All Star Quarterback

Here the in the UK as in much of the world we love us some off-road vehicles – admittedly they are as unlikely to see any off-road action as anybody from Geordie Shore getting a degree in something else than douchebaggery (which may or may not be offered at some far flung university in the North), but nevertheless we enjoy sitting up high and the chunky looks which they afford over other forms of family transport. One manufacturer which has defied the odds in recent years to become a British success story has been Land Rover; as a manufacturer of solely vehicles designed to be capable off-road there was a danger in the mid 00’s that the economic downturn and pressure on emissions would mean that SUV sales may dry up, especially for terminally unreliable Land Rover. However the demand for SUV’s continued to grow, and Land Rover has continued to overhaul it’s range of vehicles including launching smaller, more fuel efficient models too.

The Evoque is a good example of a modern Land Rover product and is bought up in droves by those after the badge

As a home grown manufacturer with desirable models it is no surprise that Land Rover sells masses of vehicles here – nearly 83k in 2014 alone which was up 7% on the year before, but what was surprising for me is that this figure is a decent chunk more than sales in North America, a market whose population and lust for SUV’s vastly outreaches our island nation. Total sales of 381,108 (up 9%) are still good though, especially as the key Discovery Sport has only just launched and is starting to hit dealers, plus with a new Defender and full-size Discovery on the horizon it seems certain that Land Rover’s sales will continue to climb.

Jeep’s Cherokee is another controversially style vehicle of a similar size – it sells in much smaller numbers in the UK but in the USA it’s the brand’s second best seller.

For many years of it’s existence Land Rover only had one proper rival – a cocky American whose brash and slightly hap handed approach did not earn it the respect or image of Land Rover’s products on this side of the Atlantic. Despite actually having inspired the very first Land Rover, years of changes in ownership plus a failure to invest in what have been arguably inspired and iconic product lines meant that on a global scale Jeep never really made it’s presence known, although North American sales have always been typically strong. Last year in the UK Jeep sold just under 4k vehicles, a mere 10% of total European sales but actually a massive 75% up from 2013 thanks to new product lines like an updated Cherokee and ‘baby’ Compass.  But if you look at Jeep’s global sales you will see that they actually sold 1.02 million vehicles – up 39% on the year before and nearly 3x the number which Land Rover managed to achieve in their similarly ‘best ever’ year. Even as recently as 2008 Jeep were selling half this number and it is still yet to update it’s all-important small crossover models, which will guarantee more sales both in the U.S. but especially Europe.

The Grand Cherokee is Jeep’s breadwinner, and a handsome one at that!

Perhaps not surprisingly, Jeep’s top selling vehicle is neither the unusually styled new Cherokee or off-road focused Wrangler (although both still sold over 230k each in 2014), but rather their handsome and well respected flagship vehicle Grand Cherokee. Launched back in 1992, the GC has long been a strong seller and a stalwart feature of US roads since the beginning thanks to chunky styling and relatively car-like handling. One of the first unibody crossovers (and one which has always retained impressive off-road talents), for a while the Jeep was considered a model to rival the big-daddy original Range Rover, even over here in the UK where early models were shipped in LHD and with thirsty V8 engines to meet demand from buyers – RHD models and noisy diesels followed a year or so after.

Jeep launched the original GC in 1992 and was an immediate hit, even in the UK

Early on in my blogging history I wrote a post about the previous (WK) Grand Cherokee and how I was considering one as my next vehicle; throughout my entire search the Jeep came across as ranking extremely high in the value stakes (equipment levels were normally very high and prices were around a third lower compared to the X5), but I had reservations about running costs and interior quality, plus I have always hated those bloody ‘double bubble’ headlamps which Jeep insisted on adding when every other detail on the car was drawn with a ruler – it was so off putting that I never even bothered to sample one with it’s Mercedes derived diesel. I see a fair amount of this model on the road though, so they must have sold pretty well in the UK.

