First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
By Erik Johnson of Car and Driver
The rocks and desert surrounding Moab, Utah, have seen a lot of things. Dinosaurs hatching, dying, and turning into tar. Mormons fleeing persecution, flourishing, and inspiring a hit HBO show. And Jeeps. Lots and lots and lots of Jeeps. But this is Moab’s first look at the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Ours, too, at least from behind the wheel.
It’s an eagerly anticipated one, with Chrysler hitting financial rock bottom last year and its new-product pipeline drying up like a desert riverbed under the sweltering summer sun. That makes this Grand Cherokee, the first Jeep product to emerge after the Fiat-Chrysler alliance, a hugely important barometer of vitality and competence for an organization that has displayed little of either for the better part of a decade. The latest Ram and Ram Heavy Duty pickups are good indicators of what Chrysler is still capable of — they’re very good. Hooray for Chrysler, then, that the 2011 Grand Cherokee is good, too.
Based on the same architecture as the Mercedes-Benz M-class, the Grand Cherokee has thoroughly modern running gear. The live axle of the previous generation was tossed in favor of an independent multilink suspension, and civility has taken a commensurate move upward. Even while losing the stick axle, Jeep calls this “the most capable Grand Cherokee ever.” Helping validate that claim is an optional Land Rover–style terrain-selection system, inventively called Selec-Terrain, as well as three different all-wheel-drive systems and an available air suspension.
We spent the better part of a day scrambling up, over, and around nature on Moab’s Hell’s Revenge and Fins and Things trails, which were thick with lifted Jeep CJs, Toyota FJs, and custom-built off-road beasts. The GC acquitted itself very well, a given considering the trails were custom-picked to showcase the SUV’s abilities. Still, we easily conquered super-steep rock faces, craggy stair climbs, and sandy washouts — all with ventilated seats whirring under our butts. The sweaty driver of the 1975 CJ we saw with no doors and a three-legged dog riding shotgun didn’t know what he was missing. We returned to the trailheads suitably impressed.
We drove a Limited model powered by Chrysler’s new Pentastar V-6 and a top-spec Overland with the thundering 5.7-liter Hemi under its hood. (There are also base Laredo and one-step-up Laredo X trims.) Both were equipped with the Off-Road Adventure II package, which adds the air suspension except on the Overland, where it’s standard. The ORA II package also includes a two-speed transfer case, off-road rubber, skid plates, a Trail Rated badge, and the top-dog Quadra-Drive II four-wheel-drive system, although the last item is unavailable with the V-6. Eighteen-inch wheels replace the Overland’s standard and Jeep-first 20-inchers when an off-road pack is specified; 17s are fitted to entry-level Laredos.
So Many Configurations
The three four-by-four systems have the same names as before, but they’ve been tweaked. Quadra-Trac I is the basic setup and is only available on Laredo models. It incorporates a single-speed transfer case with a fixed 50/50 torque split front to rear and electronic brake-based torque shunting from side to side. Quadra-Trac II, available on the Laredo X and above, has a two-speed transfer case with a 2.72:1 low range. It can run up to 50 percent of the torque to the front wheels or 100 percent to the rear based on available traction. The Hemi-only Quadra-Drive II setup (there is no QD I), standard on Overlands and available on the Limited and Laredo X, adds an actual electronically controlled limited-slip rear differential.
QT II and QD II come with the Selec-Terrain knob, which sits on the center tunnel and allows the driver to choose among five programs for different conditions: sand/mud, snow, rock, sport, and auto. Depending on the position of the dial, the stability control, the torque transfer, and the transmission react differently, starting in second gear with a fixed 50/50 torque split in snow, for example. Stir in the four-wheel-drive-exclusive air suspension, which can be fitted to all but the base Laredo, and the Grand Cherokee adds five modes of height adjustment to its repertoire. There are 8.1 inches of ground clearance in normal; Off-Road I lifts the GC by 1.3 inches, and Off-Road II adds another 1.3 on top of that. Park mode drops the GC by 1.5 inches for easier loading of people and stuff, and aero mode shaves 0.6 inch from normal’s height to improve fuel economy when traveling above 60 mph. Twiddle the Selec-Terrain knob to sport, and your truck will be in aero mode all the time.
