Words & Pictures by Andrew Middleton
When the Jeep Cherokee was first released in 1984, it caused a stir in the auto industry. By using a monocoque instead of a heavy body-on-frame construction, the Cherokee opened up a new market segment that dominates our roads today: the mid-sized SUV. Despite the fragile state of American Motors Corporation at the time, Jeep’s Cherokee XJ (said to mean eXperimental Jeep) quickly became the most popular Jeep product of all time: by 2001, 2.8 million units had been sold.
Despite the fragile state of American Motors Corporation at the time, Jeep’s Cherokee XJ (said to mean eXperimental Jeep) quickly became the most popular Jeep product of all time: by 2001, 2.8 million units had been sold.
The latest Cherokee (Codenamed KL) is an indication that Jeep is going back to its roots, by being experimental. Although the 2WD derivatives fit comfortably into a segment shared with Kia’s Sportage, Nissan’s Qashqai and other crossovers, the Cherokee Trailhawk has a niche all to itself.
It’s too off-road capable to compete fairly with lesser AWD softroaders, but, at just over R600k, it’s rather expensive. It had better be good.
If it’s dark, and you climb inside without seeing the Cherokee’s squinting face, you’ll be surprised at the beautifully modern, yet simple, interior. Initial impressions are that the curving dash design is highly impressive − DNA that’s carried right down to the base model 2WD.
As it stands, though, our test mule is top of the range; and, at R607 990, a brilliant interior is the least you’d expect. Thankfully, the Americans have moved away from their infamously tacky plastics and have delivered an outstanding product.
Clever cubby holes (one on top of the dash and one under the front passenger seat) provide plenty of storage space, and the chairs are the most comfortable you’ll find this side of a Range Rover. Switchgear also has a pleasing oily tactility that gives the impression of lasting strength. Materials are soft-touch and high quality, and the digital display on the instrument cluster is pleasing to the eye and rich in detail, providing not only speed and revs, but oil and transmission temperatures, too.
An 8.4-inch touch-screen infotainment system tops off the front passenger compartment, and is the interface for interior functions, the brilliant satnav system, and driving information. There are also three 12V outlets, and even a 220V plug for laptops and the like.
The rear seats can slide forward on rails to increase the otherwise small boot capacity; and, when they are slid back, six-foot-tall rear passengers are treated to a firstclass experience.
Looks are subjective, of course; and who am I to judge aesthetics? I can’t even be bothered to turn the lights on when choosing the day’s clothes. But this Jeep had me confused. The rear and side profiles give the impression of a handsome brute with a wide stance and solid appeal, helped by the plastic bumpers and extra ride height. Walk to the front, however, and your opinion may change.
Everyone who looked at the front of the Jeep had some sort of comment to make; one person even noted that it gave the impression of a man with a moustache, squinting into the sun.
Jeep has been bold with the Cherokee styling, but I wonder how well it will have aged in ten years or so; conservative designs usually age far better. Yet, Jeep is adamant that the new design is a trendsetter and they will be filtering the squinty face across their range of vehicle in years to come. (I do hope they spare the Wrangler.)
Maybe my biased Western taste doesn’t suit the clientele Jeep hopes to attract, but the new look will certainly take some getting used to.
Although all new Jeeps (bar the Wrangler) are more mall-crawler than mountain goat, Jeep vouches for the off-road capability of its Trailhawk. The rather tacky ‘Trail Rated’ badging on its flanks is a nod to the fact it can conquer the famous Rubicon trail in America, though it’s hard to say what the South African equivalent would be.
On paper, the Trailhawk’s specs don’t add up too well. On our Ramp Travel Index (RTI), it scored just 283, narrowly beating Jeep’s own 2011 Grand Cherokee and the 2011 VW Touareg. That’s the third lowest wheel-articulation score in our test bank.
Like a puppydog, the Trailhawk loves to cock a leg at any opportunity, and we completed a good part of Tierkloof’s 4×4 trail on three wheels.
Maybe my biased Western taste doesn’t suit the clientele Jeep hopes to attract, but the new look will certainly take some getting used to.To be fair, the rocky track isn’t for the faint-hearted and the Jeep was far from happy at some points.
Ground clearance is also an issue, and when going downhill under load, the compressed front suspension resulted in plenty of nasty crunches and bangs over rocks – despite our hill-descent control being set to a steady 1kph. Bash plates similar to those used on the Wrangler Rubicon are fitted, so nothing was damaged, but an extra inch or so of clearance would have helped.
