Jeep Grand Cherokee — Still goes anywhere, on or off-road

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

In designing its all-new Grand Cherokee, Jeep had two distinct goals.

The first was to build an engaging family hauler to compete with the vast array of compact and mid-sized crossover products now available and thereby gain a bigger slice of the segment pie.

The second was to keep Jeep’s vaunted off-road “Trail Rated” capability intact, a trait not found in most crossovers, which are simply minivan and station wagon replacements for suburban families.

Seems like a tall task. That Jeep has accomplished its objectives with the 2011 Grand Cherokee, which comes in V-6 and V-8 configurations and various trim levels depending on need and pocketbook is to the credit to the brand.

Jeep has also taken the extra step of developing a top-of-the-line Overland edition that will stack up well against the likes of Land Rover, Lexus and Mercedes.

This is good news for Jeep, which has watched Grand Cherokee sales slip over the past few years from 121,000 in 2007 to 74,000 in 2008 to 50,000 in 2009. 2010 sales started rebounding this fall — more than 10,000 were sold in September nearly double the number sold in September 2009 — as the new vehicle reached showrooms.

The previous Grand Cherokee had many desirable qualities especially its off-road capabilities, but it was saddled with a cramped passenger compartment, low-dollar interior materials and poor gas mileage.

The new Grand Cherokee is the antithesis of the old one with a richer looking interior that displays excellent fit and finish, easier to use switchgear, more fuel efficient engines including an all-new Pentastar V-6, and a bigger passenger compartment that opens up second-row space for shoulders and legs.

Even though the more spacious interior could handle a third-row seat option, it is not available. The all-new Dodge Durango, built on the same platform, will come with an optional third-row seat.

Perhaps the biggest news of all is a new base V-6 engine. The 3.6-liter V-6 should be the ticket for most folks. It sports 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque mated to a five-speed automatic.

We gave it a thorough test on both the east coast and west coast, traveling hundreds of  miles of interstates, small towns with unending stops and starts, big city driving, and narrow-country-road sightseeing and a bit of off-road thrown in just for the joy of it. The new Jeep merged, it passed, it cornered and climbed in a very satisfactory manner when asked to do the chores that surely most owners will demand and it went everywhere we asked no matter the terrain.

We found it a very accommodating companion on our excursions with excellent steering and on-center feel. And the suspension — the optional Quadra-Lift air suspension was featured in our top line Overland test vehicle — provided surprising on-road comfort for a true off-road SUV. We also tested a Laredo X 4X4 V-6. We never regretted a minute behind the wheel of either Grand Cherokee be it on a day-to-day basis or off on an adventure; now with an independent rear suspension it has not lost its Trail Rated prowess.

For those suburban dwellers who tow a boat or small travel trailer, the V-6 is rated at a useable 5,000 pounds. The 290-hp certainly trumps the previous V-6, which was rated at 210 horsepower and had less torque as well.

Jeep’s Pentastar has been measured at 8.4 seconds from 0-to-60 and 16.3 seconds at 86.6 miles per hour in the quarter mile. Stopping performance is good, measured at 128 feet from 60 to 0.

We think Jeep should have taken the extra step, however, and outfitted the entire lineup with a six-speed automatic, which is standard equipment with the optional V-8. It would have yielded slightly better gas mileage and surely aided overall performance. Jeep did manage to eke out a bit more gas mileage with the new V-6 engine rated at 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway with two-wheel drive and 16/22 in four-wheel drive. The previous engine was rated at 16/21 and 15/20.

For those who want more, Jeep has kept the big 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 in place. It develops 360 horsepower (three more than in 2010) and 390 pound-feet of torque. Towing capacity rises to 7,400 pounds, but gas mileage suffers to the tune of 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway.

Rear-wheel drive is standard, but as before there is an array of four-wheel drive options. The Laredo comes standard with Quadra-Trac 1, which essentially functions as all-wheel drive. Optional on the Laredo and standard on other trim levels is Quadra-Trac II, which adds a two-speed transfer case, hill descent control and a dial-in Selec-Terrain system.

The system, much like the one found in recent years in Land Rover products, allows drivers to specify which of five pre-programmed settings best suits road and trail conditions.  

Grand Cherokee prices are not for the faint of heart, but seem to be in line with other similar products. The base Laredo starts at $30,905 and prices proceed through six trim levels to $41,900 for the lavishly equipped Overland edition. The V-8 engine option ranges from a $5,495 in the Laredo to $1,495 in the Overland. But Jeep has included a host of goodies to go along with the engine in the Laredo including upgraded audio, remote start, heated seats and 18-inch aluminum wheels. For only $4,000 you can get the goodies without the V-8 in a package called Laredo X.

All Grand Cherokees can be equipped with the Off-Road Adventure I package that adds skid plates, off-road tires, tow hooks and a full spare tire. Take it up a notch to Adventure II and get the air suspension and an electronic limited-slip differential.

The Overland, a new model this year, takes the Grand Cherokee into the world of luxury with a stitched leather dashboard, wood trim, leather-clad heated front and rear seats, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, and heated steering wheel. Also standard are 20-inch aluminum wheels. And for a few dollars more, the discerning driver can add adaptive cruise control (a very worthwhile option), blind spot monitoring and forward collision warning.

Our test Overland carried a base price of $41,900 including destination and an as-tested price of $43,695. Our Laredo X 4X4 had a base price of $32,995 with destination and an as-tested price of $38,785 including a dual-pane Panoramic Sunroof.

Jeep has done an impressive job in reinventing the Grand Cherokee, keeping the trail rated vehicle the go anywhere master of outdoor adventure, and making it a terrific day to day driver as well.

Base price: $30,905; as driven, $43,695 ((V-6 Overland)
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6
Horsepower: 290 @ 6,400 rpm
Torque: 260 foot-pounds @ 4,800 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Drive: four-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 114.8 inches
Length: 189.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,850 pounds
Turning circle: 37.1 feet
Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds
Luggage capacity: 36.3 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 68 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 24.6 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 22 mpg highway, 16 mpg city
0-60: 8.4 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Land Rover LR4

The Good:
• Strong base V-6 engine
• Off-road capable
• Larger passenger-friendly interior

The Bad:
• Fuel economy still nothing to write home about

The Ugly:
• 5-speed automatic