Principally, that’s because the sector started from such a low point a few years ago. With each incarnation, engineers are finally getting the hang of controlling the forces acting on these pendulous big metal boxes.
And the latest to enter the market is the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which should have the advantage of coming from the land of the SUV, the USA. So if anybody knows how to build one, it must be them.
But as has been proved from pizza toppings to wars, American tastes vary markedly from European, and this translates into cars as well.
The plus point of the old Grand Cherokee was that it was well-specced for the price, as is the American way.
But the old adage ‘you get what you pay for’ never rung more true, because while it might have been cheap, it was as easy to pilot in a straight line as pushing a drunk on a skateboard with a broom. And the interior quality wasn’t up to much, while the engines were either thirsty – in the case of the petrol – or noisy and slow in the diesel.
With the new car, Jeep says it can compete with the Eurochic pack from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Land Rover.
It claims better on-road handling alongside its famed ability on the rough and tumble, a more stylish cabin and better engines. It retains its macho looks, although whether it’s more attractive than its predecessor is a matter of opinion. The rounded lights and curvy bonnet seem at odds with the straight-edged, vault-like rear end.
One big issue is that some of the interior build and materials in the new Grand Cherokee are nothing short of dire. Apparently, Americans put much less value on cabin materials and fit and finish than we fussy Europeans, but if the Grand Cherokee is anything to go by, the US now languishes behind Europe, Japan and Korea in terms of quality.
Of particular note were the wobbly handbrake lever, the ignition barrel housing seemingly made from an upturned yoghurt pot and the way the hard plastic surfaces seem to echo if you rap them with your knuckles.
At least the seats have been changed. The sales philosophy in America is that you have big, squashy armchairs that feel great to sit on in the dealership. Unfortunately, out on long journeys they get pretty uncomfortable and the occupants roll around a lot.
So Jeep has gone for the European approach of firmness and they are a lote more comfortable and supportive as a result.
The new model is 145mm longer, 12mm wider and has a 90mm longer wheelbase, and there is a lot more interior space. Jeep didn’t want to go down the route of massively enlarging this car over the old one, and in the current market of sub-three-tonne megaliths like the Land Rover Discovery it actually feels quite compact, which is no bad thing.
The front suspension has joined the 21st century and is now an independent set up. But such is the weight of opinion in the States that the Grand Cherokee still comes with an old-fashioned live rear axle at the back.
An engineer admitted that when Jeep aficionados in the US heard it might be going with independent suspension all-round he got threatening letters.
Jeep expects to sell 4,500 Grand Cherokees in the UK, with 85% of them likely to be the diesel and the majority of them paid for with company money – either within a fleet or with opt-out cash.
There are two other rather more greedy engines which obviously are suited for the American market – a 4.7-litre V8 and a positively gluttonous 5.7-litre ‘Hemi’.
Some of the 5.7-litre’s profligacy is tempered by a system which shuts down half the cylinders if they are not needed, such as in city driving, but find an open road and floor it and all the cylinders blast back into life with the resulting scary fuel consumption of well under 20mpg.
Anyone not choosing the 27mpg diesel needs their wallet examining – it must be very deep, and there must be oil at the bottom of it.
Prices start at £29,495 on-the-road for the 3.0-litre CRD, rising to £37,995 for the 5.7-litre Hemi Limited. Both petrol engines come only in Limited spec, which is well specified: only privacy glass and sunroof are not fitted as standard on the 5.7-litre.
Behind the wheel
IT is good to see that much of the instability and the truffle-hunting nose has been eradicated and the Grand Cherokee feels a lot more bolted to the road. Turn into a corner and the wheels actually follow the command of the steering rather than approximating it, then requiring a couple more turns.
Much of that is down to the fact that the steering system is now rack and pinion rather than the old-fashioned recirculating ball kit it had before.
However, the rear doesn’t feel quite as steadfast and on an uneven road surface will still hop and skip about. It means the Grand Cherokee is still one of the worst of the major brand SUVs to drive on a road. But it’s happy enough when cruising and that will be more than enough for most.
Off-road is where the Grand Cherokee shows its real expertise. Much has been made of the fact that the car has adopted many of the modern engineering solutions, but behind the fancy electronics and techy drive systems, there’s still a workmanlike, beefy steel skeleton which has been proven to work by decades of driving Jeeps into all sorts of fraught situations they should never have got out of, but did.
Jeep engineers are proud of the fact that electronics are a useful aid, but the vehicle’s inherent strength and girder-like integrity is still its trump card for serious off-roading.
Comparing off-roaders in isolation is difficult because of the different levels of grip and variable conditions, but on the fairly difficult, muddy and wet sections we encountered, the Grand Cherokee, and its excellent Quadra-Drive II system, breezed through it, albeit on slightly more nobbly tyres than the slicker versions on road test cars.
It uses three limited slip differentials – front, middle and rear – so that 100% of torque can be sent to any one wheel if it detects wheels losing grip. A demonstration hauling the two tonne-plus Jeep using just one wheel was certainly an impressive vindication of the system.
Jeep is right up at the front with its diesel engine. It has sourced the unit and automatic gearbox from DaimlerChrysler and, instead of being the offload nobody else wants, it is the latest variant that is finding its way into various Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, including the new M-class.
There’s absolutely no reason to choose either of the petrol cars – the 3.0-litre CRD is perfectly quick enough, quiet enough and smooth enough to be the default choice.
THERE is still a slightly agricultural air to the Grand Cherokee when compared to some of its slicker rivals. But there’s a reason for that – it’s designed for more than carting shopping about and in diesel form looks a good-value SUV.
|Model:||3.0 CRD||4.7 V6||5.7 HEMI|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||218/4,000||231/4,500||326/5,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||376/1,600||302/3,600||369/4,000|
|Max speed (mph):||124||124||129|
|Comb fuel consumption (mpg):||27.7||19.0||18.8|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||270||352||366|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal):||78/17||78/17||78/17|