Jeep Cherokee Sport 2.4

I’m standing on the petrol station forecourt, puzzling over why I can’t get the pump’s nozzle to fit in the Cherokee’s fuel filler. I’ve tried inserting it at various angles. I’ve tried gentle coercion. But it seems that the Jeep’s filler neck is just too narrow. I check I’m using the right pump – yup, diesel.

Ah. Maybe it isn’t diesel after all.

I’ve just collected our test vehicle, but didn’t have time for the usual intro routine. In fact, I didn’t even know what model I would be given so I’d assumed, because of the manual gearbox and the clatter coming from the engine bay, that I’d been given a diesel. Turns out, after a flick through the handbook, that it’s a 2.4-litre petrol. It’s not a good start.

The previous generation Cherokee was in production for 18 years, and spearheaded Jeep’s introduction into the UK in 1993. At the time, it was a breath of fresh air, with its unabashed American styling and high spec levels. Buyers couldn’t get enough of ’em, and second hand examples were selling at auction for more than the sticker price.

However, as the years progressed the market changed, and began to favour 4x4s with a softer edge and a greater slant towards on-road comfort. While rival manufacturers introduced new models in an effort to keep up, the good ol’ Cherokee was left behind.

When the new Cherokee (code-named KJ, and known as the Liberty in its native US market) was launched in 2001, Jeep enthusiasts around the world were incensed. In an effort to bestow the new Cherry with respectable on-road manners, Jeep had developed an independent front suspension layout that broke with the brand’s long tradition of using solid axles. The Jeep faithful felt that this set up would compromise the new model’s off-road abilities and signalled the beginning of the end for the other models in Jeep’s line-up.

On the other hand, the Cherokee’s target market, busy playing with rivals from Nissan, Honda and Toyota, felt the KJ didn’t go far enough to satisfy their largely on-road needs.

So that leaves the Cherokee perched in some bizarre no-man’s land: the enthusiasts feel it’s too soft and dilutes the brand’s values, while the target market believes it’s outdated and crude.

So what do we think?

Well, it’s not a good start to have a petrol engine that sounds like a diesel. The 2.4-litre unit gasps out 145bhp and 159lb/ft of torque at a heady 4,000rpm – not ideal characteristics for an off-roader. On the road, it wheezes its way to 60mph in a touch under 14 seconds, and loses the will to live at 108mph.

Much of our test took place in the New Forest, and the Cherokee had trouble climbing a few of the steeper hills on our test route. The five-speed manual gearbox doesn’t particularly want to help you out, and the long gear stick spends most of its time feeling like a knitting needle poked into a sponge.

Four wheel-drive is provided by Jeep’s Command-Trac system, also used in the Wrangler. It’s a part-time system, offering rear wheel-drive for on-road use and high- and low-ratio 4wd settings for off-road use only. As 99% of owners will never venture off-road, that means the primary reason for buying a 4×4 (having four wheel-drive for additional on-road traction in slippery conditions) isn’t catered for by the Cherokee Sport.

Off-road, it’s more useful. Command-Trac is low-tech and uncomplicated compared to today’s modern torque-sensing systems, and with no centre differential torque is split 50/50 between front and rear axles (hence why the 4wd modes cannot be used on-road). A limited-slip device in the rear solid axle helps stop power spinning away, and with low-range selected the ECU recalibrates the throttle sensitivity to make progress easier.

Ground clearance is slightly better than our SUV favourite, the Subaru Forester, and better still than the Freelander, although it’s worth remembering that the Cherokee was lowered during its second year of production to alleviate driveline vibration problems. It doesn’t disgrace itself in the gloop, and is quite capable of upholding the Jeep image, but won’t trouble a Defender or Wrangler.

Behind the wheel, there’s a sense the dashboard has been designed with European tastes in mind – or, at least, an American view of what European tastes are. The dashboard fascia feels like it’s constructed from hard but thin plastic, although the ‘technical’ finish it’s been given is interesting. The flat design means the controls on the centre console end up a long way from the driver’s reach – you’ll need to stretch to adjust the temperature or change radio stations.

The switchgear is standard Chrysler fare – anyone who’s been in a Grand Cherokee, Voyager or Neon will recognise the stereo, heater controls and column-mounted stalks. The ‘aluminium-effect’ surround to the centre console and electric window switches on some models is a little tacky. The overall effect is hard to place: it’s neither European or American, but a strange, plastic middle ground.

The pedal box didn’t have a happy conversion to right hand-drive, unfortunately, and the transmission tunnel intrudes into the footwell leaving your left foot homeless when it’s not operating the clutch.

Access to the rear is tricky, too. The Cherokee has quite possibly the smallest rear doors of any car made today. A portion of the rear wheelarch moulding is attached to the door in an attempt to make things easier, but it’s still a struggle. Things aren’t too bad once installed, however.

Cargo space is surprising: 821 litres with the seats up and an incredible 1,954 litres with the seats folded (an easy process, too). The split tailgate operates in a two-stage fashion, with the upper glass portion swinging up while the (heavy) tailgate swings to the left. On a RHD vehicle, this is the wrong way round, and can make loading at the kerbside difficult.

On the road, the Jeep feels a little uneasy. The tall shape no doubt doesn’t help its stability, both in terms of centre-of-gravity and resistance to side-winds, but there’s a nervous and unmatched quality to its ride. The front suspension yomps into road dips and generally feels surprised by the vehicle’s weight. There’s plenty of understeer to prevent you from developing any sporting aspirations and, despite having rack-and-pinion steering – a first for Jeep – there’s little in the way of feedback. The wheel only adjusts for height, too.

Where the Cherokee does well, however, is as a tug vehicle. All manner of horseyness up to 2,500kg can be yanked along, although we’d really recommend one of the diesel models to preserve your sanity and that of the hundreds of fellow motorists stuck behind you.

The Jeep Cherokee Sport 2.4 is priced at £17,995, which includes ABS, remote central locking, two airbags, electric windows, electric mirrors, air conditioning, six-speaker CD player and, err… steel wheels. That makes it decent value for money, especially now that Jeep are a running a £1,000 cashback promotion, but economy isn’t great, at 25.7mpg on the combined cycle (we couldn’t beat 20mpg), and neither are emissions: 260 g/km.

It must have been hard for Jeep to come up with a worthy successor to the previous Cherokee. After 18 years, it had built up quite a loyal following, but at the same time the SUV market had moved on, and demanded more in the way of comfort. In the end, the Jeep Cherokee feels like it’s fallen uncomfortably between the two camps. It’s surprisingly good off-road but not hardcore enough for the Jeep enthusiasts. And it’s still a touch too crude for the new breed of 4×4 customers. If only it had a greater air of Americana about it to fall back on, it could be forgiven many of its shortcomings.