Road test / Jeep Grand Cherokee

Land Rover should worry. Britain's 4x4 maker thought it had broken free from the pack of Japanese off-roaders, by pitching its new Range Rover further up-market than any off-roader had ever ventured. Then, along comes the Jeep Grand Cherokee from the USA. No funny Japanese name, no bull-bars, just a smart new car from the only off-roader maker that can compete with Land Rover.

Jeep's existing Cherokee has already proved a big hit with those who would otherwise look to a Land Rover Discovery or something Japanese. The Grand is a bigger, smoother, more modern and more expensive version of the Cherokee idea, but at pounds 28,995 it's still more than pounds 4,000 cheaper than the cheapest Range Rover. It is not quite as new as it seems, having been launched in 1992, but is only now available with right-hand drive.

Automatic transmission comes as standard (the forthcoming turbodiesel version will be a manual), and for the most part you just select Drive and let the Jeep get on with it. I'd prefer it if the transmission didn't change up so soon during normal driving - the engine feels as though it is labouring - but the upshot is that engine noise seldom intrudes.

A viscous coupling in the transmission means that the Grand Cherokee behaves as a rear-wheel-drive car most of the time, with power being diverted to the front wheels automatically as the rears lose their grip. It makes for easy, fail-safe handling, backed up by an absorbent ride over bumps, and smooth (if imprecise) steering.

Why favour a Grand Cherokee over a Range Rover? The Jeep gives a similar blend of attributes, and rather more stylish looks, for less money. There's also the possible kudos of knowing that European-market Grands are built at the Steyr-Daimier-Puch factory in Austria, alongside the indestructible Mercedes-Benz G-wagen.

So what's the snag? Plastic wood on the dashboard, exposed for its true self by having "Jeep" and "SRS" (indicating an airbag) moulded into it. Like I said, it's cheaper than a Range Rover. Butz well worth the saving, plastic wood or not.

John Simister

Specifications

Jeep Grand Cherokee 4.0 Limited, pounds 28,995. Engine, 3960cc, six cylinders, 174bhp at 46OOrpm. Four-speed automatic gearbox, four-wheel drive. Top speed 112mph, 0-60 in 9.9 seconds. Fuel consumption 18-23mpg.

Rivals

Isuzu Trooper 3.2 V6 Citation LWB, pounds 24,799. Land Rover Discovery 3.9 V8 ES, pounds 28,900. Mitsubishi Shogun 3.5 V6 SE 5-door, pounds 36,079. Range Rover 4.0 VB, pounds 33,350. Toyota Landcruiser VX 4.5, pounds 39,549.

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