Walking around a large suburban shopping mall recently – not a regular occurrence, so it was surely Christmas time – I was flabbergasted to come across a Jeep shop, selling everything but Jeeps. I was later relieved that my family had not similarly stumbled across this outlet for all things Jeep-branded because they may have decided such goodies would be the perfect present for the man who has everything he needs. And I really don’t need my jeans to be “rugged” or my hat to be “tough”.
What this observation brought into sharp focus was just how successful Jeep has become as a branding exercise. From the moment I saw the “Yes, Michael, I bought a Jeep” TV commercial and spent the rest of the day whistling Don’t Hold Back, I knew the company’s advertising agency was not only populated by geniuses, they all knelt at the altar of marketing pioneer Elmer Wheeler.
It was the automotively named Wheeler who in the 1930s coined the phrase “Don’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle”, and that remains a guiding principle of advertising to this day. With Jeep, it’s not about selling a Jeep, but the idea of a Jeep. People have been sold on the concept of owning a vehicle that is tough, rugged and can take them anywhere, whenever they like. They may never get around to it, but the concept of being able to escape the rat race at any time is exactly what Jeep is selling.
I’ve yet to discover if our Cherokee long-termer can hack it off-road, but I’m hoping it’s more at home in the forest than in the urban jungle because I’m still battling its (mostly electronic) demons. Notably, a schizophrenic throttle that makes smooth driving almost impossible and a suspension that has passengers reaching for a packet of Quells. I don’t mind a ride on the comfortable side, but I’m questioning if Jeep’s engineers bothered attending the briefing on rebound. A little bit of Australian (or European) tuning would certainly be welcome.
Still, not many people will look past the badge, the shiny trinkets, the comfort and the electronic whiz-bangery. And if you need any convincing of the benefits of that brilliant advertising (plus new product and improving the value equation), Jeep sales in Australia have increased 500 percent in only four years. Remarkable.
So, while this new Cherokee didn’t last long in COTY, the advertising agency that will undoubtedly make it a success (the determinedly lower-case cummins&partners) has in the last year walked off with a number of marketing awards for selling the sizzle rather than the steak. Says it all, really.
STOP SMILING, YOU CLOWN
While our new Cherokee is smooth and comfortable, it makes hard work of almost everything it does, notably including everything electronically controlled. One of the more simple procedures you’d imagine Jeep could get right is the fuel consumption read-out. But it’s consistently optimistic, by as much as 10 percent. So the computer tries to convince you that you’re only using about 10 litres per 100km when in fact it’s closer to 11. Another victory for marketing over substance?
Cursed electronics get in the way of driving
I’D LIKE to think I’m a positive person, though many of my friends and family would suggest I’m perfectly qualified to star in an Australian version of Grumpy Old Men.
The Jeep Cherokee is a good test for looking at the glass half full, and one that’s challenged me from day one. There’s much to criticise – ride quality and throttle response – but there’s also much to like.
For a start, there’s plenty of ‘fruit’ to play with, which makes a freeway cruise more enjoyable. Seat cooling is a welcome feature on a warm day and the sound system pumps the vibes from every corner. I’ve even overcome early frustrations with the iPod connectivity that, as it turns out, resulted from having an original unit. It prompted me to finally update to a new iPod Touch, and now it not only links perfectly, it also displays the album cover. Remember albums?
The soft ride drives me mad much of the time, but it’s great on freeways where the Jeep lopes along comfortably, lapping up the kays. Even the steering feels reasonable at cruising speeds, if a little lifeless.
Not only can the Cherokee’s ‘safety’ systems be turned off, they stay off, even when you next start the car.
I’m not overly fond of the seats, but passengers like them, and there’s plenty of space for rear-seat occupants – even when the driver’s seat automatically slides back when I turn off the ignition.
Adding to the Limited’s equipment list – and therefore its value equation – are the various electronic nannies. It’s just a pity they don’t work very well, in my experience. The lane-keeping assist is a hindrance when I’m trying to place the car for corners, pulling us away from white lines. And the parking sensors slam the brakes on at strange times... like when I’m reversing out of the garage.
Worst of all, though, is the forward collision mitigation system. In theory, it’s a saviour, seeing things and braking if the driver nods off or becomes distracted. In reality, it’s so conservative it intervenes at inappropriate times. One recurring example is when changing lanes and I know the car in front won’t be there by the time we glide past. Hell, one time it braked hard because it detected a car which was parked safely on the outside of a sweeping corner. Thankfully no one was behind me.
These electronic nannies, I’m convinced, need more development, more finesse. They are as simple-minded as our legislators and only know how to dumb things down. The default action is to stop the car, even if it is in the middle of traffic, probably half-way between lanes with cars bearing down.
Thankfully, these systems can be turned off, though it feels wrong to be disabling ‘safety’ features. But honestly, it feels to me like they’re going to cause an accident rather than prevent one.
A software update for our long term Jeep Cherokee saves the day at the 11th hour
WHO would have thought that a scheduled service could be a life-changing experience? Maybe not as dramatic as getting married or having kids, but certainly one that changes the way you experience daily existence.
It all started innocently enough. The dashboard monitor advised it was time to get my Jeep Cherokee seen to. An appointment was made with Chadstone Jeep – conveniently located within walking distance of the office. I dropped the car off and had a quick chat with the service manager about specific requirements. “Nothing big unless you feel inclined to fit a stiffer set of shocks, springs and sway bars.” My morning grumpiness was understandably ignored.
Collecting the car later that day, not being the actual owner, I only half-listened as the service manager explained what had been done to my charge. Two words arrested my general disinterest: “Software upgrade”.
Huh? What was that? “Yes, we performed a reflash on the transmission control module as part of a normal service program... blah blah blah…”
Did you say transmission?
Regular readers will know of my frustration with the transmission programming, which had impacted throttle control in such a way that I described it as bipolar. One moment there was nothing and the next it was manic.
After leaving the service department that day, it was as if the drugs had suddenly started working. Now the throttle was measured, the gears changed more smoothly and when you wanted them to, even accounting for hills and corners. So, just like a modern electronic automatic should.
It was nothing short of miraculous and instantly my attitude to IBR-8GJ changed for the better. I was able to enjoy the meaty and flexible 3.2-litre petrol V6, and the nine-speed auto, even if I never experienced eighth and ninth on my commute.
With nothing more than a quick mating to a laptop computer or something, the Cherokee was suddenly attractive. I even began admiring its previously admonished chrome-embellished bodywork, painted in a metallic blue that reminded me of the much loved Team Penske racing cars of my youth.
Having only a week or two earlier resolved my iPod compatibility problems, I was also happily enjoying the potency of the mighty 506-watt Alpine sound system pumping through nine speakers and a subwoofer, and the ease of use of the Uconnect media centre with its clear (and bigger in Limited spec) 8.4-inch colour touchscreen.
I was also in a better state of mind to appreciate the lovely heating and cooling functions of the soft leather-covered seats, and the automatic high-beam function for the effective projector headlights with auto levelling. Not to mention the electric opening and closing function for the tailgate, accessing a flat-floor cargo area of useful if not cavernous proportions. Even the nervous reverse auto braking stopped bothering me to some degree. I was in some kind of unexpected bliss.
Then a call came through from Jeep HQ. The marketing department – yes, the very people I eulogised just two months ago for making Jeep a brand phenomenon – needed the car. It had to go back, and in just a few days. How could this be? My pumpkin had become a golden coach at the 11th hour, and all of a sudden it was midnight? How cruel.
So that software upgrade will indeed be a life-changing experience, just not for me. And whoever ends up with this Cherokee will probably be none the wiser.