The first mass produced light all-purpose 4WD was the American World War II Jeep. At the outbreak of the war, the US Army required a ‘Light Command and Reconnaissance Car’ for use in the conflict. Four-wheel drive was a design priority and the American Bantam Company soon had a prototype being tested by the US Army. Unfortunately for American Bantam, they could not hope to cope with the production volumes required and so a number of other manufacturers were called in to evaluate the Bantam.
Both Ford and Willys-Overland took up the challenge and built their own versions to be assessed. Ford called their new vehicle the Pygmy or alternatively the Ford model GP, short for ‘General Purpose’. Willys-Overland called theirs the Jeep, the name coming from a character in the Popeye cartoon series called Eugene – a little 4WD that could do virtually anything. And so the ‘Jeep’ was born.
The final wartime vehicle was a combination of the best of all three designs and built by all three manufacturers. Over 638 000 were built before the end of the war and after it Willys-Overland continued building light 4x4s, and the ‘Civilian Jeep’, the Jeep CJ series came into being. Both the Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover’s original design principles can be traced to the Second World War Willys Jeep.
The ‘civilian Jeep’ or CJ series was first offered as a military machine with minor modifications to suit the civilian market. The CJ2 was the first, and early models are now collectors’ items. The second model, the CJ3, with raised bonnet to accommodate the new engine was first built in 1952. This machine is still made even today in India by Mahindra, although with a different engine. All CJ Jeeps are excellent off-roaders, the CJ2 and CJ3 being the most favoured by the Jeep fanatics. Suspension is by solid axles and leaf springs. Depending on the model, they are available in part time or permanent four-wheel drive. Once built in South Africa by Volkswagen, there are very few good second-hand units available.
The replacement to the CJ is called the Wrangler with sub models called Rubicon and Sahara for the five-door version. It is a vehicle primarily designed to be modified because, particularly in the USA, such a high percentage of buyers accessorize their vehicles, sometimes to the extreme. So, any two Wranglers standing side by side are rarely the same. From the showroom the Wrangler is delivered with a 4-litre, 6-cylinder petrol engine in South Africa and also a 2,5-litre petrol elsewhere. A limited-slip rear diff, good low-down torque and fair clearance make the Wrangler great fun off-road. Add a little clearance, some diff-locks and it becomes almost unbeatable over obstacles. Some of the most popular modifications are a change to the differential ratios to aid towing, differentials locks, raised suspension to increase clearance and an engine head modification that manages a very healthy power increase from the standard engine.
The model called Sahara was launched mid 2007 and consists of a five-door layout but with none of the original loose-fitting panels and rough and ready finishes taken away. It still has the feel and fun of the Wrangler but is now a much more practical vehicle. Off road performance, while not up to par with the short wheelbase Wrangler, is excellent. On road, it’s a bit noisy and the roof lets in a lot of dust. The petrol version is unreasonably thirsty, the diesel is much better, but the cost is performance: the petrol version is a great performer while the diesel is a bit flat. Off-road, both models are great.
Like the Grand Cherokee, the Commander is equipped with full-time four -wheel drive, Quadra-Drive-2 traction control, tyre pressure warning system and three engine options: 3.0-litre V6 CRD, the 4.7-litre V8 or the 5.7-litre HEMI. While the Commander is spacious, its clearance, like the Grand, is not particularly good, but enough for some off-road fun. It’s obviously trained for the US market as most of its features focus on on-road city use, like the rain and speed-sensitive wiper system and the ‘radar’ that warns of parking mishaps. Nothing on Jeep’s local web site talks about off-road use, four-wheel drive or clearance stats, which shows where Jeep is looking for its customers. To sum up the Commander is not the off-road beast it might have been, with clearance, especially break-over angle inadequate, but with the same brilliant traction system and smooth drive-train of the Grand Cherokee. Anyone purchasing one for off-road fun may be disappointed but as a city family-carrier with the occasional adventurous excursion in mind, it may satisfy.
JEEP CHEROKEE / CHEROKEE SPORT
The Jeep Cherokee, until 2001 was an old-fashioned, basic but good all-rounder. It is a vehicle which excels at nothing, but manages to do everything with a degree of competence that attracts third and fourth time customers year after year. Its weakness is that after a few years of even modest off-road work and long distance touring it feels like a box of loose bolts. The steering soon becomes vague and the handling deteriorates. As a pre-owned purchase expect to spend a bit replacing bushes and having the steering and suspension components tightened or replaced. And it has character, unlike its replacement.
The current model, the Cherokee Sport is smaller than its predecessor and a far more fashion-conscience vehicle. The 2,7 turbo-diesel engine, developed by Mercedes Benz, pulls the relatively light Sport extremely well. However, the big petrol engine is a horrible alternative as it is extremely thirsty. On-road the Sport is ordinary, nothing to complain about really, just boring. Off-road it’s a fair performer but because of its serious lack of clearance between the front wheels, it can become a real frustration to those taking theirs into rough terrain. Off-road, the suspension does not hold its clearance well and so after-market suspension kits transform this vehicle for much tougher and rougher off-road use. The Sport is a fairly small vehicle and therefore not particularly well suited to extended safaris for more than two people.
JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE
The Grand Cherokee has always been the flagship of the Jeep range and is a top-spec 4×4 crammed with comforts. Early versions had solid front and back axles with soft springing. The 2nd generation Grand was fitted with an extraordinary traction system: Instead of an ABS brake-managed traction control system found in so many 4x4s, Jeep used hydraulics to prevent wheel slip and called it Quadra-Drive. The result was good traction and good off-road performance but for its mediocre clearance. To really take advantage of its awesome traction, a suspension lift was necessary. The Grand’s weakness is its drive-train and build, which are not designed for heavy-duty off-road expeditions and not infrequent failures of these components have been reported by those using it for extended expeditions. In addition, the Grand is a small vehicle and as a family off-roader, doing extended trips, can bring packing-it-all-in problems. Also, the standard spare tyre is a compact type and should not be relied on during back country travel.
In 2005 Jeep launched an all new Grand, a restyled model with some new features and some new engines. Firstly it is larger. Secondly, for the first time the Grand has independent front suspension which, as can be expected, improves on-road performance. However, unlike many of its competitors, this hasn’t made its off-road performance worse: This is mainly because the older model’s suspension behaviour off-road wasn’t that good to begin with. But what is absolutely spectacular, and has to be seen to be believed, is its new traction control system: Quadra-Drive-2. If this vehicle had better clearance it would be as unstoppable as any 4×4 in the world because this system is so good at preventing wheel-spin and providing grip, that the vehicle’s ability over undulating ground is nothing short of brilliant! In my opinion, Quadra-Drive-2 is a superior traction system to Land Rover’s Electronic Terrain Response as fitted to the Discovery-3 and Range Rover. It seems a real pity that it does not have better clearance to take better advantage of this awesome technology. A face lift Grand was introduced in mid 2008.