Across a bit of the Sahara used for the Paris-Dakar, Daniel Cobbs finds the new Cherokee totally at home

A vacuum cleaner is commonly known as a Hoover; sticky tape is mostly called Sellotape; and, to the great unwashed, a Jeep is the collective term for every 4x4 ever built.

"I've parked behind the Jeep," my girlfriend tells me. No, you've parked behind a Land Rover Discovery, love. "Is that your Jeep blocking out the sunlight?" No, it's actually my Hummer. It is all too easy to fall into the "it looks like one, so let's call it a Jeep" trap.

In an ideal world, this should be the greatest accolade for any carmaker that the public think there's only one make in the genre. And Jeep was quite happy with this state of affairs until a bunch of party poopers decided to point the finger of blame at 4x4s for every environmental misdemeanour, ever.

Being the fall guys for global warming did indeed concentrate minds, not just at Jeep but at all carmakers. Now, the mass-produced, inefficient gas-guzzlers of yesteryear are being consigned to the history books, museums and scrapyards. Go out and buy a new car today, and it'll be greener than a meadow tendered by Alan Titchmarsh.

This, in a convoluted way, brings me quite neatly to the soon-to-be-released new Jeep Cherokee. This will be the current Cherokee's natural replacement when it goes on sale in May, and the difference between old and new is more than just a spruced-up exterior.

As I've mentioned it, let me start with its new skin. It wouldn't be a Jeep if it didn't have a pair of round headlights and the seven-slot grille, and this, unsurprisingly, has both. In a bizarre way, this lamp/grille combo gives it the overall impression of being quite chic, in a retro-urban way.

If I'm sounding a little flabbergasted by its styling, the reason is that I am. But in a good way. This isn't an American car trying to be something it blatantly isn't. It's a Jeep, so it doesn't need any over-fussiness, which, thankfully, it hasn't got. In the past, the Americans have covered frankly trashy interiors in swathes of leather and hoped that the aroma of new cowhide would bamboozle us into believing we were sitting in something special. It didn't, and we weren't.

This time, the leather included in the price actually enhances what is a very pleasant place to sit. The plastics are still on the hard side, and if I were being pernickety I could find one or two other faults. Yet it really is a vast improvement on what's gone before. The list of standard equipment on the one trim level, and the price 24,995 for the six-speed manual, 25,995 for the auto make it ridiculously cheap.

And here's a tip; tick the order form for the optional Sky Slider canvas roof. Fully open, it leaves a huge hole in the ceiling, turning the Cherokee into something like a four-door, off-road convertible.

There's only going to be the one engine to choose from; a well-rounded, 2.8-litre diesel, which seemed equally suited to the manual as to the automatic. Ride and handling are vastly improved. Only when asked to get near to breaking the laws of physics did it become unsettled.

But let's not forget that this is a Jeep, and the place it's happiest is where it is likely to get the least use off-road. Sadly, the console-mounted dial that transfers torque to all four wheels will only occasionally be deployed. When it is, the car is almost unstoppable. I was given part of a Saharan stage of the Paris-Dakar rally to thrash it along, and all it wanted to do was come back for more.

Last year, Land Rover redefined the compact SUV market with the Freelander 2, taking something mediocre and making it great. Jeep has now done the same. The outgoing Cherokee is OK, but Jeep should be very proud of this one; sixty-five years of off-road heritage bundled into a package designed for the 21st century. So, if asked: "Do you drive a Jeep?" proudly answer: "Yes, it is a Jeep" and ask if anyone have a problem with that.

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