Jeep's gentle evolution

Jeep owners aren’t the sort to embrace needless fiddling. Give them features that make their treasured 4x4s plough through the mud more effectively and they’re a happy bunch. Make changes for the sake of change and there’d be rioting in the streets.

So while the latest Grand Cherokee might be all-new from its knobbly tyres up, the exterior styling could have been a reject from when they were designing the 1993 original. In fact, talk to Chrysler’s Brit-born design chief Trevor Creed and he’ll tell you that the edgier look really harks back to the original square-box-on-wheels Cherokee from the late ’70s.

But changes beneath the skin make the Cherokee an even more accomplished mud-plugger-cum-highway-bruiser: three new full-time 4x4 systems, all-new suspension, new rack and pinion steering and a new 5.7-litre Hemi V8 motor.

Compared to the current Grand Cherokee this new version, which lands on British soil late next year, is 142mm longer, 91mm longer in the wheelbase and 63mm wider between the wheels. An increase in size became necessary to meet upcoming US crash requirements, not because Jeep owners wanted a bigger vehicle. In fact, Jeep’s own research revealed buyers would rather pick an MPV if seating seven was a priority.

See it in the metal and this new Jeep really does take a step back in time. The bonnet is longer, the waistline higher, the windows smaller and the roof flatter and wider to give a more squared-off look. View it straight-on from the rear and it’s a box. Even the nose is a throw-back with a more upright seven-bar grille and, just like Jeeps of old, round headlamps instead of square.

But those extra millimetres in the wheelbase mean bigger rear doors to make it easier to clamber in and out, and the tailgate now has a lift-up window making it a cinch to dump in a gym bag or a pair of hiking boots.Thankfully the interior doesn’t follow the retro mantra. The design is fresh and clean, with a major push to higher-quality materials, better fit and finish and better fake wood. No longer does the cabin feel like it was sourced from a Yugo.

But even this newer version still doesn’t feel big inside. Yes, there’s 50mm extra rearward front-seat travel and a bit more rear-seat legroom, but that higher waistline means smaller windows – and that might give some occupants, particularly those in the back, an attack of claustrophobia.

Jeep is keeping quiet on the new oil-burner as it’ll make its debut in the next-generation Mercedes ML off-roader next year. All the company will say is that it’s a 3.0-litre and it’ll make the current 2.7 feel and sound ancient.As for petrols, the current 4.0-litre six-cylinder engine gets ditched in favour of the 210bhp 3.7 from the latest Cherokee. It also comes with a new, smoother five-speed automatic gearbox.

For V8 power, Jeep sticks with the 230bhp 4.7-litre powerplant in the current Limited and Overland Grand models. But the big news, particularly in the power-hungry US, is the availability of a new 5.7-litre Hemi pushrod V8. It’s an impressive lump, packing 330bhp and a muscly 375lb ft of torque, 90 per cent of which is on tap from 2400rpm. To reign in its considerable thirst, the Hemi features MDS – Multi-Displacement System – which deactivates half the cylinders during cruising and light acceleration.

Back to top

Transferring all that muscle to the ground are a choice of three new all-wheel-drive systems. The base Quadra-Trac 1 is a no-frills design with a single-speed transfer case and no levers to pulls – if a wheel starts spinning, it uses the brakes to channel torque to the ones with grip. Quadra-Trac 2 is the same as ‘1’ but with a low-range ratio.The all-bells-and-whistles, climb-every-mountain set-up is Jeep’s new Quadra-Drive 2, featuring automated electronically controlled limited-slip differentials at the front, centre and rear.

We tried it out on a dry and dusty track in the hills north of Santa Barbara, California. The Rubicon Trail it wasn’t, but it still gave the system a decent work-out. The combination of Hemi muscle, Quadra-Drive four-wheel drive and short overhangs front and rear let the new Jeep haul itself up near one-in-two inclines, and claw its way through steep-faced gullies with consummate ease.

Less impressive was its down-hill capability. Even in bottom gear and low ratio, the Jeep would descend way too fast for comfort, requiring a big stab at the brakes – potentially lethal in slippery conditions. A system like Land Rover’s Hill Descent Control is what’s missing here.

Hose off the dirt, head out on the road and the new Grand Cherokee immediately shows its improvements. All-new independent front suspension and a five-link rear set-up provides a smoother, more supple ride and flatter cornering. The new rack-and-pinion steering, while a little over-assisted, feels precise and telegraphs plenty of feedback. The tighter turning circle at just 2.8 turns lock-to-lock also makes the Jeep feel more nimble and agile.There’s a big step up in refinement, too. Whereas the current model suffers gale-like wind noise at motorway speeds, this new version is exceptionally hushed and refined.

Refinement isn’t one of the new 3.7’s strong points, though. Under hard acceleration it kicks up some strange vibrations and sounds a little coarse at high revs. It also feels sluggish away from the lights.

But sluggish is not a word you can use to describe the Hemi engine. It pulls fearsomely from low speeds and keeps pulling all the way to the red line. It’s also surprisingly smooth and refined, and switches seamlessly in and out of its cylinder cut-off mode.

Back to top

Jeep has just announced that US buyers will pay 7-8 per cent less than they did for the old car. If UK customers are given the same treatment, expect prices to kick off at around £28,000 for the new 3.7 and £32,000 for the Hemi V8. That’s just the kind of evolution Jeep buyers will like.

Howard Walker

Add a comment…