x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Forget the exits as the Jeep Grand Cherokee carries you away

Road Test: The journey in the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 3.6L is more enjoyable than the destination, Neil Vorano finds as he relaxes behind the wheel.

"It's macho without being brutish; it's big without being comically proportioned; and it has all tips to its Jeep heritage." Pawan Singh / The National

It's a glorious sunny day, and I feel like exploring. Conveniently, and rather appropriately, I come to a roundabout; I had thought about taking in the relaxing and sumptuous confines of the Bab al Shams resort, just south of Dubai, for a cool juice and a soft cushion overlooking the desert, but my curiosity has me drive on, past the resort turn-off to the next exit in the circle. And it is a good decision.

I find a long, twisty, up-and-down ribbon of a road, with desert plains and small dunes on either side; a lonely strip of asphalt that goes nowhere, like many roads here do, dotted with just the occasional lorry or pickup truck filled with workers headed to and from some inexplicable job site off in the wilderness. Apart from the occasional mound of sand swept onto the side of the road, it would be an ideal run in a small, agile sports car.

But I'm not in a sports car, and I really don't mind. Rather surprisingly, this Jeep Grand Cherokee feels light and tight as I zip over the crests and around the bends at more of a sprightly, rather than maddening, pace. There's very little body roll in Chrysler's big, redesigned SUV, giving me more and more confidence to push it through the corners. I like the handling, but as I spend more time with the Grand Cherokee, I find many more nuggets that tell me Chrysler may have got it right with this car.

The cabin is silent, a point made especially as I open the window and let the fresh, cool air thunder in and hang my arm outside. It's one of those days that you just appreciate driving; not racing, not going for groceries, just being in a car on a lonely back road with no destination or time clock hovering above your head. With a busy lifestyle, people don't get to do that as often as they'd like; it's a shame.

And you could do a lot worse than find yourself in a Grand Cherokee on one of those days. Compared with the last generation, this revised SUV is miles ahead in terms of quality and design inside. There's a lot of room both in front and in the second row, and the leather seats are coddling as I carry on my drive. The dash and gauges are up to - and, in many cases, beyond - what you would expect in a midlevel SUV, with quality switchgear and an orderly layout. This coming from a manufacturer that has been notorious in the past for having some of the worst interiors on the market. There's also a good sat/nav system that tells me I'm in the middle of nowhere, so I just turn it off and instead plug in my iPhone and cycle through my music.

The day is beautiful, and I pull over onto a sandy area, beside an old water well that seems bottomless, to get out and walk around the Grand Cherokee and soak in some sun and wind swept silence. Despite the usual thin film of sand covering the bodywork, the deep, metallic blue paint sparkles. I really like the lines on it, too; it's macho without being brutish; it's big without being comically proportioned; and it has all the tips to its Jeep heritage - ie the hexagon wheel arches and the seven-bar grille - without being "retro". It's an evolutionary change from the last version, but in terms of style, it's revolutionary.

I carry on driving for a few more kilometres, and I feel the tensions and pressures of the work week falling behind me with the roll of the tyres; the vast expanse of nothing but a wavy strip of tarmac seems to do that to me.

You could opt for the mad SRT8 version of the Grand Cherokee with its 5.7L Hemi engine, but this 3.6L V6 is doing just fine for regular driving, thanks. It's an all-new engine to go along with the new chassis, and it's more than powerful enough for getting around town and on any off-road getaways you may find yourself in. It's certainly doing the job for me here, and smoothly, too.

My biggest complaint with the Jeep seems to be a recurring theme with North American cars: the automatic transmission. Five speeds seems antiquated in this day of six-, seven- and even eight-speed gearboxes, but it could work if done right. But the downshifts come slow when you really need them; the hesitation of staying in too high a gear is maddening when you need a quick power surge on the motorway.

The sun is beginning to set, and I find a space to turn the car around and head back. There will be no serious off-roading for me today; pity, as Jeep has included a nifty suspension and drivetrain setting with the Grand Cherokee, much like the ones in a Range Rover. There's a dial that you can set for sand, snow, rock and sport, all changing the ride height and engine and gearbox settings to suit whatever terrain you need. The car rides on air suspension, which Jeep calls Quadra Lift, that not only allows a change in height but also helps give the car good handling and a smooth ride. It works well on the road, whether you're in spirited mood or just cruising around town.

I find my way back to the roundabout and stop, thinking about that cool juice at Bab al Shams just down the road. Why not? I'm worth it; plus, it will be a relaxing end to a relaxing day of driving. And I'm in a Jeep that would be at home pulling into the valet at any high-end resort.