Jeep Cherokee - An American legend?

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By James Siddall

Some of my favourite automotive products come from once-ailing Chrysler. I don’t doubt that Sergio Marchionne has had a hand in this. After all, the Fiat boss – and Chrysler and Fiat now enjoy an alliance – is renowned for his Midas touch in the car industry.

For the customer, this translates into products like the new Chrysler 300C, which is a more restrained, better-built vehicle than its bling barge of a predecessor. Prices of this big luxo-mobile remain extraordinarily competitive. The top-range SRT model, with its massive 6.4-litre V8 and sportscar-humbling performance – it has a top end of 280km/h – weighs in at a little under R630 000. Remarkable value for a super sedan with this sort of firepower.

The big Grand Voyager is still the industry standard for luxury MPVs, while the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is a massive leap over its predecessor in terms of desirability and quality. I’ve had two on test over the past year or so – a turbodiesel version and then a V8 petrol version – and if I had the funds to buy my own luxury SUV, this would be it.

As for the Wrangler, it’s as iconic as ever. It now also feels far more driveable, and less a medieval torture device, than it used to.

The stalwart Cherokee, meanwhile, is getting on a bit, and we can expect a replacement around early 2014.

As I write this, I have a 2.8L Limited CRD – that’s the turbodiesel version – in the driveway. It’s perhaps a little odd to receive a test car that’s so far into its life cycle, with little or no discernible changes, but it does serve as a reminder of what a competent vehicle it remains.

This particular Cherokee comes standard with a five-speed automatic gearbox and is the range-topper, while that boxy, bluff styling has aged wonderfully. Indeed, it’s still an eye-catching machine that is unmistakeably Jeep, with its signature seven-slot grille.

The Selec-Trac II four-wheel-drive system remains standard, of course. And with that 2 768cc, four-cylinder motor pumping out 130kW at 3 800rpm and a towering 460Nm of torque between 2 000 and 2 800rpm, the Cherokee is extraordinarily agile off-road, especially of course with four-wheel-drive low-range selected, while you also get hill descent control. Indeed, the word “unstoppable” comes to mind.

On-road performance is quite acceptable too. The Cherokee CRD will run from zero to 100km/h in a claimed 11.5 seconds, topping out at 179km/h. Ride quality, meanwhile, is pliant, although this Jeep doesn’t especially like being hustled hard in corners. Then again, it is an off-road machine, not a sportscar.

Now I’m not sure if it’s just me, but interior quality seemed slightly improved on previous Cherokees that I’ve sampled over the years, with excellent fit and finish all round. While the interior space might feel a little tighter than what the exterior suggests, it’s a happy place to be.

Leather abounds in the Limited version here, and so does stowage space.

Luxury features include rain-sensing wipers, automatic temperature control system, heated and folding mirrors, electrically adjustable seats, and satellite controls on the steering wheel.

A full armada of airbags, and the likes of traction control are present, too.

The only thing that jars is a bit is the plasticky wood-effect finish on parts of the centre console and around the gearshift. I’d ditch that if I was you, Chrysler.

Topping the desirability stakes on the options list is the SkySlider full-open canvas roof.

I’ve had at least one Cherokee on test that’s fitted with this – although this test car wasn’t – and it gives a remarkable sense of light and space when fully open. But it is an extra R11 000.

Another highly desirable add-on is the MyGIG Multimedia Infotainment system that combines built-in navigation, audio, entertainment and communication systems, and can be controlled either through a touch screen or by voice commands. It also includes a 20-gigabyte hard drive where music and photos can be stored – this translates to around 1 600 songs, or more than 100 hours of music. The MyGIG set-up adds an extra R15 900 to the price, and while of course not essential, is very high on the nice-to-have list.

Meanwhile, the Infinity Premium Sound System on the Cherokee Limited, and the vehicle here is Limited-spec, of course, packs nine speakers, including a 6.5-inch subwoofer.

Some of my happiest times with this Jeep were spent driving with a cup of coffee in one hand, and the other on the steering wheel – so reminding me why I am so fond of autos – and a compilation of 1980s hits rocking over the sound system. The older I get the more I return to the music of my youth. And let’s not forget that that sound system includes an eight-channel amplifier pumping out 368 watts.

Fuel consumption is acceptable too, and according to its makers, the Ohio-built Cherokee CRD will sip 8.6 litres of diesel per 100km in the combined cycle, running through its five-speed auto box. It also has a best-in-class towing capacity of up to 2 800kg, and a driving range of 725km.

All of which means that if the current Cherokee remains this capable so far into its life cycle, then its replacement – which will probably debut at the New York motor show in March, and hit our showrooms very early next year – will be superb.

Especially considering that with each new incarnation, Chrysler’s products seem to just get exponentially better.

Right now, you’ll pay R448 990 for a Jeep Cherokee 2.8L Limited CRD, before you start adding on some of those rather desirable extras. -Sunday Independent

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