EVERY year I borrow Jeremy’s column to do the McMonaco rally. I drive a car round the Highlands and then make it hike over a grouse moor for a couple of days. It has to be a proper car; a solid, blokey, beefy, farty, burpy vehicle with room for bodies in the back. It doesn’t faint at the sight of blood, and has wheels that are breakdancers rather than morris men. And a motor that thinks a carbon footprint is what’s left when you nuke some sap with a flame-thrower.
This test isn’t toddling round Oxfordshire, delivering the kids to tennis camp. It’s not burbling past Harrods, lying in a supercharged dentist’s chair with a baseball cap on backwards in mirrored Ray-Bans, mistaking the gag reflex of passing shop assistants as gasps of barely restrained lust.
This is driving of the kind they promise on the car commercials. Windy, lonely, concentrated, fraught with hazards such the capricious tartan weather — blind fog, hailstones, tree-felling winds and interrogatingly horizontal sunlight, all within an hour.
But the most pressing and insidious danger is the landscape itself. Not its ancient twists and turns, its blind summits or crumbling corners, but its mesmerising beauty. It’s just too easy to wander off into the great vistas of granite purple mountains and blasted moor and miss a bend or fail to miss a sheep.
The rules of the McMonaco are that there are no rules, but the car must always come as a surprise. I got up and opened the door and there it was, big and lumpy: a Jeep Grand Cherokee. It isn’t so much designed as put together. It doesn’t appear to have been the result of hours spent in wind tunnels and on computer modelling. It hasn’t been imagined by men who spend a lot of their leisure time at the ballet or studying the great herds of the Serengeti in action. It’s not shaved and honed to a hair’s-breadth of aerodynamic perfection.
This is more an animated garden shed put up by a geezer who’s good with his hands and out on parole. It’s not that it’s wilfully ugly, it’s just that no one had any expectations of it being a looker at all. It comes from a lumpen, big-boned family that knew what it was good at, and that wasn’t being cocktail waitresses. I can’t think of another car that so conspicuously doesn’t care about first impressions. Second impressions, though, are more emphatic.
I got in and had the weirdest sensation I had been magically shrunk, as if I were a 10-year-old sitting in his grandad’s car. The Cherokee belittles you. The seat is wide, all the buttons and knobs and screens seem larger than normal. The distance from between the wing mirrors is wider than a super-king-size bed.
There is no delicate way of putting this. In fact there is nothing delicate about the Cherokee at all. It is a car that is made for Americans. For US families in what they like to call the heartland — that semi-mythical America that believes in God, guns and two-fisted breakfasts.
This is — how do I put this nicely? — a car for robust people, Junoesque people, well-padded, snugly expansive people. This is a vehicle that understands its target customer is going to be fat. With a fat family and fat friends and a couple of fat dogs, and who shop a lot because staying this corpulent means you need to take on board a parcel of groceries.
This is the all-American obese-mobile. The buttons and the knobs and the automatic stick shift are made for people who have “sporks” for fingers: permanently sticky, oily and needed for carbohydrate shovelling. The seatbelts are like the restraining straps on a Hercules transporter. The cupholders would fit wheelie bins. The pedals are fine for people wearing snow shoes. Were you to ask if there was a blind spot, the car salesman would say, “Pretty much anything below your moobs”, and he would be able to tell you how many doughnuts you could get per gallon.
Now, as a non-linebacker-sized person, being in a car built with diabetes and hypertension in mind, and with a glovebox big enough for a defibrillator as well as a Magnum handgun — and an extra clip — is not a bad thing
It’s like being upgraded to club class. You can stretch out, you can punch the buttons with a satisfyingly joshing bravado. You need to get used to the fact the sat nav makes everywhere look like Wyoming and that the radio tends to wander off until it finds bluegrass or a talk show with a jock who specialises in late-night conspiracy theories.
But how does this bulbous motor actually go? Well, it’s built for straight highways and the distant horizon. It has a surprising stamina and a lot of power. Plus a fathomless, super-large gut-busting tank. In the diesel version, I virtually drove from the top to the bottom of Scotland without bothering the pump, though of course I did have to stop every couple of miles for Mars bars, crisps and Irn-Bru.
It’s quick but it needs a run-up — a complaining moment of grunting and puffing — before it gets going into its thumping stride. There is a discernible lag between kicking the throttle and it actually moving off, but when it does, it’s solid, pounding along the road with its head down and its elbows out. The Jeep is frankly a bully and it makes you drive as if you were one. It likes to go down the middle of the road and intimidate.
It thinks driving is a competitive sport, and is particularly bad mannered on Scottish roads where there needs to be a good deal of give and take, of pulling over and “After you, Hamish”.
It really didn’t like that. It thought winners didn’t say, “You first”, or wave “thank you”. Winners give you the finger and have damnably guffawing bumper stickers. Only losers go to Dundee. I couldn’t help but think that if Dick Cheney were a motor car, this is the motor car Dick Cheney would be.
On the grouse moor, the Jeep found itself in the company of a lot of hooray Range Rovers. Both owe their origins to military vehicles with the same raison d’être — to be dependable, solid, adaptable and evocations of a national will to win. Their evolutions tell you quite a lot about post-war Britain and America.
The army Land Rover left as an officer and moved up the market, becoming snobbish and judgmental. The Jeep was a non-commissioned officer. It remained redneck without airs or hauteur. It had no trouble keeping up with the Range Rovers. It covered the ground, waded the rivers, yomped over the moors, but they are not speaking each other’s language any more.
The Jeep is made for people who are still impressed by the name and want the heritage and an American car. Not some fancy foreign thing that’s stealing jobs. And they want it because they can fit in it with plenty of space to spare and their kids can fit in it with all their paraphernalia and the dogs can fit in the back with the cakes.
AA Gill’s verdict ★★★☆☆
Overlarge, overbrash and over here
Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.0 CRD V6 Summit specifications
- Price: £50,795
- Release date: On sale now
- Engine: 2987cc, V6
- Power/Torque: 247bhp @ 4000rpm / 420 lb ft @ 1800rpm
- Transmission: 8-speed automatic
- Performance: 0-62mph: 8.2sec
- Top speed: 126mph
- Fuel: 37.7mpg
- CO2: 198g/km
- Road Tax Band: J
Jeremy Clarkson is away. To read his reviews, click here.