ROAD TEST Jeep Cherokee
The sticker on the sun visor hardly inspires confidence. "This utility ... handles and manoeuvres differently from many passenger cars ... if you make sudden sharp turns or abrupt manoeuvres, you may ... go out of control and roll over or crash." So there; be warned. With product liability in mind, Chrysler concedes that the Jeep Cherokee has its limitations, that you take liberties with it at your peril.

After a week's incident-free driving, two thoughts struck me about the disclaimer. First, that it was unduly pessimistic. Despite deliberate provocation, I never got the impression that the Cherokee was about to scalp me. Agile it is not, but that doesn't make it unsafe. Second, the word "utility" seemed curiously misplaced in a leather-clad, timber-embellished, air-conditioned luxury behemoth that costs pounds 24,000 in 2.5TD Limited guise.

Britain's love-affair with butch off-roaders that rarely stray from terra firma is palpably irrational. However, if you insist on rock-climbing prowess at the expense of comfort, refinement, performance, economy - yes, and of handling/ manoeuvring, too - the new Jeep Cherokee deserves consideration in the upper echelons of the 4x4 sector.

New? Appearances deceive. What seems like a modest face-lift - fresh grille, bumpers and flared wheel arches - masks a major makeover beneath the skin of this American icon.

Buyers liked the old car's appearance, says Chrysler, so why change it? Among the improvements are a new, more comfortable cabin, a stiffer body and chassis, better heating, ventilation and electrical systems, and superior quality altogether.

Big though it is, Jeep's square-rigger Cherokee is lamentably short on rear legroom. Access to the back, through awkwardly narrow doors, is also restricted.

Up front, you're loftily perched in comfortable, powered seats that, as in most high-slung 4x4s, afford an excellent view out - a good safety point and a boon for sightseeing. Behind, the cavernous boot provides ample luggage space, despite the encroachment of a stacked spare wheel. Pity the one-piece, rear backrest isn't split to improve carrying versatility.

There's a choice of three engines: a lusty (and thirsty) 4.0-litre straight- six petrol engine, and two 2.5 "fours" - a petrol and the rough and noisy turbo-diesel made by VM in Italy, used in the test. The fearful clatter that assails the ears when starting up the engine from cold, never fully subsides.

Around town, the 2.5TD sounds like a black cab. However, high gearing does allow it to stride along motorways with no more than a discreet drone from the coarse engine. Performance is quite good mid-range, when the air-pumping turbocharger is at its most effective. For a big, hefty five- seater, economy is also very respectable. Were it not, the 2.5TD would lose its point.

Like most big off-roaders, the Cherokee feels lumpish and cumbersome after driving a nimble family car. It jerks and squirms on its long-travel suspension. Steering is ponderous, the gear change hefty (the diesel comes only with a five-speed manual gearbox). For normal roadwork, incidentally, only the back wheels are driven. Four-wheel drive (with high and low ratios) is engaged with a second gear lever.

For all its innate shortcomings, the big Jeep has a curiously masochistic appeal, perhaps because it is a bit challenging to drive well. Many owners - and there are more than 20,000 in the UK - are attracted by the Yank Tank image, the feeling of irresistibility that is imparted by a heavyweight off-roader. Never mind the economy, feel the strength.

JEEP CHEROKEE 2.5TD LIMITED

SPECIFICATIONS

Price: pounds 23,995 as tested with leather (Cherokee prices start at pounds 18,195). Engine: 2,499cc, four cylinders, 8 valves, 114bhp at 3,900rpm. Transmission: five-speed manual gearbox, 2/4-wheel drive, high/low ratios. Performance: top speed 103mph, 0-60mph in 13.1 seconds, combined consumption, 29.7mpg (35.3 extra urban).

RIVALS

Ford Explorer, pounds 26,040. The world's best-selling off-roader since 1991, US-built Explorer is big, roomy, plush. Here, any engine you want so long as it's a 4.0-litre petrol V6. Performance strong, five-speed auto transmission smooth. Lavishly equipped, classier than Cherokee.

Land Rover Discovery 2.5tdiS, pounds 24,005. Discovery is still the best-selling 4x4 in Britain, though its market share is diminishing as the competition hots up. Great go-anywhere off-road performance, but do you want it? Feels ponderous, clumsy (and rather slow) on road.

Ssangyong Musso 3.2 GX220, pounds 25,610. Styled in Britain, powered by Mercedes, built in South Korea. Performance of 120mph GX220 - fastest off-roader - terrific. Alternative diesels much slower and cheaper. Good value if you can stand ornate looks. Well made, well equipped.

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