The rules have changed. Once big was better; now it’s not. Like Ford and GM, Chrysler isn’t doing well in its largest market, the US, and we all know it. Worse, it’s tarred with the American brush; yank tanks are big, brash, fuel-guzzling eco-death-mobiles.
What NZ’s Chrysler bods are struggling with is how to get the news across that not all US cars are dipsomaniacs, and that in its overseas markets Chrysler is doing well – up 4% internationally, 18% here and across the Tasman. That the company is sufficiently cash-rich to survive as it repositions. That there’s cautious optimism for the future despite its concentration on large vehicles in an increasingly small-car climate. And that if you want a Chrysler – or Jeep, or Dodge – you can have one in a relatively frugal package, for almost every model has its diesel variant.
To rub that in, we motor noters were delivered to the launch of the latest Jeep Cherokee down an avenue of diesel Dodges, Jeeps and Chryslers. It’s an impressive line-up, with 12 diesels from three marques under one banner. Only two variants are petrol-only, and that will change by year-end.
Of course even a diesel SUV isn’t as frugal as any petrol-sipping mini car. But a city-mobile won’t go off road or carry the family, and these Cherokees will do both.
This is the third generation. The first launched in the US in 1984, waiting until 1996 to land in NZ. It was replaced in 2001 with a sleeker model; now this latest version revisits the boxier lines of the original.
There are two variants, the entry-level $46,990 Sport with the 3.7-litre V6 petrol engine, and the Limited, in both petrol and 2.8-litre turbo-diesel form.
The price-leading Sport offers alloy wheels, ABS brakes, ESP stability control and roll mitigation tech as standard, along with six airbags. The Limited, naturally, adds more – including a Bluetooth-compatible hands-free phone system.
This Cherokee is considerably altered. It’s bigger, which allowed the fuel tank to move forward where its between-the-axles position improves both weight balance and impact safety.
The petrol engine has been tweaked for a touch more power and a more frugal 11.7l/100km thirst, not bad for a big SUV. Mind you Chrysler concentrated on the diesel, which gets a 60Nm boost in torque and uses over half a litre less fuel per 100km, at 9.4l/100km.
But forget the sensible stuff – let’s get dirty. Cherokee is still impressive off-road, if marginally compromised by a lower ride height. Changing from two to four-paw or low range is idiot-proof; just flick a switch to make relevant alterations to gearing, engine management and stability control.
This Cherokee retains Jeep’s excellent Selec-Trac II system that continuously redistributes power; if it all turns to custard and only one wheel’s got grip, you still have forward motion.
Take a Cherokee over slippery grass, rocks or – as we did after one very wet week – up and down steep, muddy ruts and you’ll find that even on road tyres, you can retain control: it’s incredibly confidence-inspiring.
Our test route – in intermittent rain and flashes of blindingly low winter sun – was a tricky one across steep central-plateau bush. Slick slopes clawed the sides of gut-clenching drop-offs; slippery chutes threaded through all-too-solid trees. Yet these things got through – and I’m not yet big-headed enough to think that was thanks to any skill of mine.
So yes, Cherokee remains impressive off road. Yet when the sun finally sank and we turned our mud-splattered and weary band eastwards toward the hotel bar, the Cherokee’s other talents emerged. It’s still comfy on road. Drive briskly and it feels like a truck not a car, but it’s a road-friendly truck that’s a comfy place to be. Unless you’re a short driver, when the lack of steering wheel reach adjust and the fractionally too-high seat may still annoy.
Perhaps not enough to put you off, though – especially if you like this Jeep’s style. Families will also approve stuff like the 20-litre boot increase, and the reversible carpet-plastic boot floor; while mum or dad could use the front’s folding passenger seat as a handy plastic-backed desk (it’s easy-wipe if junior leaves footprints on its back, too).
Options? Quite a few, the most impressive the $3500 MyGig entertainment system, with its generous memory and touch screen, not to mention the $3750 sky-slider roof option – in ribbed fabric for security, noise control, and greater Jeep-cred.
But there’s no more time to play. It’s back to the airport, now in the latest Voyager. This impressive MPV offers a truly capacious features list that even delivers different entertainment in each row – mum can listen to music, row two watch a movie and row three play a game, via DVD screens popping from the roof. We watched ‘Transformers’ – which really needed a bigger screen, but showcased the wireless headphones and multi-speaker surround sound to heart-stopping effect.
This Voyager is bigger and better than before, and though it still looks like a van with a Chrysler nose, and no MPV handles like a sports car, it could be billed as the ultimate in large-family transport. Priced at $74,990, it’s available as a 3.8-litre V6 petrol until September, when the diesel arrives.
Whatever happens, few Voyagers will sell here; it’s aimed at a tightly-targeted market. Which begs the question, can Chrysler survive as buyers downsize? I’d guess yes. Historically initial downsizing panics stabilise as some buyers realise they actually need a larger car, and others adjust their cost-pleasure equations.
The Voyager will always be a niche product in any market that equates driving an MPV to watching paint dry. But Jeep’s iconic image, its ability to provide both family and adventure motoring in a country that values both, and a strong diesel motor that does offer grunt without too large a payoff at the pump, should see it driving our roads for many years to come.