They are the money-spinners and unequivocal saviours in certain cases, and if you are in the business of selling cars you simply cannot ignore the financial behemoth that is the SUV segment. The Cayenne brought Porsche back from the brink of bankruptcy, the X5 remains one of the biggest sellers for BMW and there are countless other examples of the profound effect this class of car has had on the automotive industry.
While most manufacturers began dabbling with 4x4s purely because everyone in China suddenly decided they wanted to have one, Jeep has it in its very DNA. For the carmaker it wasn’t so much following a fad as it was merely going about its business.
And as I sit in the new Grand Cherokee Trailhawk ready to set off to the somewhat terrifyingly named Valley of Fire in the Mojave desert in Nevada, it all begins to make sense. Way before SUVs were merely means to transport kids to school, or indeed keeping the bean counters ringing, they were a device to explore the great outdoors; and Jeep was one of the earliest proponents of the concept.
Being an SUV owner myself, I rarely head beyond the blacktop, but today I am about to rediscover the joy of venturing into the rough stuff after a very long time. And the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk is just the vehicle for the job because I’m not exactly brimming with confidence.
Our test route features a mix of soft sandy areas and ‘some frankly vicious rocky paths’, as my fellow journalist handily points out.
The day, as is customary with press trips, begins with a, er, detailed explanation about the vehicle in question and what distinguishes it from the standard version. Cosmetically, it gets exposed tow hooks, different wheel designs and air suspension as standard, and a maximum ground clearance of 264mm in its highest setting.
Powering my Trailhawk tester is a 5.7-litre 90-degree V8 delivering a maximum output of 360bhp at 5,150rpm and a mountainous 520Nm of twist. The grunt is transmitted to all four corners via an eight-speed automatic gearbox and a revised all-wheel drive system, which can feed the precise amount of power to the wheels that can utilise it best to enable seamless progress.
Our starting point is the neon-smothered city of Las Vegas, a setting which couldn’t be further removed from what the rest of the day holds. Our test route features a mix of soft sandy areas and “some frankly vicious rocky paths”, as my fellow journalist handily points out, making me a touch more tentative about the day’s proceedings. Thanks buddy!
The initial 100 kays on the road are pleasant. This Grand Cherokee rides supremely well and simply glides over road imperfections. The cabin is well insulated, the seats are comfortable and the cabin could actually be described as plush. The seats are draped in swathes of Alcantara and real leather with contrasting red stitching, while the dash features loads of aluminium inserts and generally top-shelf materials. The new uConnect infotainment system is also much improved with a high-res 8.4in screen. Unless you are a serial whinger, you won’t find much to complain about here.
We are running late. And as we arrive at the first part of the route — the bit with the dreaded soft sand, which I’m most concerned about — our organisers announce that we would not have time to drop the tyre pressure if we are to keep to schedule. Anyone who’s done any amount of off-roading in the desert would tell you that’s exactly what you should NOT be doing.
I brace myself for embarrassment as I nervously edge on to the sand. A little further, and the Cherokee travels effortlessly over — this is easier than I remember.
I floor it and manage to make myself stationary. Thankfully, with a little manoeuvring and careful feathering of the throttle I am able to extricate myself. This is a seriously capable car in the desert, even for someone with a modicum of off-roading experience as yours truly.
The next few kilometres are incident-free as we approach the final part of the route. The jagged outcroppings and formations crafted by millions of years of sandstone erosion are a sight to behold. The inclines and the drops are frightening at first glance; I’m just happy that at least there is solid ground underneath the tyres now.
The successful (well, almost) crossing of the desert has bolstered my confidence, partly in my abilities, but to a greater extent in the Jeep’s. This should be relatively easier.
I carefully make my way up a potentially lethal — steep doesn’t even begin to cover it — incline, and all I can see through the windscreen is the sky, with no idea what the other side might hold. Driving down what seem like near vertical drops is no less unnerving. The Jeep doesn’t put a foot wrong. Activate the hill descent feature and the computers take over, controlling the brakes and the throttle as you edge closer to what may loosely be described as flat surface.
Driving over boulders the size of small cars, every once in a while I hear a thud as some wheel or other reestablishes contact with solid ground. The sound of the impact is enough to make me think I’ve broken something on the car or am indeed on course to do so within the next few minutes.
The sound of the impact is enough to make me think I’ve broken something on the car or am indeed on course to do so within the next few minutes.
It doesn’t happen. The Jeep keeps powering ahead, resolutely pounding into submission the worst Mother Nature can throw at it. Admittedly, progress isn’t the quickest, but today I shall be content just to return the car to my hosts with roughly the same dimensions and orientation as I received it in the morning.
Kilometres roll by. More thuds. Uphill. Downhill. I’m beginning to realise what it must feel like being a full-time rag doll. However, there is no stopping the Cherokee. It continues its relentless march until it’s conquered the course.
Finally, and back on tarmac, the Jeep smoothly slips into a different personality. It goes back to be being a civil, comfortable family car — there is no indication whatsoever of its immense off-road prowess.
At base, some amount of smugness begins to creep in. I only briefly got stuck in the sand, I didn’t break anything on the car and I kept up with everyone else in the crew — not bad for someone who hasn’t driven off-road in a while. The Jeep did pretty well too.