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Toby Hagon swaps the asphalt for The Outback and takes a Jeep Grand Cherokee on a marathon adventure.
Since the arrival of the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee 2011 here on Drive we have always been impressed by its mix of value, comfort, driving skills and 3,500kg of towing capacity – things that have helped it win three Drive Car of the Year Best 4WD gongs.
And while we’ve taken the Grand Cherokee’s terrain, we’ve never done an extended outback test – until now.
Armed with a flagship 2014 Grand Cherokee Overland we decided to put the Grand Cherokee through a thorough test. Almost 3000 km – mostly on gravel and sand – and along some of the most remote and unwelcome roads in the world.
Our journey started in the southern Australian Flinders Ranges and then went north up the Birdsville Track. The Grand Cherokee was immediately put to the test. Deep, sometimes unforgivable shocks – often late and when traveling at 80 km / h or more – put the adjustable air suspension on some early tests.
It handles the big bumps well, especially considering the cargo on board; there is only one passenger, but there is cooking and camping equipment, off-road equipment and extra spare wheels and tires.
In fact, it is those tires that can be a challenge. Large 20-inch Kumhos look like the company with their low side walls and nice alloy wheels, but they are not what most people choose out here. In the wilderness, it’s less about handling ability and more about staying inflated, slightly thicker, tires with a higher profile are usually better.
The 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel was an instant hit. Its generous 550 Nm of torque makes it easy to shift the heavily loaded wagon. Even with the extra wind resistance in a roof rack with higher speeds, it is charged safely at 100 km / h.
Like diesel, the Grand’s 93-liter fuel tank also ensures that it has a decent driving range. Early fuel consumption hovered around low single digits, indicating a theoretical range of more than 600 km – at least on these roads.
Beyond the remote Queensland outback town of Birdsville, there was another story, though. On the way west, it is not long before the major gravel roads turn into the challenging red dunes of the Simpson Desert.
Our Grand Cherokee won early. The usual set of adventurers trying to tackle some of the more challenging approaches to the desert’s westernmost dune, Big Red, had warned us of a certain ascent and how it took them 10 attempts in a modified LandCruiser to reach the top. Ours crowned the quilt on its second attempt.
We had at least achieved some outback cred in a car that is not very common out here.
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The lightness with which it rose in the steep, soft sand is largely due to its smart four-wheel drive. By pushing it in a low area, the center differential is locked, which sends half the drive forwards and backwards. There is also traction control to reduce wheel spin.
But we ran high range for most of the desert, with the Quadra Drive 2 system able to distribute driving where traction was needed. It is a smart system and one that makes light work of the slippery sand. It is aided by the mode button which has a specific Sand setting designed to allow a certain wheel slip to get over heavier dunes.
It also uses its high ground clearance of 287 mm with good power when the suspension is at the highest setting. Rarely does a brush with nature become a problem.
But the highest setting only lasts up to about 40 km / h; above that speed it is lowered slightly for stability. Given occasional showers with higher speeds between dunes, this means you can switch back to its highest setting for tougher terrain.
Perhaps the most annoying thing about the Grand Cherokee, however, is the position of the foot-operated parking brake, which digs into your left tibia over bumps (there are plenty of them out here).
The suspension can also be noisy, especially when bouncing from large bumps. It will release a confusing thunk before it quickly settles and continues; it’s hard to get used to.
But it is on the stone-paved roads in the eastern edge of the desert where our first problem arises, and it is a predictable one – a punctured tire. It turns out to be the first of two, each of which damages the receptive (and small) side wall of the predominant curbs.
After the second one (which occurred later on our trip) we had to use the car’s standard 18-inch spare tire. It looks ugly on its black steel wheel, but since it is a tire of the right size (not a narrow temporary) it is undoubtedly best suited for these conditions.
On the Northern Territory’s Stuart Highway, however, the Grand Cherokee is excellent. Its diesel engine is easily charged up to the 130 km / h limit and the car feels smooth and comfortable. It is a change from the more focused off-road vehicles, which can feel fluid and much less friendly over 100 km / h.
Our last challenge was a big change from where we have been. Finke Gorge follows the dry brook bed over rocks, sand and occasional challenging waves. It’s a demonstration of the good wheel articulation and the short forward suspension on the Grand Cherokee. For a comfortable, well-equipped off-road vehicle, it makes it easy to work in the slow but testing terrain.
After almost 3000 km, the Grand Cherokee has shown its ability as a very capable – and comfortable – off-road car. A worthy winner of the Car of the Year category.
|Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland|
|Engine||3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel|
|Force||184kW at 4000rpm|
|Torque||570 Nm at 2000 rpm|
|4WD system||Full-time Quadra-Drive with low range and mode selection|
|Fuel use (alleged)||7.5 l / 100 km|