Does the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee mix it up with Toyota or Land Rover? Kevin Hackett goes off road.
A giant Jeep forward: Cherokee can look after itself in the UAE desert
Put a different radiator grill onto its nose and the (not really all that) new Jeep Grand Cherokee might look like it was Rolls-Royce's attempt to steal a march on Bentley with a full-size SUV of its own. You might shudder at the very thought of that but there's no denying that the Jeep has plenty of road presence, even if it looks, to all intents and purposes, the same as the model it replaces. It's handsome, then, in a slightly anodyne way, so it's bound to be a hit in the UAE's showrooms. But how does it cope with what so many owners of four-wheel drives put their cars through every weekend? Has it got what it takes to compete head-on with the likes of Toyota's Land Cruiser or even the mighty Range Rover?
Jeep reckons so and is, unlike certain other manufacturers, prepared to put its money where its mouth is by letting loose a disparate bunch of journalists in a fleet of fresh-off-the-ferry cars. And the company is allowing these shenanigans to take place both on and off-road. I've been here before, though, with other carmakers, who have promised much in the way of punishing terrains yet failed to deliver more than a gentle stroll through sand I could get a Ferrari over without any bother. Did they have anything to hide? Quite likely.
Jeep, however, appears to be different. A couple of years ago, I unadvisedly took part in an event called the Jeep Jamboree. My wife was with me and didn't speak to me for days afterwards - the experience was that terrifying for her. But I had seen firsthand just how these American rough-and-tumble cars are treated at the hands of their owners. Let's just say they were not afraid to give them a hammering, no matter what model they happened to be in. It was an eye opener, but the Wrangler I had been loaned for the event was something I didn't want to dent, so I took it at a rather more sedate pace.
So it's been quite a wait for me to test a new Jeep in conditions that could best be described as "far from ideal". The UAE is home to some of the harshest climes known to man, and the entire region is awash with terrain that would have a normal vehicle packing up and heading for home. For Jeep to even suggest that we go off-roading could be deemed proof enough of the Grand Cherokee's abilities, but ahead lies almost two whole days of rock crawling, dune bashing and high-speed road driving, although all the front bumpers have been removed as a precaution (they've obviously seen the way some journos here drive).
First, a recap. It's three years since Jeep brought to market a thoroughly overhauled Grand Cherokee, and it really needed to, because the generation before it was nothing short of an outmoded embarrassment that proved to the world what an awful state the American car industry was in at the time. This new one is, on the face of things, nothing more than a midlife refresh, but there's more to it than initially meets the eye. The model it replaces has done wonders to restore Jeep's damaged reputation, sharing much with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, which is as good a start as any if you're building a full-size SUV. But this one goes further, with a new eight-speed automatic gearbox.
You read that right: eight speeds. When I was growing up, five was as good as it got, but we'll soon be faced with transmissions that possess twice that number of ratios. It's good for the environment, reducing the revolutions an engine has to make every minute it's running, meaning less pollution and better economy. It's good, too, for a relaxing experience behind the wheel. But surely it will feel like a right slush box when it comes to crawling over rocks or powering over the dunes? Jeep says otherwise.
On the open road, I get to try the Summit derivative. It's nice inside, with lashings of "Natura-Plus" (no idea what that means) leather all over the place, what Jeep describes as a "refined, suede-like headliner", some rather tasty "open-pore" wood accents, a huge glass roof section and an excellent Harmon Kardon audio system. There are virtual LCD dials in front of the leather steering wheel and there's a sizeable central display screen that looks a bit busy but gives you all the information you could possibly need (along with plenty you won't) at the prod of an index finger. All in all, it's a pleasing cabin environment - lacking the sheer design flair of the Range Rover, as well as certain premium materials, but also lacking the Rangie's skyrocketing price point.
