• Enjoying  hallowed  company

The Jeep Meridian comes from a storied lineage. We took the young one to meet its illustrious family!

Legacy is like the two sides of a coin. Having a colourful lineage gets you pedigree, but also puts you in the spotlight. Expectations are high while margin for error is low. Take the Jeep Meridian for example. It comes from an illustrious line of Jeeps tracing back to the iconic Willys MB, a light weight overland vehicle developed for the US Army and which played a vital role in helping the Allied forces win World War II. The Willys was a light weight, simple, highly reliable and versatile runabout that revolutionised small military vehicles. It was so versatile that even after the war the Willys was used for varied applications such as fire-fighting, cable laying, sawmills, ambulances and even as tractors! Its prolific character even earned it a spot in the New York Museum of Modern Art.

The Willys resumed civilian duties post the war with a few modifications, under the CJ-2A name. Since then Jeeps have been used the world over and are recognised for their off-road pedigree and go-anywhere abilities. Even today the Jeep Wrangler is highly sought after and considered by many to be the finest overland vehicle.

Needless to mention thus, every Jeep product since the Willys has been highly capable off the beaten path. On that note, lets get back to the Meridian. With this new SUV Jeep India intends to take on the premium three-row SUV segment that has been dominated by some truly hardcore ladder-frame SUVs like the Toyota Fortuner and now-discontinued Ford Endeavour. At the same time, it also needs to compete with more modern SUVs like the Skoda Kodiaq and MG Gloster. To say that the Meridian thus has its work cut out would be a bit of an understatement then!

Jeep had laid out a tough trail for the Meridian at the press drive, with the intent of helping us experience the SUV’s rugged side, besides its plush interiors and excellent on-road dynamics. The course included articulation pits, steep slopes and inclines and even a flight of stairs! Ed came back quite impressed with the Meridian, especially its off-road abilities but I was not convinced just yet. Can the Meridian really straddle the roles of being a plush three-row SUV and a go-anywhere one in the same package? To get answers, the Meridian was called for, along with the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. What better reference point for off-road ability than the big daddy of hardcore off-roaders, no? For added spice, we even had a short-wheelbase, two-door Wrangler Sport tag along!

The Wrangler Sport belongs to our friend Rajveer Singh and is one of the three units that were imported by Jeep for India. Besides the short wheelbase its other striking feature is the V6 petrol engine under the hood! This was going to be a lot of fun for sure.

I liked the way the Meridian not only distinguishes itself from the Compass but manages to look more upmarket as well, instantly. The dual-tone Velvet Red and Black paint job looks striking and goes well with the Meridian’s large dimensions. The Meridian isn’t simply a Compass with an extended tail section though and gets new body panels besides its extended wheelbase which is 146mm more than the Compass and at 2,782mm, also the longest in its class.

The Meridian’s front end packs in a lot of chrome and a set of slim headlamps which come together well. The sides offer a clean and rugged look that is complemented with a set of well-finished, 18- inch alloy wheels and chunky tyres. The tail section blends well too though I am not particularly fond of the high-set, slim tail lamps which seem to get lost in the busy-looking tailgate. The SUV features lots of chrome which does not look garish but is classy. I also like the fact that the Meridian reminds me of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and not the Compass!

The design is meant to let the Meridian take on off-road trails as the front and rear bumpers feature shorter overhangs than the Compass while the 203mm ground clearance aids the excellent approach, departure and ramp over angles.

To test the Meridian’s off-road ability we headed to a trail in Lonavala. It is an access road to a fort and goes through a forest reserve. With the single-lane road being broken at most places, the road is only accessible by 4X4 SUVs. As we took the expressway towards Lonavala I couldn’t help but admire the well-appointed cabin. It is carried over from the Compass but features a more premium looking two-tone brown and black leather finish and brown-hued, quilted seats that look classy.

