Steve Moody gets to grips with the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

In a rather odd turn of coincidence, I last drove a Jeep Grand Cherokee in 2005 when white smoke was billowing out of the Sistine Chapel proclaiming the fact that Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI, had got the cardinals’ vote.

I remember because I was in Italy at the time of this significant event-the new Pope that is, not the launch of an American SUV (sport utility vehicle). That iteration of Cherokee lasted even less time than the aforementioned pontiff, not least because it was an awful thing that was poorly built and lacking any grace.

Then what should happen the other week, but white smoke wafting over cheering Romans again and I’m back in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. And in what seems an encouraging portent, I can report that the current car looks hugely promising.

Grand Cherokees have always been a fairly inexpensive way to get a large 4×4, especially as Land Rovers become more expensive. The vehicular contemporary of Pope John Paul II, the last-but-one pontiff (1978-2005), was a cheap, cheerful cracker, although it didn’t have a lot of interior space and suffered from a dozy gearbox and sluggish diesel engine.

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The car of Francis is far better to drive. It sits more upright on Mercedes-Benz underpinnings and now has nearly 250bhp from its 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine, which just about allows the ageing automatic gearbox to get away with it. When it’s updated further later this year, it will get one of the whizz-bang eight-speeders that other major SUVs have, which should make quite a difference.

Off-road, Jeeps have long been tough but simple, like a Friesian heifer. They’re pretty hardy for most work, but, despite boasting a knob that selects different modes, you can’t lock the differentials, which means that in really muddy conditions, they will lose traction quicker than a Land Rover.

Apart from the Benedictine Grand Cherokee, the company has always made handsome cars and this new S-Limited version has a manly grille made from a gate, large matte-black alloys and lumberjack-square corners.

The cabin is functionally smart, rather than sumptuous, and I lost count of how many full whirls I had to make of the steering wheel to get it from one lock to the other, such is its long gearing. The upside is that, when you’re off-road, you’re in no danger of having your thumbs pegged back by sudden kicks from ruts, and the wheel is handily heated for this so-called spring we’ve been having.

Other useful standard equipment includes reversing cameras, heated and cooled seats and satellite-navigation, but the voice-activated telephone system is frustrating. It’s like having a conversation with a deaf great aunt. I implored it to call home and, having adjusted its ear trumpet and unwrapped a mint humbug, it quizzically replied ‘Telephone Derek?’, at which point a chap called Derek would be put through to the cabin. I gave up, exasperated.

This version is the same price as a mid-range Discovery, and that’s its biggest issue, because the Land Rover is a magnificent beast, which offers more refinement, greater economy of fuel, nearly as much gadgetry and will be worth more as a used car. My advice is to buy the Jeep second-hand, as that way, you’ll be getting a rugged, capable, handsome 4×4. Just don’t wait until the next Pope arrives to try one.

On the road: Jeep Grand Cherokee 3.0 CRD V6 S-Limited
Price: £44,595
Official combined fuel consumption: 34mpg
Power: 237bhp
0-60mph: 8.2 seconds
In the town: A bit of a tractor, and not a Chelsea one
In the country: A workmanlike rival to the Discovery

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