Motoring / The Independent Road Test: You will fall in love with an ugly American: 'The American Legend' is coming back to Britain. Gavin Green samples the Cherokee, on- and off-road

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Indy Lifestyle Online
AT HOME on the range, the American Jeep may well be. It is ideally suited to the outdoor huntin', fishin' and sportin' Marlboro Country lifestyle of the United States, where petrol is cheap, space is plentiful and cars are admired more for their robustness and room than for style and sophistication. It is easy to see why Americans love the Cherokee, the key model in the marque's new assault on the British market.

It is somewhat harder, at first glance, to see quite why we Brits should love it. The Cherokee is an old-fashioned machine, almost 10 years old. It has a big, heavy, gas-guzzling engine, unlikely ever to better 20mpg. There is none of the visual charm of the Willys Second World War Jeep. Nor does it look chic, like its stylish sister, the Wrangler, which is also on sale in Britain. The Cherokee is big, slab-sided and nondescript. Added to this, American imports have not been popular in Britain since the Thirties.

Yet there is little doubt that the new Jeep franchise is going to be a winner here. The off-road market is booming, in contrast to most other areas of the British car market. Sales rose by more than 30 per cent last year. Off-roaders are becoming the latest four-wheeled fashion accessory, usurping that Eighties icon, the hot hatch, which has been killed by joy riders and joyless insurance companies. Brand names matter a lot in fashion, and what could be more a la mode than Jeep, the Harley-Davidson of four-wheel drive, and the inventor of the genre?

Besides, the volume-model Cherokee is surprisingly good. Just as crucial, it is exceptionally well priced. It is also crude, but all off-roaders (including the venerated Range Rover) are fairly crude. Proof of just how little off-roaders have evolved in the past 20 years is easy to find. The best Jeep-like vehicle of 1973 was the Range Rover. The best 4x4 of 1993 is - you guessed it - the Range Rover.

Mind you, the Cherokee comes close in some areas. Its brawny 4.0-litre straight-six engine has a specification that looks more Sixties than Nineties: cast-iron rather than lightweight aluminium construction, and simple pushrods rather than trendy and more efficient overhead camshafts. Yet the upshot is the best straight-line performance of any off- roader on the market. Even with its power-sapping, yet marvellously smooth, standard automatic gearbox, it performs more like a brisk saloon than a bulky mud-wrestler.

It is also handily sized. Some of the bigger off-roaders may offer seating for up to seven people but they feel more like small trucks than cars, especially in cities. The Jeep is surprisingly small: about a foot shorter than the Land-Rover Discovery, and more than 400lb lighter. It is more cramped than the class average, yet is perfectly acceptable for four adults and lots of luggage. The smaller exterior and lighter weight makes the Cherokee an easier and, to my mind, a more enjoyable car to drive than any other large off- roader. The extra oomph helps.

The steering is light and vague - typical of large American cars and, indeed, of off-roaders. The ride belies the old-fashioned suspension specification. Big solid axles, suspended by truck-like leaf springs at the rear, do a good job of cushioning the worst shocks thrown up by broken tarmac.

Mind you, the Jeep is not all low-tech. The standard anti-lock brakes (unusual on an off-roader) are among the most advanced in the world. The generous level of standard equipment includes air-conditioning, electric windows, a six-speaker stereo and alloy wheels.

It is most obviously an American vehicle on the inside. Our friends across the pond have long gone in for cabins swathed in wood-textured plastic, and bits of plastic wrapped in chrome. The Cherokee is no exception. The 'wood' on the dash and doors is more joke than oak. (You have to specify the pricier pounds 20,995 SE version to get real tree.) The interior door handles pretend to be made of metal, but aren't. And when plastic that is supposed to look like plastic is used, it doesn't look good. The switches are also haphazardly sited around the dash.

I find these typical Americanisms quite charming. Of course, they are tacky. Most Americanisms are. But they remind you of the provenance of the vehicle, and give the car a touch of individuality.

The seats are very comfortable and the interior seems robust - important if you like to drive through the bogs (which, and this is the irony when you examine booming off-roader sales, most Britons don't). The only slithery bits that British owners are likely to encounter are the diesel spillages from the taxis outside Harrods. Mind you, all-wheel-drive might prove useful for the odd snow-covered driveway in winter, or perhaps a skiing holiday in the Alps. Should you want to go across the ranges, you'll find the Cherokee sure-footed and tough - if not quite as happy in the mire as the mountain-goat-like Discovery.

These days, though, it is on-road ability that counts. And on the tarmac, no 4x4 does a better job than this old-fashioned Yank, at the price.

SPECIFICATIONS

Jeep Cherokee 4.0 Limited, pounds 18,245. Six-cylinder 4.0-litre engine, 184bhp at 4,750rpm. Four-speed automatic standard. Four adult seats, four doors. Maximum speed 106mph, 0-60mph in 9.6 seconds. Average fuel economy 18.8mpg.

COMPARISONS

Land-Rover Discovery V8, pounds 20,560. Thirstier and slower, but roomier and more sophisticated. Probably the best vehicle in the sector, but can't match the Jeep for value.

Isuzu Trooper LWB Citation, pounds 21,763. Very competent on- and off-road, and sophisticated, too. More modern than the Jeep, but also more expensive.

Mitsubishi Shogun V6 LWB, pounds 21,330. Long-time favourite of the British. Let down by a sluggish, thirsty motor.

Toyota Landcruiser VX, pounds 28,380. Giant Tonka Toy looks add to the butch image. Good, but pricey.

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