The 2005-11 Grand Cherokee sold well but had headlights which looked like a spider

The current generation car though is a much changed beast and is arguably the vehicle which has helped transform Jeep into the money spinner it is today; launched in 2011 it was the result of the last joint project between Daimler and Chrysler, meaning it had the same underpinnings as the Mercedes ML and it’s larger GL brother. The Grand Cherokee also had a larger sibling in the form of a new Dodge Durango which had to make do with a less impressive badge and interior design, but gained a pair of seats to offer a more practical alternative for larger families. A substantial facelift in 2013 brought a large number of changes both outside and inside, curing much of what had been criticised about the original version – it is this version which I am beginning to see more of on UK roads and if I’m honest it is emerging as a strong contender in the far away race for my next vehicle.

Pre-facelift ‘WK2’ models are very smart looking but I prefer the cars with updated headlights (see the images up and down)

On the outside is probably the biggest reason why many people are attracted to SUV’s and the Grand Cherokee is no exception. The chunky shape remains roughly the same when compared to previous generations of the car, but the front lights and grille are a lot more aggressive than before – the pre-facelift car has relatively generic lights but in models 2013 and on they gain distinctive LED running lights and a more angular shape. Around back things are still a little boring and if I’m honest could belong to any American SUV this side of a Chevrolet Equinox, but again the 2013 facelift at least got rid of the chrome strip between the rear lights, and wheel designs have always been perfect for a car of this type – not too fussy and large enough to seem chunky but able to avoid humongous tyre bills. As somebody who always used to admire the first two generations of GC, this generation is a clear modern interpretation of what was always a handsome beast.

Lots of plastic but the massive screen and user friendly interfaces are near the top of the class

It’s inside though that arguably the greatest progress has been made; previous Jeeps in general have always fallen well short of European rivals (even those from Land Rover), and whilst the last generation Grand Cherokee was at least relatively modern in terms of layout and infotainment system on the whole it ranked far behind similarly priced vehicles. The new car changes all that with a much better set of controls and a quality of plastics which steps up a good few notches at the least. Chrysler’s UConnect system is a lot less flashy than some comparable systems even compared to US market Fords and GM vehicles, but it has usability on it’s side and apparently ranks alongside the likes of BMW’s iDrive in terms of user friendliness (a dubious compliment for some I know) – essentially it’s a near classing leading system with the largest touchscreen this side of the new Volvo XC90. Also interesting in the facelifted GC is the new driver information centre – another large LCD this time in the instrument cluster and is user configurable. It’s not a full LCD system like the aforementioned Volvo or Land Rover’s vehicles, but the graphics are quite impressive and to my mind looks more impressive than BMW and Mercedes’ rather disappointing efforts (in all but the S Class).

Space for 5 and their luggage, but not 7

Both of these are standard on Limited models and above, which thankfully in the UK is the minimum which most buyers go for (the base Laredo lacks several key features), but you also get standard dual zone climate control, a parking camera and heated front /rear seats plus steering wheel  on that same mid-trim version. Overland adds toys like cooled front seats and adaptive headlamps plus upgraded leather and air suspension, with top of the line Summit bringing adaptive cruise and some visual niceties. Personally a Limited or Limited + model would satisfy my needs and likely best the equipment of my own X5, but the air suspension and cooled seats of the Overland would really give it some kudos in a boasting game at the local pub, especially if your flash friend drives an X5 or Range Rover Sport. Elsewhere inside you get a reasonably spacious vehicle, with ample space for 5 passengers and a large boot with more space than the ML but less than the GL…some reviews criticise the lack of a third row but they fail to mention it in reviews for similar vehicles, and even in the X5 and Range Rover Sport most people don’t bother paying an extra £2k for seats which barely fit children over the age of 10. I will admit though that I am still not 100% on the interior quality of the Jeep – there are quite a lot of cheap looking plastics present by the looks of it and I’m not sure they would wear as well as in German rivals.

With 470bhp the SRT Jeep Cherokee is a beast. End of.

