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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Grand Cherokee: Move Over, Land Rover

Very few people in most West European countries actually need a vehicle with off-road ability. In most countries, the roads are good, the weather rarely poor enough to stop traffic and jobs which necessitate four-wheel-drive transport uncommon.

And yet cast your eye around a supermarket parking lot in, for example, Britain and you might be forgiven for thinking that the people there live in a climate as severe as, say, Moscow. Off-roaders, as the British imaginatively call them, have bitten out a sizeable chunk of the new car market in the last decade. In the 1990s alone, annual sales have almost tripled from 27,000 to just in excess of 80,000. Historically -- in the 1980s, that is -- Land Rover dominated, with direct challenges from Japanese car makers like Mitsubishi and Nissan, and Suzuki's small SJ selling in volume.

For the last three years, though, there's been a new boy in town, one with a very famous name indeed: Jeep. Imported by Chrysler since 1993, Jeeps have been seized upon by U.K. 4x4 fans -- more than 15,000 have been sold in less than three years, and Britain is pushing Germany hard for top spot in Europe among the importers.

Most of the Jeeps sold have been Cherokees, and now Jeep has staked its claim to stardom at the upper end of the 4x4 market with the new Grand Cherokee.

Already available on the Continent with a choice of straight six or V-8 engine, the Austrian-built Grand Cherokee has been updated for 1996 and is now available in right-hand-drive.

Bigger and more luxurious than the standard Cherokee, the Grand puts Jeep firmly up against the traditional king of upmarket off-roaders, Land Rover. And the buying public seems to be interested -- Chrysler has taken in excess of 1,000 firm orders in Britain since it announced last October that the car was going on sale -- and this without any advertising or demonstrator models. The Grand Cherokee is sold with no pretenses as an alternative not just to Range Rovers, Discoverys and Shoguns, but to Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW sedans. This only makes the U.K. price of ?28,995 ($43,500) more attractive.

With extra centimeters all round compared to the Cherokee, both inside and out, the Grand Cherokee is powered by the 4.0-liter, straight-six cylinder engine also found in the Cherokee Limited, making it a serious performer both on road and off. The four-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly even under hard acceleration and there is hardly a pause before kickdown. If you want to stop the gearbox hunting between the top two ratios on slower A-roads, you can switch out the overdrive fourth and restrict the transmission to the first three gears. The bland official figures tell of 0-100 kph performance in 10 seconds, but the big Jeep is as impressive accelerating from 60 kph to 120 kph as it is from standstill, and can easily keep pace with fast-moving but variable speed traffic on a three-lane highway.

Ride quality is a very good compromise given the need for ability in the rough, with refinement increasing the quicker you go -- urban potholes send the biggest jolts through the Jeep's body. Handling, too, is pleasingly assured: Body roll is well-contained and once you've acquainted yourself with its characteristics, the Grand Cherokee responds predictably and accurately to driver input.

With Jeep's Quadra-Trac permanent four-wheel-drive system, now with a center viscous coupling which feeds torque between front and rear axles at any ratio between 0 and 100 percent, the Grand Cherokee makes the most of available grip, either on tarmac or turf. Trickier off-road trips are tackled in low ratio, a simple change from high at standstill or very low speed.

Room is good in the front, with the exception of the center tunnel pushing your leg into the footwell and the fact that short-legged drivers may find the steering wheel too close for comfort -- the angle of the column can be adjusted, but the wheel doesn't move in and out.

What makes the Grand Cherokee impossible to ignore as a luxury car is the equipment it boasts. The only options are a sunroof and a CD autochanger -- standard specification includes power-operated front seats, door mirrors and windows, anti-lock brakes, twin airbags, remote central locking and cruise control. Plus, of course, leather upholstery to top off the luxury image. The Britain sales target in 1996 is for between 3,000 and 3,250 Grand Cherokees out of 8,000 Jeeps this year -- not an enormous amount, but impressive if achieved. As U.K. boss Richard Mackay summed it up.: "It's not a race for volume -- we just want to do sensible business." Jeep is certainly doing that, and for many buyers seeking the top 4x4, it's a case of move over, Land Rover -- the Grand Cherokee is on the warpath.

Paul Chadderton is motoring editor

of Auto Express in Britain.

He contributed this article to

The Moscow Times.