Life Auto The new Jeep Cherokee aims to recover from a really ugly start
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The new Jeep Cherokee aims to recover from a really ugly start

Is this the most ill-starred new vehicle for sale in Australia today?

It’s the Jeep Cherokee medium SUV. It was first launched with a controversial triple-decker headlight design four years ago that even Jeep Australia admits was hated by potential customers and the primary reason its sales bombed.

Now the Cherokee is getting a far more palatable mid-life facelift along with a heap of added equipment and minimal changes to pricing.

And what happens? On the very day Jeep launches it to the Australian motoring media, the ACCC issues a product safety recall for faulty brakes … six weeks before its October 1 on-sale date!

Which is a reminder of another important reason Cherokee sales – and the sales of Jeeps generally – are in the toilet: grave buyer concerns about build quality and reliability.

In fact, the North American-built WL generation Cherokee that first launched in Australia in 2014 has been the subject of recalls 13 times here, including five times this year.

That still pales in comparison to the WK2 Grand Cherokee that’s been recalled 21 times since 2011 and has done more than any other vehicle to damage Jeep’s reputation.

Sales of the American 4×4 specialist have collapsed from 30,408 in 2014 to 8270 in 2017. The Cherokee sold just over 1000 examples here in 2017, compared with more than 25,000 for the segment-leading Mazda CX-5.

There have been various high-profile incidences of customer dissatisfaction with the response of Jeep’s parent Fiat Chrysler Australia (FCA) and its dealer body to the issues. One Cherokee owner generated national media coverage when he publicly destroyed his car. Another wrote a rap, “I made a mistake I bought a Lemon Jeep”, that has had more than 2.5m views on YouTube.

But to have a recall even before the car goes on sale? That’s pretty much unheard of.

There are 179 examples of the new Cherokee subject to the recall, and only around 20 of them have been registered for use by Jeep Australia and none are in customer hands. All will be fixed before they make it to dealers.

“Obviously recalls are not ideal but at the same time customer safety is our focus, so if there is a doubt we recall the vehicle,” local FCA chief Steve Zanlunghi told media at the Cherokee launch … without mentioning another one was imminent.

Zanlunghi and his team have introduced various initiatives to try and rebuild Jeep’s image.

They include a five-year warranty, lifetime roadside assist and set-price servicing in Australia. There have also been strategies put in place to improve customer service locally and vehicle assembly quality at the factory source.

Like its predecessor, the new Cherokee is available in four models with two petrol-engine choices and a choice of front or four-wheel drive, Pricing is barely changed and ranges from $35,950 to $48,450.

Life-saving Autonomous Emergency Braking is now standard across the range, as is Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring. And of course, there’s that new styling.

“Our number reason for rejection was the looks,” Zanlunghi said of the old Cherokee. “When we did our research here in Australia it was the actual look of the vehicle.”

And what is the recall for?

“Gas pockets in the brake system may result in a reduction in rear brake performance, which could cause a vehicle crash without prior warning,” the recall notice states. Thankfully, it’s a relatively easy fix.

But Jeep’s reputation in Australia? That’s a much harder challenge.