It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from or where you’re going, the name Jeep carries with it a certain mystique. From the butch Wrangler to the bold Grand Cherokee, there’s a common coolness throughout the range that everyone can relate to.
The subject of this review, however, the new Cherokee, launched mid-2014, might just be letting the side down.
The Cherokee was often looked at as a slightly smaller, slightly more accessible version of the out-and-out range-topping Grand Cherokee. Over the last three generations it developed its own style; becoming rounded in the early 2000s, square-ish in the late 2000s and, now, well, let’s call it “individual”.
The Cherokee today looks like few other vehicles on the road: with its front end resembling a creature you might have seen in one of the Alien vs. Predator movies, and its rear disappointingly reminiscent of something out of the Kia stable. You might have to look twice before you realise it carries that illustrious Jeep badge. Limited-spec models, such as the 3,2-litre version here, are also adorned with blingy chromed 18-inch rims. From most angles, the whole package is a bit of a mess.
Things get quite a bit better when you climb aboard the comfy, well-appointed cabin. Here, neatness and good ergonomics rule. Occupants are treated to large, plush, heated and ventilated Nappa-leather-covered seats (the rears are adjustable) and lots of all-round space.
The new Cherokee is decked-out with a host of features, including the central 8,4-inch touch-screen infotainment system. The system is easy to use and offers access to the audio, telephonic and navigation facilities. It incorporates numerous connectivity options (including SD-card capability) and voice control. The nine-speaker audio system is fantastic.
There are numerous storage spaces around the cabin – I found the most useful to be the box under the tilting passenger seat cushion. Our test vehicle was fitted with keyless-entry and keyless-go (that also offers remote starting – certain to impress your friends), a wireless charging pad and a R17 500 full sunroof that disappointingly squeaked and rattled.
The driver is greeted by his own seven-inch colour display in the instrument binnacle that offers extensive vehicle information and infotainment menus. It’s a good thing he/she has all these systems (and a comfy cabin) to play with, because the driving experience is where the seams really begin to come apart.
First, the basics; the 3,2-litre V6 produces an acceptable 200 kW of power and 315 Nm of torque – not class leading but not necessarily underpowered. This is coupled to a nine-speed automatic gearbox (yes, nine) driving either the front (as in ours) or all the wheels (as on the 4×4 models). Now, don’t be fooled by all these big numbers, because this is one of those instances in life where bigger really is not better… In fact, it’s shockingly awful.
The gearbox is slow, jerky, lurchy, stubborn and just as frustrating in manual mode. While I am of the opinion that nine gears are simply too many for every-day driving (I could never get it to shift past seventh), I believe that the problem with this gearbox is the software that controls it.
And, while the engine is smooth and powerful, its fuel consumption is horrifying – Jeep claims 10 l/100 km for combined driving, but in-town driving is significantly heavier. Let’s just say I’ve not seen a fuel gauge so quickly head for empty in quite a while.
On the plus side, the Cherokee rides very comfortably, handles well and all-round visibility from the driver’s seat is good. It’s fitted with the usual anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control, up to nine other electronic safety features, and seven airbags.
The Jeep Cherokee 3,2 Limited retails for R505 990, including a three-year/100 000 km warranty and six-year/100 000 km maintenance plan. At that price it goes head to head with vehicles including the Volvo XC60, Mitsubishi Pajero, slightly more expensive BMW X3 and Audi Q5, and, if you’re able to splash out, the stunning Range-Rover Evoque.
While the Cherokee has some really attractive features and the lure of the Jeep name, the opinion-splitting looks and disappointing driving experience are bound to push buyers in the direction of the competition.