That About Covers It. Let’s Discuss the On-Road Stuff.
Compared with the 3.7-liter V-6 it replaces in the Grand Cherokee, the Pentastar’s changes include a switch from iron to aluminum for the block, an additional camshaft for each cylinder bank, and variable valve timing for the intake and exhaust valves. It was our first experience with the new V-6, but the altitude in Moab didn’t really allow it to shine, as full-throttle requests were often met with a lot of intake noise but not much in the way of extra momentum. Driving the Pentastar at a lower elevation will give us a clearer picture. We are pretty clear, however, on what the Hemi V-8 offers — power and torque, and lots of both — and it tugs the GC around with a rowdy rumble and a shrug of its shoulders. When left to its own devices, the five-speed automatic showed an eagerness to downshift on slight grades with either engine, perhaps as a response to the power-sapping altitude. There currently is no plan to again offer a diesel engine, but it was strongly hinted that a reborn Grand Cherokee SRT8 will appear in the next couple of years.
Most Impressive? The New Interior
The 2011 Grand Cherokee’s styling maps out a new direction for the brand, which will move away from the “box with fender flares look” in the future. (The Wrangler, however, should continue in the macho mold.) As handsome as the GC is on the outside, it’s the cabin that impressed us most, at least on the up-spec examples we drove. Yes, we looked favorably on this interior when the GC debuted back at the 2009 New York auto show, but you never know how much extra sizzle gets surreptitiously baked into “production debut” auto-show cars. The Jeeps we drove in Utah did nothing to discredit our first impression, and this interior is a huuuuuuge improvement in terms of materials and styling.
The levels of fit and finish are high, and where once there were flashing and sharp edges and abject horribleness are now soft plastics, decent leather, and real wood trim (the latter an Overland exclusive). We can’t help feeling, though, that the soft, curving design of the door panels, center armrest, and vents will look dated rather quickly and that the silver trim on the center tunnel will gather scratches, but for now, we’ll take it. The seats are comfortable and the interior is hushed even at 80 mph. Beyond the gen-yoo-wine wood on the steering wheel, doors, and dash, the Grand Cherokee Overland also has a buttery stitched-leather dash as standard; we couldn’t stop running our paws over it and think it should be offered as an option on lesser trim levels.
The 114.8-inch wheelbase of the 2011 Grand Cherokee is essentially identical to the ML’s, a stretch of more than five inches from before. The extra distance between the wheels was put to use largely in the rear seat, where riders get an additional 3.1 inches of legroom. Curiously, although the 2011 GC is 3.7 inches wider, a half-inch of shoulder room was lost in the front and rear seats. Front legroom is down (by 1.4 inches), but it’s not particularly noticeable. Cargo volume is up slightly, to 36.3 cubic feet behind the second row and 68.3 with the second row folded, increases of 1.8 and 0.9, respectively.
Competition and Equipment
Rear-drive Grand Cherokees range from $30,995 to $39,495, and $32,995 gets the least-expensive four-wheel-drive model, the Laredo. A four-wheel-drive Overland begins at $42,995. Fully loaded, the Grand Cherokee costs $47,405, which nets one tricked-out off-road rig. Really, the Grand Cherokee sits in a narrow pricing valley between vehicles like the Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9 on one end and the Land Rover LR4 and Volkswagen Touareg on the other. On the heels of our brief exposure, we can say that the Jeep has the Honda and Mazda beat on off-road ability and interior trim (at least in higher-spec form), but it’s not as nice to pilot as the Land Rover or Volkswagen. The Toyota 4Runner competes here, too, but it’s not as well finished as the Jeep.
Given all of this, it’s hard not to think of the new Grand Cherokee as a good value, especially when you consider that a V-8–powered ML550 4MATIC nears the $70,000 mark when equipped like a loaded Overland. The last time a Chrysler product offered a similar combination of value, class-competitive dynamics, and handsome styling was more than a half-decade ago, when the 300 sedan burst onto the scene. But the momentum from that car wasn’t sustained, and the company went broke. The 2011 Grand Cherokee doesn’t redefine the SUV, but it does demonstrate that vitality and competence are indeed present in Auburn Hills. Now let’s see if Chrysler can build on it, because the company as a whole still has a long way to go.
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