Jeep Cherokee takes on the Flinders Range
The latest Jeep Cherokee's ready for anything
The name "Widow Maker" for a four-wheel-drive trial isn't the best to fill you with confidence. Added to that is the fact the South Australian region of Flinders Range had just had the most rain in 14 years.
Taking on the renowned -- and now slippery -- track at Willow Springs station is Jeep's new-look Cherokee that has already courted controversy around the world due to its angular seven-slot grille (see page 9).
While the media launch was last week in Australia, the Cherokee makes its local debut at this week's Fieldays where distributor Fiat Chrysler New Zealand is hoping to impress the rural crowd with the vehicle's off-road abilities.
The Cherokee is available in four petrol models, all paired with the revolutionary nine-speed automatic transmission.
The base model 2.4-litre front-wheel-drive Sport is priced at $44,990 and aimed at urbanites, while the four-wheel-drive Longitude ($54,990), Limited ($61,990) and Trailhawk ($65,990) all sit on 18in alloys and have 3.2-litre, V6 engines producing 200kW/315Nm with a fuel economy figure of 13.9l/100km.
A 2-litre diesel version is expected to be on sale later this year with details closer to launch.
Fiat Chrysler NZ product manager Lance Bennett expects to sell 200 units of the petrol models by the end of this year and 50 units a month in 2015.
He also expects the split to be 50:50 between customer demand for the Limited and Trailhawk models -- a similar trend to overseas.
Competition in New Zealand is the Holden Captiva, Toyota's RAV4, the Mazda CX-5, Nissan's Pathfinder and Hyundai's ix35.
While Bennett is targeting potential buyers from those brands he's also hoping to lure customers from European brands who are after a mid-sized SUV V6 that has plenty of off-road credentials, notably the Trailhawk.
And taking on Widow Maker was the off-road rated Trailhawk that had already ticked off legendary American tracks such as the Rubicon.
Fitted with skid plates to cope with knocks, and a higher ground clearance than the other models, the Trailhawk has Active Drive II to cope with tough off-roading, including low 4WD, hill descent control and modes to cope with different terrain -- such as rock, mud and snow.
Not that we needed to worry about snow at the launch but there were rocks and plenty of mud in the 28,000ha sheep farm 2km north of Wilpena Pound, the overnight venue for the Cherokee launch.
My co-driver took on the Widow Maker -- engaging low 4WD, rear diff lock and pushing the gear lever across to manual to let the hill descent control negotiate the three-storey drop and then incline. With feet off accelerator or brake, he used the gears to dictate the speed of the Cherokee as we inched down the rocky track -- and up the other side. No widow making that day.
I was tasked with taking on Willow Springs' other famous rocky trial, Skytrak. Driving along river beds that 48 hours before had been filled with water, then on greasy rock tracks, I was impressed with the off-road ability of the Trailhawk.
With Bennett as rear seat passenger, we talked about how the average Kiwi owner wouldn't have such tough terrain to navigate, but the Trailhawk was highly proficient -- and half the price of premium-brand SUVs that are as capable of taking on such rough roads.
The day before the Cherokee was on less challenging terrain but equally fraught roads. We had flown from Adelaide to Hawker airfield near Flinders Range to take on the tarmac and gravel public roads in the Sport model.
As afternoon began to turn to dusk we were warned at the press conference that we had to be careful of kangaroos bouncing across the roads -- and that two Aussie colleagues had hit "Skippy" in the previous days.
While the five-star Ancap rated Cherokee has 70 safety features -- rear camera, plus seven airbags -- "avoiding bouncing Aussie locals" wasn't one of them.
But add the $3000 Technology Group package and you'll get blindspot and cross-path detection, forward collision mitigation, lane departure warning, plus parallel and perpendicular park assist with stop.
I did think it was ironic that the 2.4-litre, four-cylinder engine Sport model wasn't really "sporty" as it was on 17in tyres and had only two-wheel drive. But it held the road -- including the gravel open road -- steadily and had solid body roll.
And more importantly -- no kangaroos were hurt in Driven's test of the new Jeep Cherokee.