Jeep is a brand renowned for its offroad performance, but what about as a tow vehicle?
Offroaders: they don't make them like they used to. Well, most companies don't. Even Jeep, a brand legendary for its hard-core offroad vehicles, has flirted with the crossover concept in the past few years through road-car-based models like Patriot, which look tough but are designed for the sealed stuff.
But the heart and soul of the Jeep brand still lies in proper offroad wagons. So despite its compact size, don't mistake the Cherokee for a soft-roader. With prices starting at $46,990, it might compete with popular crossover models like the Hyundai ix35 and Toyota RAV4, but the Cherokee is designed to go places that would tear crossover vehicles to pieces.
The features that make the Cherokee such a great offroader also make it a tempting tow-vehicle prospect: strong ladder-chassis construction, an effective selectable four-wheel drive system and a high seating position with good all-round visibility. Yes, it's tough: a tow rating of 2270kg is certainly impressive for a vehicle of this size.
The four-wheel drive system is old-school in some respects. It's rear-drive only for road use, although you can shift it electronically into high-range four-wheel drive (normal torque split 35/65) or employ the low-range transfer case for heavy-duty work.
The front suspension is all-independent, but the rear boasts a five-link solid axle for maximum articulation and strength in off-road conditions.
We drove the Cherokee in entry level Sport guise, with a 3.7-litre V6 petrol engine. But you can also spend an extra $5000 and go for the blinged-up Limited, which has chrome covering the seven-bar grille and leather in the cabin. Or yet another $5000 buys you the 2.8-litre turbo diesel, which is surely the sensible alternative to the relatively thirsty and breathless V6 petrol.
But by that stage, with the extra equipment and diesel engine, which is certainly not the most refined of its type, you've spent $56,990 and taken the Cherokee into a whole new price bracket. By comparison, the Sport petrol represents great value for a proper offroader with great credentials and a famous badge.
And while the 3.7-litre mill isn't strong on power, the recent addition of a six-speed automatic gearbox has improved the Cherokee's driveability significantly. Buyers seem to agree – while diesel is well-accepted for off-road/crossover vehicles in New Zealand, local sales of Cherokee are still biased towards the petrol powertrain.
There's a reason why most family oriented wagons are crossovers, based on road-car platforms: handling and comfort. There's no way a rugged chassis and rigid rear axle can provide steering and ride characteristics as good as a conventional passenger car, and that's the opportunity cost with the Cherokee.
Suspension revisions to the latest model have improved the Jeep, but the handling is still nowhere near as precise as the likes of a RAV4 and there's an ever-present level of bounce in the chassis (particularly from the rear, over urban undulations) that inhibits the Cherokee's long-haul comfort.
The Cherokee's all-new interior (the model was upgraded in late-2009) is nicely styled and pleasingly functional, but the lower standards of fit and finish we've come to expect from Jeep are still evident in this model. Hey, it's an American thing. Ditto for the packaging: the rear seat is upright and a little cramped, while the luggage space is modest. But love the reversible cargo floor, which can be flipped over onto a plastic backing to hold muddy or wet gear.
See the Jeep Cherokee for sale.