The engine, a 5.7L Pentastar V8, feels strong, as it should do with such enormous capacity. Also available in the GCC is a 3.6L V6 and the nutjob 6.4L V8 Hemi, fitted in the SRT8. But this is enough. It hurtles along in refined silence and, when you need to tear past someone, acceleration is instant thanks to its bounteous torque. And that transmission (built by Chrysler but designed by ZF), which I thought would be tripping over itself due to all the cogs at play, holds onto gears like a rabid dog, not letting go until it absolutely has to in extremis, even without selecting the Sport mode. So far then, so good.
When we reach the off-road section of the first day in the new Jeep, it's obvious why the front valances have been removed. We'll be doing some proper rock crawling and, if this was your own car, you'd be advised to also get out the spanners. Even without it, the Grand Cherokee looks fine - maybe you'd best leave it off, just in case. We're told to select "Off-Road 2" mode on the centre console, which jacks the car up by 66 millimetres, providing more than enough ground clearance for all but the most insane routes. With experts on hand to talk us through the set course, it's obvious that proceedings will be necessarily slow - this is not a race, it's a demonstration of slow and measured progress and there's a neat trick up the Jeep's sleeve: something called "Hill Ascent".
Land Rover pioneered the use of "Hill Descent" and now practically all four-wheel-drive SUVs are so equipped. To use it for the first time can be something of a leap of faith, but it does work extremely well. You simply select the mode, edge yourself over the hill you want to get down, take your feet off the pedals and let the car gradually work itself down the gradient by applying braking to the required wheels and keeping the transmission in the correct ratio according to how steep the incline is, or what terrain is under your wheels. Hill Ascent does the same, but the other way around.
Select the mode and the big Jeep practically drives itself over the rough stuff. Leave it switched on and, when the car senses you're going upwards, just take your feet away from the pedals as if you were going down a hill. The car then apportions torque and brakes to the required corners and gets you up - it's a strange sensation but it does work and allows you to keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on your surroundings.
As for the course, it's pretty crazy stuff and allows the Jeep's air suspension to really show what it's made of, with amazing axle articulation that would leave anything this side of a big Land Rover product completely embarrassed. Despite being in low range as instructed, the torque from the V8 especially is enough to get you out of most situations. It's definitely a vehicle that does everything that its (far) more expensive rivals do.
The following morning sees an early start to beat the heat, as we head into the desert surrounding Dubai. Here, once again, the Grand Cherokee displays agile ability that makes off-roading child's play. I've done this sort of thing a number of times but I'm no expert, so I try to recall all the instruction I've had over the past two years here. Keep out of the ruts created by drivers in front of you, don't be afraid to put down plenty of power when heading up the dunes, don't stop unless you have to - it's not rocket science but it's still something that manages to confuse my feeble brain at times, and, yes, I do get stuck.
I'm the first one in our group to get bogged down in the soft stuff. But as I disembark to go and fetch a shovel to start freeing the stricken Jeep, I'm shouted at by one of the instructors. Apparently this car will free itself. And sure enough, by selecting the appropriate mode and, with judicious use of the throttle in low range, the car slowly but surely finds supernatural grip and eases itself out of trouble for me to give that hill a second try. It's brilliant stuff.
But all this technical trickery would be of no use whatsoever if the Grand Cherokee wasn't screwed together properly. And I can report that it is indeed. It feels solid, assured, well engineered and tough enough for our region's avid off-roading enthusiasts. And it's luxurious enough, and laden with enough safety equipment, to be used as an everyday vehicle for the entire family.
In short, the Grand Cherokee has, in three years, gone from zero to hero. It's the most awarded SUV in the world and, when you consider that all of this capability is available starting at Dh144,000 (for the entry model V6), it isn't all that surprising. Land Rover still rules the roost, though, with its Range Rover, but that car has basically become a Bentley you can drive anywhere. For those of us who, by necessity, have to watch what we spend, there's simply nothing out there to touch this new Jeep - it's a bona fide bargain.
See more of the Grand Cherokee at www.thenational.ae/multimedia
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