Bob Cooke – contributor
Having had a two-inch suspension lift fitted to my Jeep, courtesy of Trailmaster and Surrey Off Road, it was time to put the new system to the test off-road.
The climb is a short one, but deeply-rutted and with a sharp breakover at the top; so sharp and leading to such a maze of high humps and deep hollows that we’d never dared take the Cherokee up there before for fear of knocking off what’s left of the exhaust system. This time, however, the old Jeep was quite ready for it, boasting its new 50mm Trailmaster suspension lift. Knowing that even with the upgrade the Jeep would get cross-axled on the way up I pointed to the spot where I wanted Derek to aim the offside front wheel and told him to floor the accelerator. As the Cherokee flew up we could see the suspension at work, the longer front springs allowing inches more articulation up front, so there was hardly a moment’s hesitation and just a bit of scrabbling for grip as the truck crested the rise and came to rest teetering on the edge of the big hole down to the left.
Up ahead was a sharp high-browed ridge that was sure to put the axles’ articulation to the test, so I guided Derek forwards and across the edge at an angle to see how far he’d get before a rear wheel lifted. It did, eventually, but only by a couple of inches, and – more importantly – with the Cherokee’s body well clear of the brow of the ridge which, before the suspension lift, would certainly have scraped more paint off the sills.
That shakedown at Boxgrove was enough to prepare us for some more tough-terrain driving at the Muddy Bottom site in the New Forest. The site is well named, being well provided with cloying mud runs and deep boggy hollows designed to test the mettle of heavily modified off-roaders and their exhibitionist drivers; fortunately, there are also many other less gloopy obstacles for the more sensible adventurers to try. Here again we found many steep climbs and high-ridged axle twisters that on previous visits had defeated the Cherokee through its standard lack of ground clearance and limited articulation.
Although the Trailmaster kit provides a nominal 50mm lift, the effect seemed more pronounced on the Cherokee – we figured there must have been a bit of sag on the old original springs – so the extra ground clearance allowed us to tackle much more serious terrain than we’d have tried before.
Even though ground clearance at the diffs remains the same – we’re still running the Cherokee on its slightly taller than standard 225/75×16 BFGoodrich Mud Terrains – there’s a significant improvement in the approach, departure and breakover angles. Can’t remember when we last off-roaded the Cherokee without putting it down heavily on its towbar as a matter of course, but this time it didn’t once get even close to touching down.
Most of the players at Muddy Bottom drive nails-hard, highly-modified, roll-caged dedicated off-roaders, mainly Land Rovers, shod with proper mud tyres of the SATS or Simex variety. Naturally, we wouldn’t dare put our weekday, high-street cruiser Cherokee (the air conditioning still works, as does the electric adjustment for the leather seats) through that sort of torture. With its extra ground clearance and heavier-duty springing, however, we were able to play a useful small part in the action by getting close in to vehicles that had got themselves seriously stuck so that the Cherokee could serve as an anchor for recovery winches, perching itself in furrows far deeper than it could have managed before to brace itself against the pull of the winch cable.
The rear leaf springs are particularly heavy-duty items, so we noticed a lot more crashing and banging from the luggage area as our boxes of recovery gear got bounced around more than usual, but never once did we hear the scrub of rubber on the inner wheelarch that previously often accompanied an angled axle-twisting crossing. There’s no doubt that the firmer rear springing would also cope well with the heavier than normal load of an expedition-style cargo.
We also took the opportunity of testing the Cherokee’s towing ability with the new springs and dampers. In truth, the old truck had proved an exemplary, stable, steady and relaxed tow barge before, so when simply pulling our Hotchkiss along behind it on its A-frame there was hardly any noticeable difference. Where we did feel a difference was when we loaded the Hotchkiss onto a hired twin-axle trailer. We were impressed with how much we could up the noseweight without unsettling the Cherokee’s stance or cruising stability; on its softer, part-worn original suspension we’d had to be careful not to exceed 100kg of noseweight (not a lot on a trailer load of two tonnes) because any more tended to set the Cherokee’s nose on a bit of a wander. On the highway the upgraded suspension held the rig true and steady with no sign of any sort of pitch or sway.
There’s only one minor downside, which is the enhanced firmess at the back when driving around town – more than usual thump from the back when negotiating those damned speed bumps, which can no longer be taken at the speed allowed by the sloppier original springs, particularly when there are passengers in the back. Apart from the speed bumps, however, the Cherokee handles better than ever on the road, cornering crisply with less than usual body roll in spite of the higher stance, riding firmly but comfortably and running dead true at speed. The Trailmaster treatment has improved the Jeep’s mastery of tarmac as well as the off-road trail.
Model: Jeep Cherokee
Spec: 4.0 Limited
Recent costs: fuel for gadding about off-road sites!
Arrived: Oct ’08