Powering the Meridian is Jeep's familiar 2.0-litre turbo-diesel engine. It comes mated to a six-speed manual or a nine-speed automatic transmission and that’s what we're sampling. The latter gets an optional all-wheel drive, which we also experienced off-road. More on that later. But don't expect any petrol derivative as only this diesel-only option will be available upon launch. Fair enough given its class and expected performance. It's good that this diesel mill's clatter is well-masked inside the cabin and vibrations on the steering are minimal.
Now, this FWD variant that we started off driving doesn't get any driving modes. This 168bhp engine might look underpowered for a 1.8-tonne vehicle but it is par for the course. In fact, it does more than good and Jeep's claim that the Meridian can accelerate from 0-100kmph in 10.8 seconds feels believable. With 350Nm of torque on tap, it gathers speed quickly and the gearshifts are smooth too. That said, it still isn't the quickest of transmissions and there's a slight delay in response of this torque converter. The Meridian boasts independent front and rear suspension for its uni-body architecture. It gets Frequency Selective Damping (FSD) along with Hydraulic Rebound Stopper (HRS). The SUV nicely smoothens out the road imperfections and, in fact, smothers the obstacles, just like ladder-on-frame vehicles confidently do. Here, there's no jolt sent inside the cabin and the movements of occupants are also minimal. Though it's a lengthy car, it is quite easy to manoeuvre, thanks to a 5.7m turning radius. The steering is precise and with a little less than three turns lock-to-lock, also reduces efforts. It's even quite light at low speeds and provides the required heft at higher speeds. We didn't find many corners en route and will re-affirm the body roll when it comes for an in-depth road test. But the first impressions are positive, with the SUV sticking to its line when pushed around some turns.
We also briefly got to test the 4x4 capability of the Meridian at an indigenously designed track in a forest. And it wasn't just an obstacle course to judge the Meridian for its 203mm ground clearance or 18-inch wheels giving it a high stance. Of course, they do help but what further differentiates the Meridian and gives it an outstanding off-road capability is the 4WD's specs. Thanks to a higher approach and departure angle of 21.5 degrees and 23.6 degrees, respectively, we even managed to climb stairs without a hiccup. Further, a break-over angle of 23.1 degrees is substantially higher, giving this AWD version an edge every time it's taken off-road. Then, there's a crawl ratio of 20.426 providing hill climbing or descending capabilities along with hill-descent control. Lest we forget, Meridian boasts water fording of up to 16 inches deep water/slush. We here got a good first-hand experience of how respectable the vehicle is with articulation, traction, manoeuvrability, and many such parameters vital to not just go off-road, but also help one out of a tricky situation in unfamiliar territory on a road trip.
The interior of the Meridian is similar to its sibling, the Compass. This also means it's a well-laid-out dash with a new customisable 10.25-inch digital instrument cluster as introduced with the Compass facelift. Also, there is a 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. It's an ergonomic cabin with good storage places and a solidly built interior. There's a good quality of materials and plastics used, and with premium touches like brushed aluminium, piano black accents, and nice tan leather, it feels luxurious too.
With good room available in the front, seats are a snug fit, quite important to hold you in place while off-roading. The second row also is quite welcoming with large doors opening wide up to 80 degrees for better ingress-egress. These seats are supportive too, but not generous in terms of legroom, especially if you want to stretch out. They do get a one-touch tumble feature for convenience to get into the third row, however, the lack of the sliding option limits the leg space. Hence, third-row knee-room is also limited for adults and nil in terms of under-thigh support. These issues don't make for a comfortable long drive and are good enough only to accommodate someone for short drives. Thankfully, the backrest can be reclined, like in the second row, and separate air vents together add to the respite. You still get some boot space with all the seats up, which otherwise nicely flattens out for humongous cargo space with the rear seats down.
Amongst all the basic functions and various luxury offerings carried over from the Compass, the Meridian's notable features include multi-zone automatic climate control, a powered tailgate, and a panoramic sunroof. I'd have still loved it if it had ventilated seats, especially for our hot and humid climate. Jeep, though, hasn't skimped on safety and kitted the SUV with a host of equipment. This includes six airbags, a 360-degree camera, and more, in addition to the different types of brake assist, Hill Start Assist (HAS), and Automatic Vehicle Hold (AVH). What's more, the SUV is composed of hot-stamped parts with high strength steel to provide higher rigidity and comes with various active and passive security features bolstering its focus on safety. There’s ABS, ESC, and TPMS, but it would have had an edge if it was equipped with adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, lane departure warning, HUD, etc., given the norm these days.
Jeep is famous as an off-road brand bringing in outdoorsy rugged vehicles which are practical even for your daily driving. The new Meridian represents this well while offering impressive off-road capability with on-road refinement. And then, it has an appealing exterior and a lavishly appointed cabin with new features as well. If the carmaker manages to price it competitively, buyers or even Compass owners seeking the third row can consider this to be a worthy upgrade. It's a good bet for the carmaker to tap into the sales of the premium seven-seater vehicle segment, now dominated by the Toyota Fortuner with the departure of the Ford Endeavour. Even if Jeep manages to start its pricing where the top-spec Compass ends (Rs 31 lakh ex-showroom), it will make for an enticing option for value-oriented buyers.