IF YOU CAN GET PAST THE DIESEL’S EXTRA NOISE, YOU’LL LOVE THE JEEP CHEROKEE
America with a taste of Italy: that’s the Jeep Cherokee, especially in its new diesel incarnation.
The Jeep brand is now part of the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) empire. As one of the group’s newest models, the Cherokee embodies the company’s international flavour better than most: it’s based on the so-called Compact US Wide platform co-developed between Fiat and Chrysler. And, while a Cherokee is about American as you can get in terms of mid-size family transport, this diesel version has an engine direct from VM Motori in Italy.
The VM name might be familiar. It’s supplied Jeep diesel engines on and off for many years.
In fact, under what seems to be Fiat’s “if it might be useful, we’ll buy it” policy, Fiat acquired 100 per cent of VM in 2013 and it’s now part of FCA.
The diesel engine option rounds out the Cherokee range nicely. Previously, if you wanted a four-wheel drive Cherokee you had to have the 3.2-litre V6 petrol engine: nice if you like a gurgly sound but potentially thirsty away from an open-road driving environment.
Before the diesel, the only four-cylinder Cherokee model was the Sport, which has a thrifty 2.4-litre petrol powerplant but is available only in front-drive configuration. Nothing wrong with that when this generation of Cherokee is much more of a crossover than any before it; but to so many buyers, Jeep means four-wheel drive and nothing less will do.
So enter the diesel. It’s a high-end model, coming solely in fully loaded Limited specification. It seems to have the right stuff. The diesel motor might be small-capacity in the Cherokee world but it has 34Nm more torque than the V6, while running on virtually half the fuel: 5.8 litres versus 10 litres per 100km. Like all Cherokee models, it has a new nine-speed automatic transmission.
On paper, it looks so good: more pulling power than the V6 and better fuel economy than the four-cylinder petrol.
On the road? There’s definitely appeal in driving diesel, with that surge of lazy torque from low revs and effortless light-throttle overtaking ability. But there is opportunity cost with this engine: it’s very diesely (it’s a technical term). The VM engine brings a truck-like soundtrack and has an adverse effect on noise, vibration and harshness (NVH) levels. Vibration especially, as a good deal of it is transmitted into the cabin through the steering wheel and pedals.
It gets better as road speed increases, but it’s something you’re always aware of.
The diesel clatter is not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it is surprising in an age when so many compression-ignition engines are so refined. There also seems to be an issue with the calibration of the automatic transmission, which sometimes clunks between ratios despite having nine of them to choose from. Actually, it’s really only eight in practical terms: you’ll struggle to get into top gear at the open-road speed limit of 100km/h.
But you cannot argue with the Cherokee diesel’s green credentials. The powertrain not only has stop-start but boasts a feature called rear-axle disconnect, which completely removes drive to the rear wheels during cruising to reduce drag and save fuel.
The diesel powertrain is also designed to be capable off-road: the power transfer unit and gearing are unique to this model and the diesel model has Jeep’s Active Drive II system — second only to the Trailhawk V6’s Active Drive Lock technology for off-road ability.
The diesel is no less capable than its V6 petrol equivalent in terms of on-road cornering prowess, because there’s virtually no weight difference: the diesel is a mere 20kg heavier. That’s not to say it’s a particularly sporty SUV, because it’s still a weighty thing overall at 1854kg.
If there’s one thing the Americans do well, it’s designing superbly practical cabin space — not surprising when Chrysler vies with Renault for bragging rights to having invented the minivan/MPV (the Dodge Caravan and Renault Espace were both launched in 1984).
The Cherokee is packed full of surprise-and-delight features. The glovebox will swallow a tablet or small laptop — a point of difference these days when many can hardly take a handbook — and there’s another generously sized bin, with grippy rubber lining, on top of the centre console. Or perhaps you’d prefer your expensive device in a secret compartment: the passenger-side seat squab tilts forward to reveal another decent-size storage area.
The rear seats slide so you can mix-and-match leg room with cargo space; a good idea in this car, because the boot is small for a mid-sized SUV at just 412 litres.
Don’t expect the same quality of cabin materials you get in the larger Grand Cherokee, although the Cherokee shares some of its big brother’s styling cues and electronic systems. The digital information display in between the main dials is customisable, albeit nowhere near as comprehensively as the Grand’s.
But the Cherokee Limited does get the superb 8.4-inch UConnect touch-screen information and entertainment system, which is great to look at (large, colourful graphics) and laughably easy and intuitive to use.
Features exclusive to the Limited include remote start (you can fire up the engine from outside the vehicle with the keyfob), a unique instrument cluster, Alpine nine-speaker sound system, leather upholstery with seat heating, rear parking assist with autonomous braking and gas-discharge headlights.