In the driving seat is Alan Kidd, the editor of Total Off Road magazine. I already know that he knows a thing or two about the potential driving capabilities of the new 75th anniversary Jeep Cherokee. (I suspect he knows hundreds more things about Jeeps and 4×4 vehicles in general but so far he’s not had time to tell me them all.)
I am the navigator today during our Jeep driving experience in the North York Moors National Park. I am also a Jeep novice.
Yet, as we both peer incredulous out of the windscreen at a steep and rocky climb ahead, Alan and I are in total agreement: “There is no way, absolutely no way, that this vehicle is going up there.”
I suggest the haphazard staircase of giant boulders and man-eating cracks in the off-road track high above Robin Hood’s Bay in the rolling Yorkshire hills would pose a challenge for a tank.
Alan corrects me, revealing that it would be a relatively straightforward drive in a Jeep Wrangler (especially one with something called a “Jeep Active Drive Low” system. This is a gear ratio that gives the Jeep the capability of crawling over tricky terrain in low gearing.)
The Cherokee doesn’t have this low gearing button. (You can tell I am not a technical vehicle writer!). It is, however, fitted with what Jeep call a Selec-Terrain™ Traction control system (Alan points this out to me) but as far as I can tell it’s the same automatic system that we have already utilised on smooth tarmac roads, as well as farm tracks and general rough trails.
It has already impressed me. Thanks to Alan’s expert driving – and a bit of cheeky daredevil showing off – I have witnessed the Cherokee’s capabilities on a deep steep-sided section of trail.
Alan showcased the fantastic traction and manoeuvrability of the vehicle by driving it on three wheels, with the front off-side wheel at least a metre of the ground. It looked crazy but fantastic.
The trail ahead is something quite different, though. Again, Alan confesses: “I doubt we are going to get up there. We can try and maybe I’ll be surprised but from where we are sitting now I’d say it was doubtful.”
I am a tiny bit scared but mostly I’m excited to see what will happen next. Setting off at a cat-in-preparation-for-the-pounce-like crawl we edge forwards and upwards over the deep-rutted rocks.
Alan takes his instructions from a Jeep expert standing on the trail ahead of the vehicle. Following hand signals, he’s told to edge a little to the left, then forward a touch, then a little further to the left, then stop, then reverse a bit, now forwards and to the right.
I am mesmerised. The traction of the Jeep is incredible and even when it feels like the tyres are spinning against loose dirt suddenly they catch hold and move the vehicle gently forward.
The vehicle is superbly stable even at bonkers steep angles and when it’s clear that not all the tyres are on the ground.
I admit I’d expected Dukes of Hazard style wheel spinning sounds and then the eventual recognition that we’d need to reverse and return back downhill without ever getting to the top of the climb.
But not so. It takes around five exhilarating minutes to ascend the track, some six vehicles in length, and at times I find myself whooping with delight.
Alan appears to be equally impressed, which is made all the more amazing given the number of 4x4s he must have driven in his career.
He tells me as we drive off past the rock on to a smoother section of track: “That was really great. It was 50% thanks to the Jeep instructor, 50% the vehicle’s capabilities and 5% my driving skills. Ok, so I know that doesn’t add up properly but that tells you what I think of this new Jeep Cherokee.”
My video: Jeep Cherokee tackles rocky climb
The surprising thing about the new Jeeps
From my point of view many of the new-style Jeeps look sleek, shiny and rather similar (sorry, Jeep people, but I have got to point this out) to other 21st century SUVs, such as the Range Rover Sport, Toyota Rav4 and even the Dacia Duster.
They still look sorted of rugged in design although the old-style Jeep square corners have been rounded off, the wheels are smart alloys and the paintwork is super shiny.
Inside the Jeeps are beautiful and luxurious. These are the 75th anniversary Jeeps, of course. If I’d been asked to describe what I thought a Jeep’s interior would be like before today I would have said: “Basic, plastic, minimalist.” I am actually taken aback by how comfortable the modern Jeep is and all of its 21st century gadgetry and technology.