The 10.1-inch floating infotainment screen and 10.2-inch digital instrument cluster have been carried over as well. Both displays offer a crisp resolution and easy-to-use interfaces. The Meridian is also feature-packed as well with goodies like a panoramic sunroof, wireless charging, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto and cooled front seats. It even gets a premium nine-speaker Alpine music system that impresses with its clarity and crisp notes.

I even had Gaurav take on chauffeur duties while I settled down in the second row. The seats have been reprofiled and fixed higher than the Compass for better under thigh support. You can also recline the backrest to your liking, though I wished the seats could be moved fore-and-aft like some of the other SUVs.

Access to the last row is via a very convenient flip and tumble function for the second row seat. The rear row gets dedicated controls for the roof-mounted AC but the low-set seat feels cramped and is suitable for shorter individuals or children. It does fold away to liberate a substantial 481 litres of boot space.

The motor feels relaxed on the highway, the nine-speed automatic on this Limited 4x4 variant settling quickly into higher gears at speeds. It carries over the Compass’s 172PS 2.0-litre diesel motor albeit in a revised state of tune. While it is tuned for linear power delivery and refinement and has to contend with the extra 110kg over the Compass, the Meridian does not feel underpowered. The only time, you feel a performance difference from the Compass is at slow city speeds where the five-seater SUV feels sprightlier.

As we wait for the SWB Jeep Wrangler to join us, I notice the Meridian parked behind the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. Now, the Rubicon is massive in size but even next to it the Meridian looks striking and boasts excellent road presence, which is a significant requisite in the three-row SUV segment that it is positioned in.

Before hitting the trails we decided to warm up by heading to one of the hillocks. The narrow trail consists of sharp bends, loose mud and gravel. Ed and Rajveer sped off even before I could turn off the main road. My scepticism turned into certainty though as the Meridian wriggled through easily, in two-wheel drive mode! It climbed up the hillock with ease and I can imagine the approving nods from the two ‘off-road veteran’ Jeeps towards the rookie. The hill we climbed overlooks the Pune-Mumbai Expressway and I have often been on the other side, wondering how the view must be from where we were. I guess it is one a Jeep thing, conquering places you could only imagine otherwise!

We soon begin our climb towards the fort and the road breaks into gravel and eventually into just loose rocks and ruts. While both Wranglers devour the rough terrain easily, I drove through gingerly, keeping an ear out for the painful crunch of the bumper hitting a rock or the underbody scraping. My fears evaporated quickly though as the Meridian sailed through as effortlessly as its more distinguished siblings. Like the Compass, the Meridian also gets a terrain selector (Sand/Mud, Snow and Auto). I left it in Auto as it was doing a fantastic job of adapting to the terrain.

As the road deteriorated into nothingness and led up a steep outcrop, I pressed the 4x4 low button for safety. The 350Nm of shove coupled with the low ratio helped the Meridian clamber up with more haste than I had expected. Effortless is the word that comes to mind to describe the experience.

We reached an open ground, peppered with rocks and dried-up ponds and Ed drove into one to test the Rubicon’s articulation. While the Rubicon’s articulation flex is strong, the Meridian too can hold its own as it gets its wheel on a large rock with ease.

A few days with the Meridian convinced me that it can be quite the overlanding vehicle. It feels capable on trails and feels equally comfortable and surefooted on the highway. The Meridian has the best balance between ride and handling in its segment in my books and it impresses with its absorbent ride thanks to its Frequency Selective Damping.

The Meridian performed flawlessly in the company of its illustrious siblings, so it is safe to say Jeep’s overlanding DNA has filtered into the premium three-row SUV well. Add to that the well-appointed, premium cabin and luxury-car levels of ride quality.

Prices for the Meridian start from Rs 29.9 lakh ex-showroo and go up to Rs 36.95 lakh, helping it undercut the Toyota Fortuner by a huge margin. Handling the tough terrains of regions like Ladakh is just one page of the story, travelling across India in comfort is a whole book in itself. I’m sure the Jeep Meridian can not only traverse across the desolate region with ease but also take you across the nation in utmost comfort!

 

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