Just how important is authenticity in the SUV market? Do buyers, even if they intend to negotiate nothing more taxing than the local car park, like to think that their cars could scale Everest?
Plenty of SUVs on the market have as much heritage in roughing it as Paris Hilton (short jail spell apart) and seem to do quite nicely in terms of sales.
But, as more and more pompous observers tut at the wastefulness of it all, will SUV buyers salve their enforced guilty consciences by turning to vehicles they can defend at the dinner party with the line: “It’s a proper off-roader, not one of these pretend ones. Cher
And we’re thinking of buying a pony/worried about flooding/need to drive across the Sahara.”
Because if you need to cross the Sahara, or tow Dobbin about, or just feel better about yourself by choosing authentic over aesthetic, the new Jeep Cherokee really is the SUV for you.
SUV launches usually involve a nice hotel, a pleasant drive through picturesque scenery and a quick spin down a gravel track.
With the Cherokee, Jeep decided the best approach was to actually drive it across the Sahara.
It illustrates Jeep’s thinking that in order to attract custom, it has to prove it is a ‘proper’ SUV. Leaping over the top of a sand dune, they had me convinced.
The new Cherokee looks great. It has the unapologetic styling of all new Jeeps, which means all curves are banished in favour of bank vault chic, and it’s a design language that has produced some dubious looking cars like the Commander and Grand Cherokee, but on the smaller Cherokee, it looks just right. Solid, compact, four square.
A classic Jeep.
It is also larger than the old model, although very slightly shorter.
The car is offered with a Sky Slider roof as an option, made of acrylic cloth similar to a convertible, which pretty much travels the length of the roof, and concertinas electrically to the front or rear for maximum exposure to the sun.
Inside, the Cherokee comes with a lot as standard.
In the UK, the decision has been made to only offer one spec model, the Limited at £25,595 for the auto and £24,595 for the manual.
It will come with leather electrically adjustable heated seats, rear park assist, remote entry, Hill Descent Control and climate control among others as standard.
Chrysler group product has always been well-specified, but let down by interior build quality (see new Grand Voyager), but the Cherokee is a noticeable improvement.
It is still nowhere near German standards, but the cabin feels much more keenly bolted together. It’s no thing of beauty, but it looks sturdy.
Jeep is proud of the interior colour schemes and leather quality, which are darker and of higher quality than is usual.
But it is not just such frippery as leather colour that should attract the user chooser.
We’re back to authenticity now, and the Jeep comes with an armoury of off-road weapons and brawny engineering.
It uses the same 2.8-litre diesel engine as in the new Grand Voyager but has been retuned to suit the extra power and torque need in the sector.
With 177bhp and 339 lb-ft, it has the same power as a BMW X3 2.0d, but considerably more torque from its much larger engine.
A combined cycle figure of 30.1mpg for the auto and 250g/km of CO2 are high compared to the competition.
This is not one of the most advanced diesel engines you will ever find, but the hefty torque could prove very useful in off-road conditions.
So too will the Selec-Trac II full-time four-wheel drive system and using low-ratio gear mode gives it the ability to tackle some serious geography.
Also standard on automatic models is Hill Descent Control, while the all-new independent front suspension and new five-link rear suspension are intended to give the Cherokee poise on-road as well as off.
Behind the wheel
The Cherokee on-road is a pleasant surprise.
It is never going to be on a par with an SUV like the X3 for car-like handling, but no longer does it have the performance of a tractor.
It handled long fast sweeping bends with poise and the steering retained enough feel to give you confidence.
The diesel engine has plenty of guts and is actually much quieter and has less vibration than it does when detuned in the Grand Voyager.
The seating is adjustable for an ideal, high vision, comfortable position and with the sun out and the Sky Slider cranked wide open, it’s actually a very pleasant cruiser.
But it’s off-road where the Cherokee really performs.
The suspension soaks up rutted and stony roads with ease, fairly charging across them.
And when it came to hitting hot, soft sand it blasted through it, with the torque of the engine and the tractive ability of the four-wheel drive system keeping you ploughing forward.
When we hit some very large sand dunes, and watched by camels and roaming tribesmen, the Cherokee crested each massive wave like a sandy powerboat. Mightily impressive.
Now I know this sort of talent really won’t mean a whole hill of organic beans when you are driving to Waitrose, but this is the very essence of authenticity that should be so important to a potential Jeep buyer.
The Cherokee looks good, is well-priced and specced, drives decently on-road and devours deserts, making it the best car Jeep makes. It might even persuade some user choosers out of their ‘soft roaders’.
Model: 2.8 CRD
Max Power (bhp/rpm): 177/3,800
Max torque (lb-ft/rpm) : 339/2,000 (manual 302/2,000)
Max speed (mph): n/a
0-62mph (secs): n/a
Fuel consumption (mpg): 30.1 (manual 32.8)
CO2 emissions (g/km): 250 (manual 228)
Price: from £24,595
On sale: May 2008