If you’ve gone out there and bought an SUV that has actual off-roading credentials in the hope of making use of it, you may have realised after a few years of ownership that you’ve never actually put its credentials to use.
This is a common case with SUV ownership, particularly with Toyota Prados that seem to live primarily in the urban sprawl.
With that in mind and the thought of a weekend away with the family without Internet and iPads exploring mother nature, Fraser Island seemed to fit the bill. Now all we needed was a car.
Having given back our Land Rover Discovery Sport, the need for an off-road capable SUV to tackle the soft sand left us with a few choices.
Sure, we could take a Toyota and be like every other person on the island or we could try something different, something like a Jeep, maybe.
To be fair, the Jeep Grand Cherokee 4x4 Laredo diesel tested here at $59,990 drive-away is rather pricey if you have no intentions of using its towing or off-roading ability. You really just need the $47,000 driveaway rear-wheel-drive petrol model if city-use is the primary purpose.
There’s even an argument to be made that the price difference between the base petrol and 4x4 diesel is large enough that if you ever really need a 4WD, you can just rent one and still be well ahead in the long term.
But, hell, buying a proper off-road capable vehicle is as much an emotional decision as it is a rational one, so let's not get bogged down (pun intended) on the fiscal sense of the matter.
From the outside the Jeep Grand Cherokee has aged rather well, with its tough American SUV looks sharpened over the years – since the current generation came out in 2011 – to present a now well-known design that screams Jeep. In a good way.
The interior of the base Laredo gets most of the essentials like reversing camera, 7.0-inch digital instrument cluster, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and plenty of storage space, but it does lack some features you really need in a family-focused SUV - notably leather seats and satellite navigation.
It’s odd that there is no sat-nav, considering the Uconnect 8.4-inch touchscreen with digital radio is well and truly there. It’s even more odd that it’s not optionable (nor are the leather seats), so you’ll need to spend another $10,000 to get to the Limited for that (and a heap of other) features.
Forgetting that for a minute, we plugged our two ISOFIX child seats in the back, packed the endless number of suitcases my wife thought necessary for a two-day trip, and left Brisbane at 10:30am to catch the ferry to Fraser Island.
The drive from Brisbane is about four to four-and-a-half hours, so if you have kids you really need to stop somewhere in the middle to break it up, which we did. We also mounted two iPads on the rear seats and the kids didn’t complain. Much.
Jeep does offer rear seat entertainment as a $2500 option, but that’s much more than the cost of two brand new top-capacity iPads and some mounts, which are far more practical.
For a solid two hours, Finding Nemo and Peppa Pig were keeping the kids entertained and we had the stereo cranking up front with the rear audio muted. One stop down, we finished our journey all the way to the ferry terminal.
Here, the jibes started from the Toyota fan boys that, for whatever reason, seem to think their Prado is the only choice for off-roading use.
“Mate, I think you’ll be the only Jeep on the island, hope you have rope.” – “Hope you got something else when you get over there”… yeah yeah. To be honest, though, we spent hundreds of dollars on off-road retrieval gear just in case.
Onto the ferry we went and 45 minutes later the Grand Cherokee tipped its toes in the sand for the first time.
Of course, it had its tyre pressures dropped from 35 to 25 PSI so it better deals with the sand. This immediately set off the tyre pressure monitoring system, which we could not work out how to mute. For an off-roader, it would be good to be able to dismiss tyre pressure warnings.
A good night's sleep and off we went again. Engage sand mode using the Selec-Terrain rotary dial and the Jeep changes its behaviour to better deal with soft sand.
If you’ve never been to Fraser Island, the first 200-300 metres coming out of Kingfisher Resort and onto the sand tracks provides some seriously choppy conditions. Certainly the Grand Cherokee’s 205mm ground clearance (218mm with air suspension option) is lower than we had expected. In fact, even a Subaru Forester at 220mm sits noticeably higher.
Even so, what the Jeep lacks in ground clearance it makes up for in pure sand-conquering ability. The 3.0-litre turbo diesel with 184kW of power and 570Nm of torque is super capable of pulling itself through almost anything and never once did it feel underwhelming or underpowered, both on sand and on the long highway drives. The photos here don't do justice to the terrain we covered.
After we got ourselves through the choppy stuff, we settled in to a good 35-40km/h pace through the sand tracks, stopping multiple times along the way at the different sights that Fraser Island has to offer.
So smooth was the Grand Cherokee as it conquered the island that our almost two-year-old boy fell asleep in the back while we covered kilometre after kilometre of sand tracks.
The Toyota boys were right on one thing - we were the only Jeep on the island and it certainly turned a few heads among the sea of Prados, Hiluxes, Patrols and Pajeros. Who doesn’t love a bit of off-roading rivalry?
There were even a few instances when crossing deep water paths along the beach, queues of Toyotas had formed waiting to slowly cross. Not so our Jeep, which skipped such arbitrary queues and made its own path!
Before we left, even Jeep Australia told us we could potentially get bogged and to bring retrieval gear. But, alas all that we bought remained sealed in boxes as the Grand Cherokee never once looked out of shape - even when we left it too late to leave the beach and were met with high tide.
The entire trip from Brisbane to Fraser Island and back – including a full day of sand driving – was also accomplished on a single tank of diesel, with an average fuel economy of 8.4L/100km (was under 8 on the highway but ruined by the high torque-load nature of sand driving). An impressive feat.
In terms of a holiday destination, Fraser Island is a great place to take the kids, with plenty of things to see and do, and focused kids activities to give you and your partner some alone time if needed.