BRIEFLY lost in the automotive wilderness, the Jeep Cherokee is back sexier and more competent than ever.
The sparse and spectacular scenery of South Australia's Flinders Ranges provided the perfect backdrop for the Cherokee's revival this week.
While the larger Grand Cherokee was unveiled last year this mid-sizer has been under development and enters a segment white-hot with Australian buyers.
The range is a four-prong attack, starting with a two-wheel drive Sport variant powered by a four-cylinder engine starting from $33,500. Then comes the 4x4s, the Longitude, Limited and Trailhawk all given life by a V6 petrol - the diesel variants will arrive later this year.
Primitive finishes are confined to the past. Hard plastics have been replaced by soft touch materials and it's not restricted to top spec models.
All variants have a spongey dash and door-top finishes as well as leather-looking double stitched vinyl trim on the handles.
We weren't disappointed with the cloth trim seats which seemed to offer slightly better support at the base with higher bolstering than the leather options, while the chunky steering wheel gives the driver a strong and masculine feel.
The central 12.7cm touch-screen Uconnect cluster (21.3cm on up-spec models) looks neat and simplistic and together with the air vents have an outline shape which is actually modelled on the 1940s Willys Jeep grille.
Cabin serenity too feels a hefty step-up, with limited road noise. First impressions showed it has been well put together, with no creaks, groans or rattles over tough terrain.
On the road
Jeep foresees the upper echelon models being the biggest sellers, but may have underestimated the Sport's appeal. Putting the 2.4-litre four-cylinder through its paces it surprised and being only two-wheel drive is a great metropolitan accomplice - although it can handle a gravel track.
Yet the strong and smooth V6 is the current star of the show. It powers all four-wheel drive models and does the job well partnered to the new nine-speed automatic gearbox. The self-shifter seems to have overcome its software issues which caused early problems overseas, with cog-swapping smooth and timely.
Providing a spritely edge to the Cherokee, the bent six offers linear acceleration and a nice burst of speed for safe overtaking.
The sophistication of the four-wheel drive system improves as you step up through the range. And for those really wanting off-road prowess there is none better than the Cherokee Trailhawk in this genre.
The Trailhawk is more than just rugged looks. With low range and rear diff lock, external tow hooks, improved entry and departure angles and an increased ride height this is no faux soft-roader.
Our launch route encompassed some challenging rocky and muddy trails, none that truly tested the SUV.
What do you get?
Sport models come with the Uconnect touch-screen stereo with Bluetooth connectivity, air con with rear vents, power park brake, cruise control, reversing camera, 17-inch alloys and a full-size spare wheel.
Longitude adds four-wheel drive capability with drive mode selector, leather wrapped steering wheel and shifter knob, dual zone air con, auto lights and wipers, power driver's seat adjustment and boot opening.
The Limited variant takes a step up in luxury, with leather-trimmed heated power seats, bi-xenon headlights, larger 18-inch aluminium wheels, larger colour display for the driver, the 21.3cm Uconnect touch-screen, sat nav, front and rear parking sensors, and the amped-up Alpine stereo.
Then there is the hardcore Trailhawk, which has the tougher off-road front and rear fascias, wheel flares, tow hooks, skid plates, off-road suspension, diff-lock, 17-inch polished wheels and red stitching throughout the cabin.
This is also the first Jeep to receive a five-star rating in Australian crash testing, with seven airbags and an array of technological aids which includes anti-lock brakes, stability control and trailer sway control.
In front of the shifter is a great spot for smartphones and music players, close to the USB, auxiliary and SD card slots as well as a 12-volt plug.
There are dual cup holders in the centre, and spots for drink bottles in each door. The dual stage centre console offers a good spot for other gear, while there is also a covered bin within the dash and a deep glovebox capable of housing an iPad.
The 60-40 split fold rear seat drops to create a flat load space, while the front passenger seat can also fold flat on 4x4 variants.
The Cherokee is also a reasonable option for towing with the V6 rated at 2600kg, but when the diesel arrives that will be the better choice with a capacity nearing 3000kg.
When it comes to fuel consumption, the four-cylinder should average in the realm of eight litres for every 100km.
The V6 is forecast to achieve 10L/100km, which is not super thrifty, but not horrible considering it's a 4WD. There is no capped price servicing plan yet, but expect Jeep is working in that space.
Some owners have experienced long repair waits due to difficulties gaining parts, although this too is an area improving for the brand.
Three key elements were pivotal to the design, the grille, trapezoidal wheel arches and daylight opening door lines. This is the modern interpretation of the Jeep's historic shapes, and especially striking is the iconic waterfall seven-slot grille.
There are 10 external colour choices and nine interior options.
Jeep has given the Cherokee a sexy makeover, with more modern lines while maintaining four-wheel drive integrity.
The burning question remains whether people who want a mid-size SUV also want true off-roading capability. Trailhawk variants are superb in the rough stuff which backs up the tough and rugged appearance.
It's a compelling SUV range that suits a wide variety of buyers, which will only be strengthened by the diesel's arrival later this year.
What matters most
What we liked: Softer internal materials, tough looks of the Trailhawk, Sport specification.
What we'd like to see: Off-roader external options on all models, slightly better fuel consumption for V6.
Warranty and servicing: Three year/100,000km warranty. Servicing is every 10,000km or six months.
Model: Jeep Cherokee.
Details: Five-door mid-size two or all-wheel drive sports utility vehicle.
Engines: 2.4-litre in-line four-cylinder petrol generating maximum power of 137kW @ 6400 rpm and peak torque of 232Nm @ 4600rpm; 3.2-litre V6 petrol 200kW @ 6500rpm and 316Nm @ 4400rpm.
Consumption: 8.3 litres/100km; 10 litres/100km (combined average).
Towing: 2600kg, tow ball rating 260kg.
Bottom line plus on-roads: Sport 4x2 $33,500, Longitude V6 4x4 $39,000, Limited V6 4x4 $44,000, Trailhawk V6 4x4 $47,500.