Jeep hosted an international ‘ride and drive’ event in Sicily, Italy to showcase the broad lifestyle appeal and capability of its products and we were there to put them through their paces on the slopes of an angry Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano.
Way back in 2009, Chrysler and Fiat joined forces in what was to be a symbiotic relationship for both automakers in the sharing of platforms, distribution channels, technology and increased access to global markets. Fast forward to 2015 and the relationship seems to be blooming and Jeep has already welcomed the praised Renegade to its family, which is built on Italian soil. In recent times, the levels of luxury, quality and refinement offered by Jeep products have improved dramactically too. It remains, however, a brand acutely aware of its reputation for building extremely off-road capable vehicles - a talent that it was keen to remind the world of at the event in Sicily.
The island of Sicily is home to Europe’s most active volcano, Mt Etna, and the Jeep Experience Days ‘You don’t drive it, you live it’ event coincided with what is considered to be the most violent eruption of Etna in recent times. Was the eruption a sign of future success for the Fiat Chrysler partnership? It sure felt like it…
First up - The Cherokee Trailhawk
From the aeroplane window, Mt Etna could be seen spewing gas and ash into the air. This was to be an experience like no other. The plane touched down at Catania airport and we were shuttled to a nearby hotel where we were treated to a light breakfast, general drivers briefing and welcoming words by Head of Jeep Brand for Europe, Middle-East and Africa, Steve Zanlunghi.
With no time to waste, we were allocated a Jeep Grand Cherokee and Cherokee Trailhawk that would be tasked with the mission of climbing the slopes of Mt Etna. For a South African, driving in Italy takes some getting used to as your natural driving habits continuously intervene and can prove to be potentially hazardous on the narrow, overgrown streets. Easier said than done…
This was my first time behind the wheel of a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and despite my own insecurities of driving in a foreign land, the vehicle helped a great deal in giving me confidence to tackle Sicilian traffic. Ride quality is excellent and power from the 3.2-litre V6 engine is more than sufficient for your usual urban and highway overtaking manoeuvres with a total of 200 kW and 315 Nm of torque at your disposal through a 9-speed automatic transmission, which is rather smooth in operation too.
I found the interior to be particularly modern and comfortable as it came equipped with all the bells and whistles including electrically adjustable seats in partial cloth and Nappa leather, mounted steering wheel controls and an 8.4-inch infotainment touchscreen loaded up with UConnect Navigation that did an excellent job of keeping us on the right track towards a fuming Mt Etna... not that its sheer presence was easy to miss!
Climbing Mt Etna
Narrow tar roads soon gave way to rocky dirt roads as we entered The Park of Mt Etna nature reserve. Normal cars won’t survive in this terrain but the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk is a 4x4 specialist and it thrives here. Jeep products are renowned for their off-road capability and the Cherokee Trailhawk takes the 4x4 experience to a whole new level.
The Cherokee Trailhawk is fitted with what Jeep calls Active Drive Lock, featuring a two-speed power transfer unit and a rear locking differential making the Trailhawk capable of crawling over just about any terrain imaginable. The Active Drive Lock partners with Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system to offer the best traction in various driving conditions. The driver has the choice of five modes in the Cherokee Trailhawk which include Auto, Snow, Sport, Sand/Mud and Rock which is selected using a dial on the centre console.
Bush soon turned into lava fields hundreds of years old and as we climbed the slopes of Mt Etna we had no choice but to switch into "lava mode". With a simple turn of the Selec-Terrain dial, the Cherokee Trailhawk geared itself to tackle the rocky terrain and the 17-inch wheels could be heard crushing rock as it made its way up the volcano with very little effort at all. We arrived at our lunch venue well impressed with the quality drive and capability of this Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.
With Mt Etna rumbling above us and plumes of ash streaking across the sky, it was time to get serious in the Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel Overland derivative. With a focus on comfort and luxury, the Grand Cherokee somehow envelops you as soon as you climb in. The temperature on Mt Etna was just above zero degrees and I was delighted to put the heated seats and steering wheel to good use. The interior design is quite fancy too, as you would expect for a premium SUV, with leather and wood trim creating a pleasantly comfortable environment for the driver and passengers.
The Grand Cherokee felt solid and planted through the twisty bends on Mt Etna and seemed to soak up bumps rather well, making the drive smooth and refined. It wasn’t long before we entered what is best described as a lava quarry. The clearly layered deposits of rock and soil hint at the Etna’s past eruptions and the quarry was the perfect playground for the Grand Cherokee.
