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
Update two – first service ace
It’s a rarefied life for motoring journos, to be fair – and a life that can miss the harsh realities of the everyday.
Car companies are very happy to roll out freshly washed and vacuumed press fleets, but can occasionally get a bit leery when we ask to take a car into a dealership for a small fix.
Why? Put simply, the company can’t control the outcome. Sounds harsh, but that’s why car companies have press departments…
As it turns out, though, I needed to take our Cherokee back for its first service, and rather than schlep into the Big Smoke, I lobbed into the local Jeep dealership in Wollongong, on the south coast of NSW.
Now even though the affordability chasm between brands like, say, BMW or Mercedes-Benz and Jeep is reasonably wide, the fundamentals of the car dealership don’t change much.
Display car in one corner, a new model in another, a person or two at a row of desks not quite in customer reach typing furiously and some sort of counter arrangement where a customer is required to approach. While the finer points may vary, trust me… they’re all variations on a theme.
My initial contact with the Guardian of the Front Desk is friendly enough, and soon the Cherokee is being examined by a young chap who is courteous and attentive – and honestly, in this day and age, that’s a bloody good result.
I don’t envy the modern retail worker, especially if even a perfunctory glance at Facebook is any guide these days, and for the most part, people are only visiting a service centre to hand over money or to explain a problem that they’re usually not sure how to explain. It can make for a fraught day in the office.
For me, I got straight answers to some deliberately dopey questions, and I got an honest appraisal of how long I’d need to wait.
A quick text from the Guardian duly arrived about five minutes after the agreed-upon time, and after a quick chat about the aforementioned display car - a beautiful old Subaru Brumby – I’m on my way again.
Jeep has repeatedly told us this year that its new boss Kevin Flynn – a veteran of the car game and a petrolhead to boot – is here to fix the issues that Jeep owners have complained about for years.
Expensive parts? Price cuts across the thousands of product lines. Unsolvable problems at a retail level? A ‘flying doctor’ squad of techs who can be dispatched to get things on the right path again.
As well, no matter how old your Jeep is or how many services you have skipped, return to service your Jeep at an authorised dealership, and you'll get an additional 12 months roadside assistance and can continue to do this for the lifetime of the vehicle.
Let's be honest... Jeep has built a rod for its own back when it comes to its customer base past, present and future, so it needs to tick every box it can tick to ensure that it can entice buyer back into the fold.
Dealerships will play a big part in that transformation, and on first blush, it seems as if the changes are taking effect.
Kilometres travelled 827km/2072km total
Fuel economy (actual) 9.7L/100km
Update three – Empty Esky to the rescue
At home, we’re surrounded by bushland. We’re pretty lucky, all things considered, to be able to take in a vista of rustling bushes and swaying trees rather than Colourbond fencing and grey roof tiles.
Over the last couple of years, though, that view feels as if it could come at a cost. In 2019, particularly, NSW’s bushfire fields – while still a good 25km away at the closest point – closed us in on three sides, with day after day of dense smoke blanketing the skies.
That bush suddenly looks pretty damn flammable, so much so that we’ve got our evac plans in place should we need to beat a hasty retreat. And we're in suburbia!
Of course, a lot of people lost an awful lot in 2019 and in the years preceding, while the double punch of COVID-19 has hurt a lot of small businesses in our neck of the woods throughout the curse that is 2020.
Several operations have sprung up to try and bring relief to these businesses, and there have been some amazing tales of generosity from the wider community.
One such operation is called Empty Esky, and the premise is a simple one; hit the road, take a wallet, buy some stuff from local stores.
“Empty Esky is a national tourism movement of foodies and adventurers on a mission to support small businesses affected by the Australian fires,” said Eleanor Baillieu and Erin Boutros, the co-founders of Empty Esky.
“Regional small businesses in Australia have really done it tough this year, but it’s been incredible to see the Aussie spirit shine through to support some of our hardest-hit areas.
“The fires have had devastating effects on not only the environment, communities, animals and human life but also on the local economy and peoples’ livelihoods.
Run as a not-for-profit on a volunteer basis, Empty Esky’s site offers a brace of connections with locally owned cafes, restaurants and even homewares stores on its site… which proved the basis for my cunning plan.
I’ve taken the Cherokee to Tathra before, and the chance to return – this time with the family in tow – is too good to pass up.
This time, instead of a single body and a bike, the Cherokee is loaded with my wife and I, as well as our 14-year-old daughter and a brace of bags. The bike will have to hang off the back.
It’s not my first rodeo with towbar-mounted racks, but the plan nearly came unstuck at the first hurdle, thanks to an insanely tightly torqued factory towball.
Initially, I thought I could quickly swap out the towbar’s square hitch for another, but the shallow depth of the Jeep’s mounting thwarted that idea. Carmakers… can we please make all this junk more standard?
I eventually prised the factory unit apart, bodged in a number plate mockup and got everything set to go… only to find that the Cherokee’s rear cross-traffic alert system was not at all happy with a bicycle mounted on the back, squealing indignantly and activating the brakes whenever reverse was engaged.
The system can be turned off at the touch button and the reversing camera works fine, but the sensors do not, making reversing a bit more of a challenge.
Usually, a trip to Tathra takes about five hours, but we manage to extend that to almost eight by indulging ourselves with stops in Berry, Narooma and Mogo, taking the opportunity to load up on all sorts of stuff. Mostly chocolate, cheese and wine, if I’m being honest.
Between grub, gifts and grog, I reckon we left our fair share of dollars in the local’s pockets, and I reckon that, with the COVID thing looking like it’s (knock on wood) at a level we can deal with, the chance to fill your own Empty Esky this summer looks good.
As with the previous run down the coast, the Cherokee’s larger engine and well-resolved ride/handling combo mean it’s a great companion on a long journey. Our rear-seat rider was perfectly content even on longer stints, too, even though the Cherokee isn’t as generous with its interior space as others in the category.
A fuel consumption score of 9.5L/100km over 524km isn’t shabby, either.
The gearbox is still a bit of an Achilles heel for mine, though – it just feels like there’s a ratio or two too many to choose from, and the software gets caught on the hop picking the right one for the right moment.
It’s most obvious when shuffling back a couple of cogs to deal with an incline and there’s a bit of load on the drivetrain; it’s possible to lightly lift the throttle when you feel it which can smooth it out – but it doesn’t always work.
Otherwise, it’s another clean bill of health for the Cherokee. We’re into our last stint with the car this month, so we’ll try and find some real dirt to play in.
Kilometres travelled 983km/3055km total
Fuel economy (actual) 9.7L/100km