Good-looking outside, the latest Jeep disappointed our readers with its penny-pinching interior
Though it's unlikely, in the event of someone putting a gun to my head and insisting I buy an off-road vehicle, I've always thought that this would be the one. Jeep Cherokees are more elegant than the Tonka- toy Discovery and not as snobby as Range Rovers. Toyota Landcruisers are the size of a small housing estate; Ford's and Vauxhall's 4x4s are repugnantly bland; and the Mercedes M-Class is just repugnant. But now that I've met the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the flesh, I'm not so sure.

This new-model Cherokee is obviously related to the old, but it's been melted around the edges. It's cuddly and cool, but also rather fearsome. Like a loyal Labrador, it looks like it would wag its tail if rubbed under the chin, but should anyone rattle the front gate it would bare its teeth in a flash.

The Cherokee is an accomplished off roader, thanks to an unfathomably complex four-wheel-drive system called Quadra Trac, which directs power to those wheels with the best grip. In a short and uncharacteristic foray on to the side of a hill, I certainly couldn't unstick the wheels.

But the closest most Cherokees will get to mud is the car park at Badminton, and the Cherokee (from pounds 30,000) is unsuited to Tarmac, where its occupants are all too aware of the Quadra Trac's constant and unnecessary hunt for optimum grip, even in the dry. ("Give it a rest, we're only going down the shops!") The resultant rocking and rolling is uncannily similar to being on horseback, and it's only a matter of time before rear-seat passengers are desperately trying to stop themselves redecorating the carpets. Bouncy springs, drunken body roll and frantic, lurchy automatic gear changes compound the problem. Land Rover's Discovery, with its suspension management system, is far more composed.

The four-litre, six-cylinder engine option (carried over from the old car) is also a mistake. The automatic gearbox has two second gears, selecting the lower ratio for changing up and the higher for changing down: despite this, acceleration is tame. And high-speed cruising is noisy - not surprising given the car's gargantuan bulk. For an extra pounds 5,000 the V8 makes more sense, and isn't much thirstier.

Finally, I have doubts about the Cherokee's build quality. The dash had the manufacturing integrity of a Kinder Egg toy, with ill-fitting plastic panels and naff wood trim straight from the inside of a 1973 Hoseasons canal boat. That's a shame, because the interior is otherwise very cosy and cosseting, with heated, electric front seats.

The dual-zone, infra-red controlled air conditioning senses the temperature of driver and passenger and adjusts accordingly - a pointless and undetectable technological advance, of course, but it doesn't stop you boring everyone rigid about it.

So the Cherokee isn't my choice after all. It excels off road, but all its hi-tech trickery fails to solve the on-road problems of weight and height common to all 4x4s. If you need to climb hills and destroy your local flora and fauna, then the Cherokee is as good - and definitely more stylish - than most off roaders. If you're buying it for the school run, think again

The verdict

Andy White, 31, accountant, from Reading, Berkshire. Currently drives a Vauxhall Astra

"It certainly moves well for a big hunk of metal. It's not as traditional- looking as a Discovery. The steering wheel is too small but the steering is responsive. The wood looks a bit plasticky: if they're going to use wood, it should look like wood. There's enough power, I would say. If you put your foot down you do move, and although it does soak up bumps, it feels a bit wobbly generally. It manoeuvres well for a car of this size and the power steering helps enormously. But if I had this sort of money to spend, I'd buy a Jaguar."

Jane Gregory, 49, freelance editor, from Pangbourne, Berkshire. Currently drives a Vauxhall Carlton

"A lot of women around here drive these but I think they are pretty superfluous to requirements unless you live deep in the country. It is a great advantage to be able to see high up over hedges, but I'd feel guilty driving it. That said, it would be nice to rent for a holiday in the Highlands. It's quite graceful. I like the curvy design: I prefer it to a Range Rover and it would appeal more to women. When you're reversing, it's a long way to the back. I like the matt-black trim but the wood looks tacky and the workmanship is poor inside. The seats are pretty good and air-con is a big plus. At least it doesn't have kangaroo bars."

Rosamund Connell, 40, publisher from Thame, Berkshire. Currently drives a Fiat Tipo

"You sit up nice and high above the hoi polloi but don't have to clamber up to get into it. This is obviously aimed at the affluent middle classes. It feels solid and stately - I can imagine it being driven by a petite blonde mother living on the outskirts of Oxford with one child. I'd never buy one. I'm a bit of an inverted snob: I'd have an old Land Rover instead. It's quite noisy. It's not a serious off roader - it's too smart. The power steering is a bit wobbly and the shiny wood trim is a waste. The seats are jolly nice but extra ones in the back would be essential."

Stuart Berry, 28, mechanical engineer, and Claire Berry, 25, sales support co-ordinator, both from Whitney, Oxfordshire. Currently drive a Ford Orion

Stuart: "You feel three miles in the air. This is the most expensive car I've ever driven. It would be ideal for towing something with. It's very comfortable and smooth. There's loads of room in the back. It pulls away quite quickly but I think you'd have to work hard to get it above 60mph. It really needs a V8 engine. I don't need anything this big, but I'd like it just for the hell of it."

Claire: "I wouldn't want anything this big. It's like a bus. I couldn't drive it. It is comfy though. It rides the bumps well. I don't smoke myself, but I still noticed that there are no ashtrays in the back."

Road test If you would like to take part in a test drive, write to The Verdict, The Independent Magazine, One Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, giving a contact phone number, your address and details of the type of vehicle, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26, and have a clean driving licence.

Comments