Uphill, the Jeep was more comfortable, and its good approach- and departure angles allowed some impressive climbs on grippy rock faces. With hill ascent control engaged, the Jeep crawls nicely without jerkiness, and, despite its lack of articulation, still managed to find grip where I thought it would falter. The traction control system, dubbed ‘Selec- Terrain’, has five modes on a rotary dial (coincidentally, very similar to Land Rover’s system). The modes include Automatic, Snow, Sand/ Mud, Rock and Sport. Each mode sets the gearbox, traction control and throttle response parameters to suit different terrains. I felt that Rock mode was too unresponsive for me, so I just left it in Auto lowrange, manually locking the rear diff when that was required. On sand, in Sand mode, the throttle response sharpens up considerably and allows more wheelspin, but I still preferred Automatic, with the traction control turned off.
In rockier terrain, with traction control turned on, I was stunned at how capable the Jeep was at slow speeds – despite not having enough clearance. There is, however, one major downfall: the gearbox. I can rant about the ’box for some time; so, in short, it’s confused. Going up a dune, the engine will either over-rev or bog down, as the indecisive cog swapper can’t figure out what to do and ends up ‘hunting’ for gears amongst its nine ratios. Even in manual mode it wouldn’t respond to my inputs. Although the dashboard would, for instance, display ‘3rd’, it was obviously in first or second and refused to change up, even when given plenty of time. The unresponsiveness made the Jeep frustrating to drive on almost any terrain.
Much the same as my off-road relationship with the gearbox, my time on road was no better. With nine closely-spaced gears, the theory is that the engine stays in its power band more of the time. A short first gear for sharp pull-aways and an extremely long ninth ratio for highway economy make logical sense theoretically; but, in practice, it doesn’t work at all. In a week of driving on highways every day, I got it into ninth gear only twice − downhill, at 130km/h. As soon as I accelerated (in manual mode), it dropped back down to seventh.
Do what you like with the gear selector in manual mode; the box will simply refuse your input. That would be fine if it was good in Auto mode, but it’s not. It’s either bogging down, or revving to 3000rpm when all you want to do is potter around your suburb. Interestingly, the Range Rover Evoque uses the same ZF 9HP gearbox as the Jeep does, and there it works very well. Jeep has simply messed up the calibration and should have sorted out the idiosyncrasies before putting the KL generation Cherokee into production.
It’s a pity about the gearbox, because under that stumpy bonnet is a glorious V6 petrol, robbed of the credit that is its due. Despite being sonorous, and singing a sweet, naturally-aspirated melody at every opportunity, I doubt many would be impressed by fuel consumption of 13l/100km, which is about as low as I got it, despite driving with my wallet in mind.
Thanks to a chassis based on an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, the Cherokee handles very well on wet or dry tar. The damping is set up for compliance on big bumps, but, at speed, the ride is perhaps too firm – the upside being that body roll is minimal. Jeep appears to have opted for a stable, safe ride; and, for this, it scored five stars (and bestin- class results) in the Euro NCAP safety tests.
Compared to Jeeps of yesteryear, the Trailhawk’s on-road handling is a marked improvement, especially when considering its impressive off-road credentials. Refinement is also a strong point, with low NVH levels. You’ll never lack overtakinggrunt from the big V6, either.
Jeep has placed the Trailhawk in its very own market niche. There are no vehicles currently on sale that compete directly on price or specification.
It’s the only vehicle under R650k which you can buy today that is both sporty and has the off-road credentials that come with lowrange gearing. Its smaller size probably makes it more appealing to a younger crowd than does the Grand Cherokee, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when big brother is only about R60k more expensive. Buying a Fortuner V6 4×4 Automatic and saving over R60k is a logical choice: you can use the extra money for fuel over a few years.
After living with the Trailhawk and discussing it with industry experts, who are as intrigued by its positioning as I am, it’s clear that better value for money is easily found. Sure, it’s a good 4×4 that’s equally at home on the road; sure, it’s practical and fast.
But, fundamental flaws can’t be overlooked. A badly calibrated gearbox, thirsty engine, polarising looks and a price tag that steps on the toes of bigger and more capable 4x4s all mean that it’s not likely to be more than a novelty on our roads.