THERE was a time not so long ago when Jeep, while regarded as an icon of motoring greatness in its homeland, was looked upon here in Europe as something of a poor relation when it came to either Japanese or European 4x4 brands.
This was very much a misconception as, while the American marque was imbued with many bells and whistles which some felt were there to disguise its mechanical shortcomings, Jeep products were capable in many fields of endeavour.
Indeed, back in the 1990s I coined the phrase ‘everything but the sinking kitsch’ to best describe how the American demeanour of various Jeeps, such as the Cherokee and the Grand Cherokee – characterised by electric leather seats, auto transmission and big engines – were marketed more on their OTT specifications than any latent ability they might have.
The shed-like styling and the general hugeness of their products certainly stood them aside from the pack, especially here in Europe, but something few credited Jeep with was the fact they manufactured granite-solid machines which were blessed with outstanding mechanical longevity, provided they were properly cared for.
It might have been that they had consumption figures similar to a 747 and were about as subtle to drive as a steam locomotive, but hey, they were American and Americans cared little back then about such niceties.
Us pedants here in Europe might have attached a little more importance to such things, but what the hell did we know about anything.
The worm has turned in very many ways for the Jeep brand in recent years and there is a certain irony about the fact that this American automotive icon is now European owned and controlled – by Fiat of all people. In truth, whoever would have predicted that state of affairs ten years ago; I mean, parent company Chrysler was one of the big three in the US and Fiat was hardly top of the pile over this side of the pond.
Fiat now owns Chrysler and it is therefore only too understandable that this latest version of the Cherokee is very different from what went before it and the immediate surprise on getting behind the wheel was the pleasurable driving dynamics (almost completely absent heretofore), the very pleasing diesel powerplant (the previous American ones having been transplanted from a Sherman tank, or some such) and you still get all the Americana kitsch too – ‘eight-way power driver’s seat with four-way power lumbar,’ for example. I mean, what’s not to like.
In fairness to the Italians, they have done an extraordinary job of taking what some might unkindly have called an ‘American junker’ and turned it into something of a jewel. It’s certainly not perfect, but by comparison with what went before, it is damn good.
While the styling of the new machine – we tested the Cherokee Limited 2.0 Turbodiesel – does doff its cap to the old ‘flying brick’ design of yore, what with the seven slot grille and the trapezoidal wheel arches, it is ultimately characterised by a modern, aerodynamic and appealing look which puts it right in there with competitors such as the Ford Kuga, the Mazda CX-5, the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV 4, amongst others.
Add in a thoroughly modern two litre turbodiesel (available with two power outputs) which is smooth, potent and economic, a nine-speed auto gearbox (yes, nine), a complex but easy-to-use 4x4 system and a sophisticated suspension system (MacPherson front and independent rear), and you’ve got a package which will stand the Jeep brand in very good stead in the coming years.
The entry level Cherokee comes with the lesser (140 bhp engine) and a manual six speed ‘box, but the Limited version gets the more powerful (170 bhp) powerplant with the nine-speed auto and all the more impressive it is too.
The facts and figures of the two litre Fiat MultiJet engine are impressive enough – 170 bhp at 4,000 rpm and a wholesome 350 Nm of torque at just 1,750 rpm. This translates into a 0-100 kph time of 10.3 seconds and a top speed of 192 kph, with a consumption figure of 5.8 l/100 km (48.2 mpg) and an emission level of 154 g/km for a slot in Tax Band C.
It might not be the quietest engine of its type around, but there is a pleasing sturdiness about everything here. The nine-speed ‘box was a little on the twitchy side – jumping from cog to cog with gay abandon if pressed hard – but sensible applications of the throttle kept the jumpiness down to a minimum.
What impressed me most, however, was the manner in which it behaved on the road. Older Cherokees were notable for displaying off-road lurching tendencies when you were on the road, while the steering often felt like it was working on a smoke-signal basis with the front wheels, so long did it take from input to reaction.
Not so any more. The steering is direct and confident and very much more car-like than the truck-like experience it once was.
While that’s a big improvement, even bigger was the manner in which it handles and rides. Previous Cherokees were crude in the extreme in this department, undoubtedly damned by the Neanderthal designs utilised (leaf springs, anyone?), but this one again is very car-like and very much in touch with the Crosssover rivals it will compete against.
I genuinely expected this to be a bad driving experience and I was therefore very pleasantly surprised by the grip levels and the sureness of foot on offer. Sure there is understeer aplenty if you get too over-eager, but when compared with what went before it, the transformation is pretty impressive.
As I’ve already alluded, you still get plenty of bangs for your buck – it wouldn’t sell in its’ home market otherwise – and the interior is certainly not as bad as some have made it out to be. Certainly there are a few crude plastics on view, but the acres of leather and the amount of standard kit should pacify any quibblers.
Certainly we are in a new era of sophisticated 4x4 vehicles which make their predecessors look like behemoths, but the Fiat/Chrysler alliance has transformed what was once prehistoric into a modern, very acceptable package indeed and one which will leave many rivals (the Japanese and Koreans in particular) for dead when it gets to the truly rough off-road stuff.
An icon restored then, and while there may still be a bit of work to do, this is an excellent starting point for what was very definitely a restoration project.
The Cost: €55,600 - €58,260 as tested
The Engine: a European solution to an American problem
The Specification: typically Yankee - everything but the kitchen sink
The Overall Verdict: for once the Europeans save the day
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