Why this SUV is one of a kind
If you want a 4WD with genuine off-road ability there are a squillion large wagons to choose from, the top sellers being Toyota's LandCruiser Prado and the Isuzu MUX. If none of those does it for you, there's always the 4WD one-tonne utes, led by Ford's Ranger and the Toyota HiLux.
But if you want your fair dinkum, bunyip chasin', dirt magnet offroader in a smaller size, say something closer to a soft roader SUV like the Mazda CX5, your options are pretty limited. To one brand, in fact. Jeep.
The 2019 Jeep Cherokee is the first major update since the 2014 model.
The Trailhawk we're testing sits at the top of the line-up and costs $48,450. It's powered by a 3.2-litre V6, matched with a nine-speed automatic.
While more bitumen-focused Cherokee variants are available with front-wheel drive (from $35,950) and high-range-only all-wheel drive (from $41,950), Trailhawk is the full off-road package, with Jeep's part-time, dual-range, locking rear differential Active Drive Lock system as standard, plus beefier suspension, raised ride height (by 36mm to 221mm), front tow hooks, bash plates, all-terrain 245/70 Bridgestone tyres on 17 inch alloys (but a space saver spare), hill descent control and Rock mode added to the traction control menu.
Trailhawk's power-adjustable, heated driver's seat has a short cushion and minimally bolstered backrest, so while comfortable in a basic sense it's not particularly supportive.
A compact, efficient dash has everything close at hand, plenty of storage and two each of USBs and 12 volt sockets. Touchscreen infotainment includes Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, seamless Bluetooth, navigation, voice control, digital radio and premium Alpine sound.
A firm rear bench can be tightish for legroom with tall occupants up front, and for headroom with the optional full length sunroof fitted. It's well set up for kids, with elevated seating, good vision out of the side windows, vents, storage and a couple of USBs.
Cherokee has automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning, blind spot monitoring and rear cross traffic detection as standard. Trailhawk adds automatic parking, while adaptive cruise is bundled with partial leather upholstery, cooled front seats, heated, slide-adjustable rear seats and a few other frills for $1450.
Most car makers bailed out of mid-capacity, naturally-aspirated V6s years ago, because of their inherently inefficient nature. Compared with smaller capacity four-cylinder turbocharged engines, they lack usable, accessible torque, require deep, frequent drinks and produce relatively high CO2 emissions.
So despite having nine ratios to play with, the 3.2-litre V6 in Cherokee doesn't really work, especially with close to 1.9 tonnes behind it. Peak power of 200kW at 6500rpm sounds heroic, but the V6 struggles below 3500rpm. Its 315Nm of torque at 4300rpm is too little and 2300rpm too late for a 4WD engine.
It does the job OK in town where the transmission's closely spaced lower ratios and a responsive accelerator disguise its inefficiencies, but it won't pull eighth or ninth at highway speeds, so you cruise along in sixth or seventh, the transmission kicking back with a lurch to as low as third on hills, then hunting incessantly as it tries to keep the revs north of 3000rpm.
As a result, open road fuel economy is terrible. The test car averaged 11-13.6L/100km (on regular unleaded) on a Melbourne-Sydney return run on the Hume - about twice as much as a four-cylinder turbodiesel would use on the same trip and at least 50 per cent more than an efficient four-cylinder turbo petrol engine. The 60L tank gives you a safe range of just 400km.
Jeep claims a maximum towing weight of 2200kg. If you try that out, carry a couple of jerry cans for fill-ups between servos.
Driven gently around town, the V6 used 13-15L/100km with automatic stop/start helping its cause. Again, a four-cylinder turbo engine would be much more frugal.
Jeep offers Cherokee with 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol and diesel engines in other markets, but not here. That's a mistake.
Cherokee uses an SUV-style unitary construction body with independent suspension at both ends. It's a nicely tuned compromise for control and compliance, so Trailhawk is more agile, confident and secure than most larger 4WD wagons and the ride, though firm, is comfortable and absorbent even on a rough bush track.
In low range Rock mode Trailhawk will walk up, or down, a nasty, rutted, steep slope with impressive comfort and control, aided by an extremely indirect 48.3:1 crawl ratio. It has its limitations off road - a relatively shallow 480mm fording depth, for example - but, when things get seriously dirty, no comparably-sized SUV can touch the Jeep.
Attack of the gremlins
En route to Sydney, in Albury, the Trailhawk's transmission became stuck in second gear and the engine fault dash light came on. The coolant temperature gauge stopped working, yet the engine overheating light also flashed. Weird.
I stopped the car and restarted it. As is often the case when digitised electrics go haywire, everything returned to normal, but I took the car into the Albury Jeep dealer for a check. He ran the fault codes and could find no problems, so he reset the engine fault light and we continued. The rest of the trip to Sydney and back to Melbourne was trouble-free. Jeep also investigated when I returned the car, but could find no problem either.
I know Jeeps have their issues, but they're just so much sexier than Toyotas, Nissans, Mitsubishis and all the other drop dead boring 4x4s out there.
I don't want a big 4WD because I would be paying for space I don't need. I want a smaller one with similar off road capability and all the creature comforts too. This looks like my only option.
Suzuki Grand Vitara from $25,990
Old engineering and basic specification, but the Suzuki offers off road capability and a cheap price. It runs a 122kW/225Nm 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder with five-speed manual or four-speed auto and has part time, dual-range 4WD.
A capable, comfortable, well-equipped offroader stuck with an engine that's about as wrong a choice for this type of vehicle as it's possible to make. Brand reliability baggage refuses to go away.
Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk
Warranty/servicing: 5 years; $2155 over 4 years
Engine: 3.2-litre V6, 200kW/315Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 7 airbags, AEB, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert
Spare: Space saver