Image of the American Outdoors Sweeps Britain

The Jeep Grand Cherokee, launched in Britain only a year ago, has been a huge success. So far more than 5,000 have been sold or ordered, and that's in spite of a major initial handicap: there was no diesel alternative to the standard 4.0-liter straight six gas-guzzler.

But now two lower-priced Laredo variants, including a 2.5 turbodiesel, have been added to the Grand Cherokee range. It was already the first vehicle to present any real challenge to the Range Rover monopoly in upmarket off-roaders; now the sky appears to be the limit. Or, more prosaically, the production capacity of the factory at Graz in Austria where all European-market Grand Cherokees are built, because it isn't just Britain that has taken this icon of the Great American outdoors to its heart.

The two new Laredo variants -- there's a 4.0 petrol automatic as well as the manual 2.5 turbodiesel -- are both priced at UK?26,495 (US$43,375) on the road. Compared with any Range Rover, that looks cheap, but there's no shortage of other off-roaders with similar turbodiesel power at more comparable prices. The most obvious rival is the Vauxhall Frontera 2.5 turbodiesel, using the same VM turbodiesel engine, and after that it's a case of rounding up the usual suspects -- Land Rover Discovery, Isuzu Trooper, Mitsubishi Shogun, Toyota Colorado and so on. The interesting thing is that none of these somehow has the charisma of the Jeep: it really has got image on its side.

Image probably means more than any mechanical attributes in this status-conscious market, but it isn't all the Grand Cherokee has going for it: it's a highly competent off-roader too. The diesel reverts to selectable four-wheel-drive, rather than the automatic's permanent four-wheel-drive with a viscous center differential. It also uses simple power assistance for the steering instead of the gasoline model's speed-variable type. In other respects they share the same specifications. That means coil-sprung live axles at both ends, with no differential locks but a limited-slip differential at the back axle. So far, so very Land Rover in layout, but one major difference is that the Grand Cherokee uses a perimeter frame -- in effect, part of the body -- to carry its suspension loads, rather than a separate chassis. That explains why it's lower and lighter than its rival from Solihull, tipping the scales at 1853 kilograms where the Range Rover 2.5 turbodiesel weighs 2115 kilograms.

The VM engine uses electronic injection control and exhaust gas recirculation to meet current emissions limits. This gives the Laredo a top speed of 156 kilometers per hour, with 0-100 kilometers per hour coming up in a mere 14 seconds.

Although the Laredo undercuts the original Limited by almost UK?3,000, it remains comprehensively equipped with air conditioning, electric windows all around, ABS brakes, alloy wheels, remote central locking with immobilizer, cruise contol and twin airbags.

Drive the petrol and diesel models on the same day and you immediately notice some interesting differences. The diesel's steering, for instance, feels far less vague on the road than the 4.0's allegedly more sophisticated variable-assistance set-up, which had us constantly correcting the steering on a dual carriageway. On the other hand, it's undeniably slower and noisier than the six-cylinder gas model, and the gear change had some drivers fishing around trying to find the right gear. Also, the footwell seems designed for two pedals rather than three: it's a bit crowded down there.

The turbodiesel's performance is by no means bad, and the VM unit comes into its own once you go off road. It would happily chug up almost precipitous inclines in low first, foot off the accelerator and the rev counter showing just 1,000rpm. It's equally impressive on the way down similar slopes, providing enough engine braking to remove all the drama, whereas the 4.0 automatic accelerates down in an awesome adrenalin-rushing plummet!

Chrysler Jeep had laid on a really interesting off-road course in Scotland for the launch of the Laredo models, which effectively demonstrated just how much axle articulation the Grand Cherokee has, keeping all four wheels in contact with the ground over the most severe axle-twisting humps. It rides well over the rough stuff, too, so although most owners will never put its abilities to the test, it's nice to know this isn't just some boulevard cruiser tarted up to look the part of an off-roader.