulder hill built for the launch.

Off-road the Cherokee forgets its soft-roader looks and remembers its heritage. The V6 has more engine braking than the old straight-six though not as much as the TD. This new Cherokee has the agility of a compact off-roader like the Freelander but its dual-ratio gearbox and short overhangs give it cross country ability of a true off-roader.

The coil-sprung vehicle combines independent front suspension with a traditional off-roader beam axle on the back. Off-road this gives the best of both worlds – it rides well but without all-round independent suspensions tendency to drop the belly onto obstacles if you go a little too fast.

But, on the road while the front absorbs irregularities well, the back is constantly moving. On undulating roads the rear can start to corkscrew, though without affecting handling.

Inside, the seats are comfortable, though cloth ones have better lumbar support than the optional leather. Interior plastics look and feel good, except the flimsy glovebox lid, though the Limiteds satin chrome inserts lift the appearance. Switchgear is mostly on two well-designed stalks and the dark-grey-on-beige dials are clear.

The old Cherokees luggage space was cramped by the spare wheel, but that has now moved to the rear door giving a large, clear loadspace. Access is clever, too – gently pull the rear door handle and the glass flips up, pull harder and the full-width door swings left. Even the base model Sport has air-conditioning, ABS, an alarm, alloy wheels and CD player.

Jeep has succeeded in producing a vehicle that should attract compact off-roader buyers yet has the off-road ability to suit those with more rugged needs. But Jeep has made the TD poor relation again – without road-going 4WD they have a fine engine in a car whose road manners lag behind the rivals in a way the V6s do not.

CHEROKEE DATA

&#8226 Models: 2.5 CRD and 3.7 Sport and Limited; 2.4 petrol Sport next year

&#8226 Engines: Petrol, 3701cc V6 and 2429cc 16-valve four-cylinder; common rail direct injection turbodiesel 2499cc

&#8226 Outputs: V6 – 211hp at 5200rpm, 235lb ft at 3800rpm; 2.4 – 147hp at 5200rpm, 165lb ft at 4000rpm; TD – 143hp at 4000rpm, 253lb ft at 2000rpm

&#8226 Transmission: V6, four-speed auto; others, five-speed manual; all low ratio box

&#8226 Drive: V6, switchable road-going 4WD; others, part-time 4WD

&#8226 Brakes: Front ventilated disc, rear drum, ABS

&#8226 Unladen weight: V6 1847kg; 2.4 TBA; TD 1891kg

&#8226 Payload: V6 693kg; 2.4 TBA; TD 626kg

&#8226 Towing capacity: all 2250kg

&#8226 Fuel consumption: (Combined) V6, 19.3mpg; 2.4, 26.6mpg; TD, 31.4mpg

&#8226 Warranty: Three years, 60,000 miles

&#8226 Price: V6 Sport £20,345, Limited £23,145; 2.4 Sport £17,995; TD Sport £20,195, Limited £22,995

New Jeep Cherokee (above and right) aims to bridge the gap between sports utility vehicles and real off-roaders. Presence of low-ratio

box helps.