Under the bonnet is another potential black mark against the Grand Cherokee; in it’s home market buyers get the choice of a 3.6L V6 or 5.7L V8 petrol, 3L V6 diesel or stonking 6.2L V8 petrol in performance orientated SRT models. Here in the UK we only get the two latter options, and with the barnpot SRT model selling in tiny numbers it will be the diesel which finds it’s way into most UK-bound examples. The previous two generations of GC got their diesel engines from the Mercedes Benz stud farm; the 2.7 5-cylinder was a bit rough and ready but also was in the ML of the day, while more recent models got a much better 3.0 V6, an engine still found in most MB models even today in one form or another. But after a messy divorce from Daimler and it’s subsequent remarriage to Fiat, Jeep returned to it’s roots and gained a diesel made by Italian company VM Motori, who actually made the appauling diesel for first generation Grand Cherokees and a few for the second before Mercedes got ahold of the reigns. This peculiar lineage makes me hesitant to draw a conclusion on the engine powering the Jeep; American outlets claim it is quieter, more economical and powerful than German rivals, but then UK media seem to think that the engine is noisy and and notably thirstier than those same cars.

Mercedes trumps Jeep in terms of engine tech for me, but apparently the VM Motori effort is half decent

I suspect that in all honesty the truth lays somewhere inbetween; VM Motori are not known for making the best diesels in the world but all the same they have an international reputation for making decent ones, and whilst official fuel returns of 37.7mpg are not going to be realistically attainable, neither are they in rivals such as the Mercedes ML350 or BMW X5 30d…I’d be happy with seeing a day to day average of low 30’s mpg and in all honesty anything is probably going to sound more refined than my current decade-old diesel car. The engine actually comes in 2 states of tune, but the 188 bhp version is only available in the base Laredo and offers no benefits to road tax (£265) or fuel consumption. All other vehicles get 247bhp and identical tax and economy figures, plus a drop in the 0-60 time from 10.2 to 8.2 seconds…not too shabby especially when you consider that the price difference is not massive and includes a chunk of extra equipment too. All this power is fed through ZF’s 8-speed automatic that is also found in nearly every other vehicle of this type from Land Rovers to BMW’s, by this stage nothing negative can be said about it even though Mercedes have started to offer a new 9 speed Geartronic variant in ML350’s.

The ML350 is essentially the same car underneath, but with more ungainly lines and a higher price tag

General consensus on how the Grand Cherokee rides and handles is that it is much improved over the previous car but not as skilled as the likes of the BMW X5 or Range Rover Sport, apart from anything the Mercedes ML which the Jeep is based on has never been a hot hatch and prefers to err on the comfort side of things. Weighing over 2 tonnes and carrying a load of off-road wizardry means that the GC is not a sports car, but with a high driving position and plenty of power it is sure to be a relatively relaxing drive even if it is not one of the models which comes with air suspension and specific driving modes. That air suspension helps the ride too but even though many Grand Cherokees on UK roads will be riding on 20″ wheels, I can’t imagine that the ride is quite as uncomfortable as negative British roads suggest…at worst I suspect it will be comparable to an X5 in M Sport trim.

The previous generation X5 is still more expensive than year old Grand Cherokees despite having debuted way back in 2006

So what have we established at this point? Well the Jeep Grand Cherokee is not only a substantial improvement over past models but it also holds it’s own in terms of looks, off road performance, equipment and practicality, while only lagging a little bit behind in terms of interior quality and still driving somewhat like a truck as opposed to a car. I’ll accept that most buyers will be mildly concerned by the latter two points, but I do find it pretty annoying that UK magazines consistently rate the Jeep as 2 or 3 star vehicles, whilst heaping praise on the decade-old Land Rover Discovery which can be described very similarly in terms of attributes. What stands out for me personally though is price; the Grand Cherokee starts at around £39k in the UK, but Limited models are only £2.5k more, topping out at £52k for a fully decked out Summit model. When you compare that to a Discovery which starts at £41.5k (with cloth seats) and tops out at £60k before options the Jeeps comes across as a bit of a bargain, and more importantly for me it appears to shed money like a Vauxhall so it has become incredibly affordable to buy used. It is already possible to buy a 2011 example for under £20k, whilst a facelifted Limited Plus model that is around 18 months old can be bought for £28k…that’s a loss in value of £1k a month!

Of course that’s not a great thing for Jeep who will desperately be trying to increase residuals (and therefore reduce monthly payments for potential customers), but when you think that a comparably aged X5 is still around £38k and a Discovery even more, it does paint a stronger picture for the Jeep when it comes to buying a used car in this area of the market. Hopefully Jeep succeeds in increasing sales and their image, but not before I get the chance to bag a bargain example in a few years 🙂

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