Going off-road is great fun. Something off-road capable can open up a lot of doors to places you were otherwise unable to visit. It changes a vehicle from being a conduit between A and B, into a ticket to adventure.
But, having a proper 4WD does come with compromises. Take it from me: while great off-road, my own 4WD is abhorrent to park, loud and noisy, and is eons away from being a capable commuter. So, can you have your cake and eat it too?
If you're not a masochist, yes. Yes, you can. Modern 4WDs (unlike mine) can be plenty comfortable and convenient for day-to-day life, while remaining very handy off-road. But, their size and drivelines can still be a little cumbersome.
What about something that’s still a real doddle for day-to-day driving, but also pretty good off-road? Maybe you want something with just a little bit of capability for that odd time you need it? Chances are, you’re probably looking at one of these two vehicles.
The two vehicles I'm talking about are the Land Rover Discovery Sport and the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk – two decidedly softer takes on off-road vehicles from two of the pre-eminent manufacturers of off-roaders.
Let’s talk dinero. The Discovery Sport in this specification (177kW Si4) weighs in at $60,255. It’s towards the lower end of the range, with the line-up running from $56,595 (TD4 SE) to $77,955 (SD4 HSE Luxury).
By comparison, Jeep’s Cherokee Trailhawk sits at the precipice of its range at $48,450. It starts at $35,950 for a 2WD Sport Auto.
Interior and spec are pretty similar between these two, despite the $10,000 difference in price. There are electric and heated partial leather seats with a good amount of adjustment and comfort, along with good infotainment units that are easy to navigate. Keyless entry and parking assistance are two other shared points.
It’s worth noting the Land Rover does come with a definite edge in terms of overall quality and niceness, if that makes sense.
The layout and switchgear are all from a step above the Cherokee, and it is generally a nicer place to spend time in overall. If you compare the two on paper, there isn’t much between them. But in real time, I prefer the Disco.
Safety is quite similar as well: the Discovery has a five-star ANCAP safety rating back from 2014, while four-cylinder Cherokees get five stars from a 2015 test. Technically, this six-cylinder Cherokee is untested.
They both have seven airbags littered throughout the cabin, and some decent safety features like lane-departure warning and forward collision warning. The Disco has autonomous emergency braking, while the Cherokee has an active braking system to help apply braking pressure.
The Cherokee engine, a 3.2-litre Pentastar V6, does start to feel quite dated and outgunned when compared to Land Rover’s more modern turbocharged 2.0-litre unit. While peak power of 200kW at 6500rpm is handy, it means the car is revving hard, almost lustily, to eke out that power.
Peak torque, what you’re more concerned about with general drivability around town and off the mark, is too high up the rev range: 315Nm at 4300rpm, similar to the kilowatts.
Of course, there is more to an engine than just peak power and torque readings. My seat-of-the-pants dynamometer, however, doesn’t tell a pretty story. Below 3000rpm and above first gear, the engine has precious little shove left over.
Press the throttle down in search of acceleration, and the gearbox starts working hard to get that tacho spinning clockwise in the quest for power. And by the time it starts moving fast, you’re just about at the redline.
The Disco Sport, on the other hand, makes power and torque in a very different manner. In contrast to the naturally aspirated V6 in the Jeep, the Discovery has a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-banger. It’s called ‘Ingenium’, with this tune making 177kW at 5500rpm.
More importantly, 340Nm is on tap between 1250 and 3200rpm. Having a wide range of revs to access that torque, mostly thanks to the advanced turbocharging, makes the Disco faster, easier to drive, and a more relaxed experience.
It’s a more relaxed experience at the bowser as well. The Disco Sport used on average around 1L/100km less, with an average reading of 9.5L/100km.
Where these two drivelines are nigh-on identical is the rest of the driveline: both feature nine ratios available through a ZF-sourced automatic transaxle. Drive is sent predominantly towards the front end, with a 4WD coupling that can selectively shift drive towards the rear end when the front starts to slip.
In both SUVs, it’s a slick and fast-acting gearbox that chooses ratios wisely. Its job is much harder in the Cherokee, though, which is constantly chasing lower ratios as soon as you mash the accelerator. Sometimes, you’ll pick up the odd clunk or jerking thud when you catch it off-guard with some throttle, especially at lower speeds.
In both of these vehicles, there are a couple of important points to cover off in terms of off-road capability. Firstly, the gear ratios. While there isn’t a low-range transfer case available, the first-gear ratio acts like a ‘granny gear’.
During normal driving conditions, it will skip first gear and use second for take-off. First gear becomes your de facto low-range. Although it’s not nearly as effective or versatile as the real deal, it’s good enough for light-duty off-roading.
The second point is off-road traction control. Along with the ability to connect the rear end for 4WD capability (called active drive), both vehicles have some pretty advanced off-road traction control, which means they can lift wheels aplenty off-road and keep moving forward.
Jeep’s system is called ‘Selec-Terrain’, while Land Rover’s is called ‘Terrain Response’. Both work in a very similar manner by tuning the wheelspin, throttle response and gear selection to suit different terrains.
For example, rock mode will dull the throttle off and remove as much wheelspin as possible to make slower, inch-by-inch progress easier. Conversely, sand mode calls for a peaky and responsive throttle, and a traction control set-up that won’t cut as much wheelspin and momentum.
It’s not just fluff and marketing, either. The different drive modes do make a tangible difference to the vehicles. While they aren’t necessarily more capable in different modes, they are easier to get the most out of, especially for novice, or part-time, off-roaders. And when you think about it, that fits the bill perfectly for these SUVs.
The Cherokee scores points for having a locking differential, although the Disco Sport claws back points for All Terrain Progress Control; a kind of low-speed cruise control that works down to 1.8km/h.
Where the Cherokee wins big, however, is in its tyres. Chunkier 17-inch wheels with a mild all-terrain tyre do make it a less risky and more capable proposition off-road compared with the Discovery Sport. To be fair, our test Land Rover was fitted with optional 20-inch wheels, which didn’t do it any favours off-road. That being said, we didn’t run into any trouble. This time...
I'd much prefer to have something more off-road focused on the types of tracks we took these two around the Lost City near the Blue Mountains. However, I did come away impressed with how well these vehicles managed reasonably challenging terrain.
You'll run out of ground clearance, and risk body damage, and the tyres are limited in terms of grip. However, great traction modes and being smart with your driving line and techniques mean you can get up to plenty of mischief off-road in these vehicles.
The fact of the matter is, although there isn’t a live axle, ladder chassis or transfer case in sight, these two SUVs are both pretty capable off the bat. You can certainly choose something better for Cape York, and they might not stand up to sustained off-road beatings like an 80 Series LandCruiser or GQ Patrol, but if that’s what you’re comparing them with, you’re missing the point.
First and foremost, these two vehicles are competent medium-sized SUVs that can handle urban life with aplomb. They’re a good size to squeeze around in town, with enough size and safety to suit a small family.
If it were me, the better driveline and interior of the Discovery Sport warrants the price hike over the Cherokee. And if it were optioned with 17-inch wheels, they would be neck-and-neck off-road.
If you want something a little more adept off-road than your typical road-biased SUV, one of these two might fit the bill. Maybe you want to do some off-road adventuring, but you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
And maybe you’re more realistic about what you’re actually going to do, rather than what you’re aspiring to do. Serious 4WDers will look elsewhere, and for good reason. However, these two vehicles do fill a niche very nicely.