First Drive: Jeep Cherokee falters on steep learning curve

Revived Jeep range supposed to be Fiat-Chrysler’s cash-cow, but it needs better products to prove itself worthy

Make: Jeep

Model: Cherokee

Year: 2015

Fuel: Diesel

Date Reviewed: December 8, 2015

Wed, Jan 6, 2016, 01:00

   

I have something of an awkward relationship with volcanoes. The last time a spewing torrent of liquid magma and I crossed paths, it was the famous eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010 that left me, and thousands others, stranded in Europe when suddenly aircraft couldn’t fly.

The stories of the long, long bus journey home are probably best not recounted here but suffice to say that I don’t think I’ve ever quite washed off the smell.

Since when I have left volcanoes to the experts – volcanologists, geologists, megalomaniacal super villains bent on global domination.

I have certainly never since driven up one and got close enough to the summit to have the smell of rotten eggs fill my nostrils and the rumble of an ongoing eruption fill the air.

But this is Etna, standing proud like a giant pimple above the plains of Sicily and it is Europe’s most active volcano. And this is Jeep.

Prepping for its 75th anniversary next year, Jeep is one of those brands that does things you don’t quite expect. Like giving a suburban, soccer-mom SUV the sort of off-road ability that allows it to climb to the summit of an active volcano.

Few car companies, graciously allowing us to test their cars, would let us get within a hundred miles of a lava-vomiting mountain. Jeep’s attitude was it was there to be climbed.

Casual aplomb

Our Cherokee, equipped with Jeep’s new 2.2-litre diesel engine, did so with frankly casual aplomb. The track to the top of Etna is well defined and even partially paved in places. You could, with some effort and a careful eye, probably traverse it in a modest family hatchback. Some sections though, would cost you either a wheel or a sump and it is across these that the Cherokee comes into its own. With 200hp and 440Nm of torque flowing from the new engine, it pretty much effortlessly scrambled up the various rocks and crags that stood in our way.

At no stage was body work dragged on the ground, at no stage did suspension run out of travel or wheels out of traction, and this despite our test car being a medium-off-road- strength Cherokee, equipped with the Active Drive I system that includes a switch for toggling between various modes tuned for sand, mud, rocks and other sticky, slippery terrain.

There is a more serious Active Drive II that includes low-ratio gears and more electronic assistance, but to be honest, our vanilla Cherokee felt plenty capable enough.

As we bumped and thumped our way upwards, one could really start to see the appeal of such a car. While many an SUV talks the talk, the Cherokee walks the walk and is one of the very few mid-size 4x4s that has that sort of capability built in.

I doubt that a BMW X3 or Honda CR-V would have carried us so far, so easily.

Something in reserve

Will many drivers use that capability or be prepared to spend the extra needed over the more basic, front-drive 2.0-litre 140hp Cherokee?

Frankly no, but just as few, if any of us, really stretch our computers, our watches, even ourselves to the limit of endurance, it’s nice to know that there is something in reserve.

The problems started to mount up a bit once we scrambled our way down through freshly-sewn fields of lava and back on to tarmac. The Cherokee is, to be blunt, not a cheap car. The cheapest model retails at €38,000, which is chunky enough for a mid-size off-roader. Jeep Ireland has not yet released prices for this new 2.2-litre engine, but the outgoing 170hp 2.0-litre 4WD model, with the nine-speed automatic and Active Drive I, retails at €55,000, steep enough to give the Cherokee’s hill descent control some serious concerns.

True, a similarly specced Audi Q5 Quattro or BMW X3 xDrive will be more expensive again, and the Land Rover Discovery Sport is hardly cheap either, but the Cherokee displays certain shortcomings that mean it can’t compete on an even basis with these cars.

The big issue is refinement. The 2.2 engine, despite being a new design with lightweight internal parts is actually pretty noisy, clattering away to itself.

It’s not massively intrusive, and the noise does settle down a bit as the engine warms through properly, but it’s certainly there. It’s largely a consequence of tuning the engine to meet the strict new Euro6 emissions limits.

Bit of clatter

It seems you can have refinement or you can have low emissions but it’s harder by far to have both. A bit of clatter is just about acceptable in a car such as the Cherokee, but Fiat-Chrysler is going to have to work hard to quieten things down before this same engine is slotted into the upcoming Alfa Romeo Giulia.

While the engine noise can be at least partially excused (and is offset by strong, muscular performance), the work done by the suspension is less excusable. To put it mildly, the Cherokee runs over bumps with all the deportment of a toddler carrying a tray of loose crockery. It bangs and thumps noisily and the whole car just feels unsettled on anything less than a very smooth road.

Given the strength of its opposition, that’s just not excusable.

The interior is also a bit of a mixed bag. There is a lot to like – the big front seats are squishy and comfy, the space in the rear seats and the 591-litre boot exceeds expectations, and the quality of the fit and finish around the middle of the instrument panel is fine.

However, then it’s let down by things such as door panels that look and feel cheap and nasty and too many sub-par plastics strewn around the place.

The thing is that the Cherokee is a hugely likeable car. Not all will care for its distinctive styling, but at least it’s different. The cabin is big and comfy, the engine strong and punchy, and while the 150g/km CO2 figure looks high at first glance, it’s actually pretty well comparable with four- wheel drive, automatic rivals.

For the price being asked, though, and with the competition it faces, it’s just allowing too many flaws out the door.

Fix the cabin plastic, quieten down the engine and fit more sophisticated springs and dampers and the Cherokee could actually be one of the most likeable and capable cars on the market. Until then, it’s going to struggle.

In its element Not with terrain though. Across broken ground, through gaps in towering columns of hard- set lava and scratching its way through closely-grown stands of olive trees, when it’s off-road, the Cherokee is in its element.

There are few cars from few car makers that you would trust to bring you up an active volcano and back down again in safety. On the road though, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

Jeep has seen a major global resurgence since it, and the rest of Chrysler, was bought by Fiat, so much so that the brand is now the biggest and most important pillar of Fiat- Chrysler’s global success.

Something tells me, though, that in spite of that fact, notoriously shrewd Irish car buyers are going to take some convincing yet.

The lowdown: Jeep Cherokee 2.2 MultiJet II 190 Limited Auto
Price:
TBA as tested; range starts at €38,350
Power: 200hp
Torque: 440Nm
0-100kmh: 8.5sec
Top speed: 210kmh
Claimed economy: 6.1l/100km. (46.3mpg)
CO2 emissions: 150g/km
Motor tax: €390