Drivers in the USA love the Jeep, but in the UK it's struggled to gain a foothold against the likes of Land Rover. Toby Keel tried out the latest incarnation of the Jeep Cherokee to see if it measures up.
Driving a new car on an extended test drive is rather like going on holiday. You have the anticipation beforehand of the arrival; the hassle of fiddly logistics and paperwork when that day finally arrives; the freedom once you’re all set up and off on your way; the joy of discovering new and unexpected things; and then, gradually, the niggles which make a part of you yearn for things to get back to how they were before.
There is one key difference: when the holiday comes to an end, you go home. When your test drive ends, you have a decision to make: do I want this feeling to last, or am I happy going back to the way things were?
In the case of the Jeep Cherokee, that’s not a decision to take lightly: the entry-level model comes in at over £32,000. When you start to consider the competition either side of the market – the likes of the VW Tiguan on one side, the Land Rover Discovery, Audi Q5 and BMW X3 on the other – the decision doesn’t get any easier.
We ran a Jeep Cherokee around the Surrey Hills and South Downs for a week. Here’s what we made of it.
What we liked
First things first: the Jeep is a very sharp-looking car. The grill at the front is genuinely distinctive, and in an age when so many cars suffer from unutterably dull looks it’s a real breath of fresh air. Jeep themselves have clearly realised this themselves, incidentally: their newer, smaller Renegade model is even more out-there, a real two-fingers up to the crowd.
Inside, the car is filled with all manner of gadgets, buttons and trinkets, and the vast majority of them come as standard. That means everyone gets a sat nav which is linked to the dashboard, meaning that you’ll have an indicator right in front of you when you need to turn rather than having to peer across to the big (8.4″) screen.
It’s one of a number of little touches that really add to the safety – there are so many little beeps and warnings on the dashboard that we were occasionally bewildered, but on balance I think I’d rather put up with a bit of nannying for the sake of a car that’s clever enough to tell me not to change lanes as there’s something in my blind spot.
For me – and particularly for the kids – the big star of the show inside was the panoramic roof. It can be blacked out or slid back in sections, and while it’s not exactly like having a convertible SUV, it’s probably about as close as you’ll get these days. Unless, of course, you’d rather drive round in one of the Cherokee’s illustrious forbears…
Our model was a turbo diesel delivering just under 200bhp, delivered via a nine-speed automatic gearbox. It was always pretty smooth and powerful, if not exactly refined; but the car responded beautifully and always felt entirely safe through the endless series of twisting backroads that we put it through.
Off-road, the car was even better. To be clear, we didn’t give it a serious test – no muddy farmland after heavy rain or anything like that – but there was a feeling from the car that it preferred bombing across a grassy field to cruising along on a dual carriageway.
What we didn’t like
The car was great to look at, nicely screwed together, reassuringly solid-feeling and very well-specced inside – but you’d really struggle to call it special. The materials used inside the cabin were perfectly nice, but didn’t have that deliciously just-right feel you get in many top-end cars.
It seems a nebulous criticism in some ways as it’s rather hard to quantify – is it the type of plastic that isn’t quite right? The polish on the metal? – but I’d defy anyone to sit in a Cherokee and not recognise the feeling. It’s as if they delved just once too often into the giant Fiat-Chrysler generic parts bin.
Likewise, the driving experience was – while fine – not exciting. The nine-speed automatic gearbox no doubt helped the very decent fuel economy (we got over 40mpg) and power delivery, but the plethora of ratios feels as if it makes the engine always sound a little different to your expectations. It’s a bit like watching a film on Netflix when the lip-synching is just a tiny little bit off. Some people never notice, most will get used to it, but it remains just a little unsettling.
Last thing: the size of the boot was okay, but not great – it’s tall, but not deep and felt decidedly less practical than my own estate car (a Saab 9-3). I blame Range Rover for the absurdly tiny boot in the Evoque, which seems to have popularised the notion that a big car can get away with average or small storage space.
Jeeps have a huge following in the States, and a number of die-hard fans on these shores. To those people we’d say that you absolutely have to try this car if you’re looking for a change. It’s good on and off the road, looks terrific and has a wealth of genuinely useful features as standard.
To everyone else? It’s tough one. The Jeep is nice, but is it so much nicer than the equivalent models from VW, Ford or Hyundai that are £10,000 cheaper? If you’re happy to spend that extra money, hybrids like the Audi Q5 and BMW X3 will tempt, as of course will the Land Rover Discovery Sport.
And if you’re already a Land Rover owner about to go out and buy another? Maybe it’s time to take the Jeep Cherokee on a test drive holiday first – just to see if it’s one of those holidays you never want to end, or one of those where you can’t wait to get back to your own comfy bed.
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