The Cherokee – and the 75th anniversary edition Wrangler 3.6 auto, which I drove earlier in the day – drive beautifully on road. At the road speed limit of 60mph, it feels very smooth, stable and capable. The engine is stunningly quiet.
And while these vehicles do a superb job on-road, they seem just as much at home off-road. I had expected them to be a little less than perfectly able, mainly because they do look like a truly modern – and somewhat “normalised” – car.
I find out in due course that the engines, traction, suspension and tyres are designed to go anywhere. In fact, while the Cherokee didn’t have that “low gear” button, the Selec-Terrain™ Traction control system “automatically adjusts the gearing to suit its terrain, whether on road in good or bad weather or off-road”. That’s quite clever, really.
And what about the other Jeeps?
Stepping out of the Cherokee for a moment after climbing the rocky slope, I watch with awe as another Jeep makes its way up the rocks. It’s the new Renegade. This vehicle looks even more like a “normal” SUV car than the other Jeeps on test.
What I mean by normal is that it looks more road car than 4×4 vehicle. I actually really like the look of the Renegade, which is the brand’s new SUV launch, but if I’d be asked whether it would be a good choice for tough off-road driving I think I would have laughed (to be polite, I would have laughed loudly in my head but offered a neat wry smile to the Jeep enthusiasts).
Yet the Renegade also drove very capably up the rocks. I read later that it, too, has Jeep’s Active Drive system fitted. Renegade was awarded the prestigious accolade of 4X4 of the Year 2016 by industry leader 4×4 Magazine.
The SUV trend
Until I drove the Jeeps and witnessed their skill and traction off-road I’d never considered buying one. I hadn’t ever thought of buying any kind of SUV (Sport Utility Vehicle).
I like my VW Campervan because of I can sleep in it, as well as drive it to the supermarket etc, rather than any smooth and speedy driving. If I was thinking about a second car I might go for something small and sporty, just because…
But I’ve now discovered that the new style of Jeep SUV combines all kinds of attractions. It’s a great drive on the road and boasts many modern features and technologies. I didn’t notice any bumps from pot-holes while zipping about in the Jeep, and that’s saying something on the UK’s roads.
It is brilliantly at home off-road, too, and would be a real pleasure to drive to the many forest, hill and beach locations that I enjoy accessing while out and about in Scotland’s great outdoors.
Obviously, I am not talking about driving where I shouldn’t in places and areas that really do not need the tread of 4×4 tyres. I mean proper access roads and tracks that have been very hard going in my campervan.
I am thinking ahead, too, to when the snow comes in Scotland and of the many times that I’ve had to turn back on Scottish roads because my vehicle just can’t cope.
And there was something else that I rather liked about Jeep. Like the VW Campervan, there is a Jeep status thing. The people who own Jeeps seem to absolutely love their vehicles and they are proud of the long history of the car brand.
The Jeep has something of a cult following. Indeed, Alan himself owns an old-style Jeep and spoke with great fondness of it. Other people I chatted to appeared to be as fond of their Jeeps as they would be of a pet or even a child.
Jeep gains a modern following
Freestyle snowboarder Aimee Fuller has a Jeep, too, as does acclaimed big wave surfer Andrew Cotton and equestrian champion William Fox-Pitt.
I can see why these partnerships make such a great fit for these adventurous sporty types – and why Jeep’s new SUV positioning has seen them gain such huge sales increase in the UK in recent years.
In 2015, Jeep sales in the UK were 40% up year on year making it the biggest growing car brand. 2016 looks like being an even better year for sales, according to what I was told.
Jeep seems like a fun brand although comprehensively well thought out, modern and with funky good looks. I might not know much about 4×4 vehicles but I had a great deal of fun in the Jeeps that I tried and I saw the enthusiasm of other drivers, too.
See more at Jeep
While I was invited by Jeep to their 75th anniversary event in Yorkshire I have written what I want and how I want to. I also enjoyed an overnight, meal and drinks at the Faversham Arms, Helmsley, courtesy of Jeep.
Note: Jeep take the environment seriously and sign up to an initiative called Tread Lightly, which is for automotive recreational fans who like to enjoy the outdoors. The off-road trails we enjoyed were either privately owned or part of the Tread Lightly network.