Update 1: Escape from Victoria
It seems like such a good idea at the time… drive to Melbourne from Sydney to swap long-term cars, say hi to the rest of the team and drive home again.
I drove out of Melbourne with ‘my’ new Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk about a day and a half before it all went to poop again…
Jeep’s mid-sized Cherokee SUV has had, it’s fair to say, a bit of a chequered career thus far. Launched locally in 2015 to… umm… a lukewarm response to its challenging visage, let’s say, it’s never really resonated with buyers enamoured with the likes of Mazda’s CX-5 and the evergreen Toyota RAV4.
Part of the issue is the reasonably obvious disparity between these three cars. The CX-5 trades on its driveway appeal and ease of use, while Toyota’s unassailable reputation with generations of buyers has worked hand-in-hand with a top-notch new version.
This is the updated version of the Cherokee, such as it is. It was made over a couple of years back to soften the ill-advised grille treatment, while the variant line-up was tidied up earlier this year.
I’ve got the top-spec Trailhawk, Jeep’s self-rated offroad-ready version of the Cherokee that complements the Wrangler and Grand Cherokee Trailhawks.
Complete with a proper low-range 4x4 drivetrain hooked up to a 200kW, 312Nm 3.2-litre V6 petrol engine, its triple-diff 4x4drivetrain also includes a low-range transfer case, the ability to lock all three diffs, hill ascent and descent control, taller suspension, unique bumpers and underbody skid plates.
It also has offroad-spec rims and leather/cloth seats with heating and venting, 18-inch rims, a large 8.4-inch multimedia system with sat-nav and smartphone mirroring, and a colour screen between the dash dials and automatic parking.
Our Diamond Black tester has a Premium package of kit included, which includes adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, auto high beam headlamp control, black leather upholstery with red accent stitch, two-position seating memory and fore/aft adjustable second-row seat backs.
It adds $2850 to the base price of $48,450, and a premium paint surcharge of $645 brings it up to $52,045 before on-roads.
That price point also punts it a grand clear of the dearest AWD petrol-powered CX-5 and a not-inconsiderable eight grand above the most expensive RAV4.
So, what’s the hook? Jeep will tell you –and it has a point – that the Cherokee’s robust drivetrain is pretty unique in the medium-sized SUV space.
Land Rover’s Discovery Sport is similarly equipped, but its price of entry starts with a six. The V6 petrol engine, too, is becoming a scarcer commodity, and what it loses in economy it makes up for in smoothness and alacrity.
Do you need a petrol-powered medium SUV with a dual-range transfer case, a locking rear diff and 2200kg towing ability? They say there’s a car for everyone…
I’m going to use this car like it’s not mine, because I know there are plenty of you out there who question Jeep’s reputation for reliability and durability.
And this thing is supposed to be built Tonka tough, so let’s prove that theory by towing stuff, slinging dirty mountain bikes in and out of it and putting some decent kilometres on it (as far as we can in this ever-changing world, at least).
My wiggly route home from Melbourne put just over 1000km on the Trailhawk’s odo, and included a variety of surfaces and road conditions, as well as a bit of elementary dirt work… just to get a feel, you understand.
My Norco Optic slides into the cargo area, but only with the front wheel removed; plenty of other medium SUVs will swallow my large MTB wheels-on, so that’s a bit annoying.
There is a lot of plastic trim back there, which should weather a torrent of mud and crud a bit better, and kudos for the trim protection around the tailgate, too. That huge speak enclosure eats into the cargo room a bit, though.
I wish the leather seat could be lowered further and the seat base is a little short and narrow, but the rest of the driving position is pretty spot-on – except for one glaring oversight.
The switch to right-hand-drive overlooked one crucial element; a place for the driver’s left foot. A bulbous transmission tunnel exacerbates the omission. You learn to live with it, but it’s not ideal.
Cruising at the state limit is comfortable and surprisingly quiet, with the tractable V6 giving the relatively small Cherokee a bit of genuine zip.
The only transmission option is a ZF nine-speed auto, which for the most part plays nicely with the engine – though there are moments when downshifting at moderate speeds where there feels like there’s a brief conflict between which ratio should be the next to be engaged.
It'll be interesting to see how the relationship develops - the ZF nine-speeder yielded more than its share of gremlins when it launched with the Cherokee and Renegade back in 2015, but you'd hope those bugs have been well and truly ironed out in 2020.
On-road handling is surprisingly good; the Yokohama GeoLandar tyres hang on well, the four-link rear end provides decent feel and the steering, while light, is decently feelsome… and not just for an SUV.
Brake feel and modulation, too, is excellent, and something I really appreciate in a car.
To get some mud under the tyres, it’s simply a matter of selecting a suitable terrain map with a rotary dial. I traversed a moderately tricky forestry road for photography purposes and the Cherokee just yawned a bit.
I’m eyeing a steep track not far from our place that will certainly give the Trail Rated brand a go, though. And it might be a great tool to access some mountain bike trails I’m too lazy to climb. Honey? What are you doing this Saturday?
Kilometres travelled 1255km
Fuel economy (actual) 9.8L/100km