Why race a car when you can race a plane? Ben Griffin visited Blyton Park in Lancaster to take up a very unusual challenge in the new Grand Cherokee SRT.
Usually when a motoring journalist is invited to the launch event of a new car, they’ll be given a few laps at a circuit, a few hours in the car driving around a road route and be sent on their way to write about it.
But the recent Jeep Cherokee SRT launch didn’t quite follow the usual formula.
“I have an exciting offer with Jeep to pit its powerful Grand Cherokee SRT against a stunt plane on a race circuit,” the invite said. I immediately thought it was a pisstake and started scanning further for promises of Mr. Blobby as my driving instructor and Gordon Ramsey serving lunch.
But this was no joke, it seemed. Upon arriving at the event, I saw standing in front of me two stunt planes parked up at Blyton Park race circuit next to a set of Grand Cherokee SRTs. The race was on.
The plan was to do two test laps to get accustomed to the car, then it was two laps against the plane, which was to take a wider route around the track to keep things somewhat fair.
Despite the plane’s slightly longer route around the circuit, I wasn’t particularly confident of victory. Yes, the SRT has plenty of firepower. It uses 6.4-litres of Hemi V8 muscle, churning out 461bhp. It will do 0-62mph in five seconds and top out at 160mph. But it has the aerodynamic efficiency of a fish tank and weighs 2.5 tonnes.
The plane, meanwhile, a Silence SA1100 Twister, weighs next to nothing, generates 110hp, will do 0-60mph in four seconds, hit 178mph, and is as agile as they come.
Soon, it was time to take up the challenge. I managed to find a helmet large enough to accommodate my fat head and got into the plush, American-inspired interior.
Having pressed the thunder initiator button, I was off doing the slow laps while my my instructor, Ed Morris (the youngest man ever to compete at Le Mans) gave me pointers on where to brake, turn and accelerate to get the best out of the Jeep. Lap one was so slow a pedestrian could have overtaken me, but by lap three those big Pirellis P Zeros were screeching. By lap four, I was basically Lewis Hamilton – albeit without the model girlfriend and swathes of cash. In my head, at least.
I pulled in to the pit area to wait for the pilot to take to the skies. The pilot, I was assured, was extremely proficient, so it was unlikely I was going to end up picking bits of broken propellor out of the windshield. I pictured myself front page of the local newspaper: “Journalist dies in failed car stunt.”
On the start line, my competitive streak kicked in as I pondered how best to make life difficult for the pilot. I planned to use the Jeep’s outstanding acceleration to get as far ahead on the straights as possible in order to counter the plane’s greater agility through the corners.
On the first lap it transpired I could build up a lot of speed in the sweeping, chicane-less Lancaster turn and keep my foot buried on the straight, but the plane soared by even before I reached the chicane ahead.
Back around once more and it was time to show the plane who’s boss. Carrying a bit more exit speed and the tyres screaming for dear life, I managed (what I thought) was serious speed. I would tell you how fast I was going but I had no idea as I was too busy clinging on for dear life.
This time, the airplane – piloted by veteran pilot Peter Wills – swooped overhead moments after I had started braking. “Yes!” I thought to myself, I had beaten it. Kind of. To be fair, the pilot may have slowed down to make me feel better or a headwind had reduced his air speed. Maybe he went wide on his invisible corner.
It mattered little, to be honest. I felt like the Jeep and I had bonded. I had achieved a sense of glory behind the wheel of the big brute, and left impressed by its performance and the wondrous noise of its enormous V8.
As first drives go, it probably was hardly the most in-depth introduction to the vehicle. I was none the wiser about how practical it was inside or how useful it would be on a pre-university Ikea trip. As for fuel economy, I am guessing it erred somewhere between ‘catastrophically terrible’ at best and ‘bye planet’ at worst – especially given the way I’d driven it.
But this sort of car is meant to raise a smile and show that SRT badge makes it capable of taking on the likes of the Range Rover Sport, Porsche Cayenne and BMW X5M. And after a fair few laps it was clear the Cherokee can trick you into thinking you are driving something much smaller and more nimble.
What it lacks in sophistication and brand appeal, it makes up for with rip-roaring fun. If you fancy a howling V8, decent handling, strong, progressive brakes and a touch of American styling – all for substantially less money than its rivals – you could do a lot worse than pick one up.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT is available now, priced from £66,865. Expect a full, slightly more useful review soon. Minus the plane.