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Platform games: Cherokee is not Dart

by David Zatz on

Mopar '13 Dart front

Analysis. We’ve read on the Internet that the Jeep Cherokee is just a tall Dart, because both Cherokee and Dart share the “CUSW” (C-size, United States-Wide variant) platform.

They do share that platform. But… what is a platform?

A lot of people think of a platform as being the chassis, and because in the 1970s, that’s pretty much the way Mopars worked. That was never the definition — but since “new” cars were created by swapping “top hats” on a shared chassis, it seemed that way. All Chryslers had roughly similar layouts under the skin: torsion bar front suspensions, Hotchkiss rear suspensions, unibodies with subframes.

But if it’s not the chassis, what is a platform?

According to retired product planner Burton Bouwkamp, in the 1970s, a platform was essentially designed by where the cowl and driver were, relative to the front wheels. The definition has changed since then, but it is still a set of dimensions alone, not the powertrain, architecture, or appearance.  As engineer Bob Sheaves wrote, the platform only defines the space required to assemble the parts.

The Dart and Cherokee share some dimensions, and use some common suspension designs, at a high level (with relatively little actual parts sharing). Dart is optimized for on-road cornering; take it out on the Jeep testing course (below) and it will (like competitors’ “SUVs”) break or get stranded before a hundred yards are up. Take a Cherokee on the same road and it will come through with nary a problem — which is why the course exists.

Cherokee, in Trailhawk trim, has much better approach, departure, and breakover angles than Dart (or most competitors), and far better ground clearance; but the differences go well beyond that. The body has been strengthened so it can take some nasty shocks and can handle much nastier torsional forces.

How much work goes into the body strength? One sales rep told me that they actually had the RAV4 and CR-V on a test course, and were told to try to open the door while on the body flex test; they could not do it on the Honda or Toyota, but on Cherokee it was no problem. Several people now have told me about taking a body-on-frame Ford Explorer on the Chelsea Jeep course, and having the body literally come apart before it could get into the heart of the trail. Oh, and that’s not counting all the tricks Jeep used to get twenty inches (at 5 mph) of water-crossing capability… but that can be written off as a party trick, difficult and expensive as it was to arrange.

Thick steel skid plates protect the bottom of Trailhawk (and “trail rated” Compass, Patriot, and Grand Cherokee). They’re not slapped on willy-nilly; they’re designed for protection and to distribute sudden shocks. After being with Jeep people on the test course, I can tell you that these guys are not gentle on the Patriots and Compasses. They drive them right into holes and rocks at pretty fast speeds, and wham! goes the skid plate into the rocks or logs. The wheels fly up and down as the cars bounce over rocks and holes in the road, or across logs and ropes. At the end of the day, the Jeeps are in fine shape, and I think that’s most of what makes them Jeeps. Not a dimension here or there, not being on a unique platform, but being able to take a pounding you just don’t get on paved roads (even in the Bronx) and, while we’re at it, avoid getting stuck.

Above all else, that’s what makes Jeep Cherokee different from a Dart. Whether the parts fit into the same space is irrelevant — except, of course, for making it possible to build a vehicle at a reasonable price.

David Zatz founded Allpar in 1998 (based on a site he had begun in 1993-94), after years of writing reviews for retail trades. He has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. Before making Allpar a full-time career, he was a consultant in organizational psychology. You can reach him by using our contact form (much preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304


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