Fitted with full-time all-wheel drive and an Electronic Limited-Slip Differential, the Grand Cherokee had no problem tackling the obstacles in the lava quarry. Like the Cherokee Trailhawk, the Grand Cherokee also features Jeep’s Select-Terrain system with Auto, Sand, Mud, Snow and Rock modes being available to the driver. The driver is also able to control the speed of the vehicle when ascending or descending a hill using the paddles behind the steering wheel, which makes tackling obstacles that much easier. This model also features air suspension, which alters the ride height according to the drivers needs and the terrain being traversed. A maximum ride height of 280 mm can be achieved with a total of five different height levels to choose from.
The final stretch of our day’s journey took us some 120 km to southern Sicily in the region of Ragusa. The drive took us through the winding roads of the Sicilian countryside where we had the opportunity to explore the on-road capabilities of the Grand Cherokee. With its 3.0-litre V6 turbodiesel powerplant producing 179 kW and a hefty 569 Nm of torque through an 8-speed automatic transmission, the Grand Cherokee powered along, hugging the bends with surprising poise. After all, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has to be as impressive off tar as on it, unlike most of its rivals. This demands some compromise, and I feel Jeep has settled on a fine balance.
We arrived at our hotel, Donnafugata Golf Resort and Spa in Ragusa, where the media contingent was presented with a range of specially customised, one-off Jeep Mopar vehicles. Head of EMEA Mopar Service, Parts and Customer Care, Santo Ficili, addressed weary-eyed journalists before a fine Italian dining experience put the party to bed.
Jeep Wrangler - Oldie but a Goldie
In true Jeep style, more off-roading lay before us on the final day of the event. This time though, our chariot was the Jeep Wrangler Sahara. With its 3.6-litre V6 engine capable of 209 kW and 347 Nm of torque through a 5-speed automatic transmission, this Wrangler Sahara had the tough task of annihilating deep sand pits, crawling through a rocky river and punching through a muddy Sicilian jungle.
Can the Wrangler Sahara cope with all this madness? Easily, in fact. With its selectable four-wheel drive system, the driver can easily switch between 2H, 4H and 4L depending on the requirement. The Jeep Wrangler Sahara had no problem in the sand and it managed to navigate the rocky river bed with surprising ease. It has to be said, however, that the Wrangler is starting to feel its age, particularly when it comes to on-road comfort/refinement and packaging. The all-new model, due for the 2017 model year, will undoubtedly address some of these concerns.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT Makes Grand Entrance
After playing in the Sicilian jungle, we were directed to an airstrip in the countryside. The full range of Jeep products lined the runway and in the distance, the Grand Cherokee SRT, Jeep’s high performance model, stood waiting. In a cacophony of noise and high revs, the SRT belted down the runway at full pace towards the media in the stands in a show of bravado and machoism.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is a mean machine and comes fitted with a 6.4-litre V8 petrol engine capable of 344 kW and 624 Nm of torque using an 8-speed automatic transmission and can dispatch the 0-100kph sprint in just 5 seconds before reaching a top speed of 257kph.
Steve Zanlunghi proceeded to highlight Jeep’s success worldwide with total sales in 2009 amounting to 337 000 units and growing steadily to well over a million in 2014. Thanks to major design improvements across the Jeep model range, as highlighted by Klaus Busse, Head of Design EMEA for Fiat and associated brands, Jeep has taken massive strides forward to cement itself in the market as an exciting and attractive brand for customers looking for capable and reliable lifestyle vehicles.
Look out for our interview with Klaus Busse coming your way soon!
What can you expect from Jeep in 2016?
2016 marks Jeep’s 75th anniversary and to celebrate Jeep is planning special edition models for each model line in the Jeep range, barring the Compass, which is on its last legs. The 75th anniversary special edition models will be available in limited numbers and we will keep you updated as more information becomes available next year.
As for the existing Jeep lineup, not much will change but you can expect to see a 1.4-litre FWD automatic Renegade introduced in the second quarter of 2016. A Jeep Cherokee Overland model will also be introduced towards the middle of the year and will feature 18-inch wheels, body colour cladding, a dual pane sunroof and a few changes to the interior. Pricing for these models will be confirmed in 2016.
VIDEO: Jeep Range in Sicily, Italy