2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee

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First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

This 2011 review is representative of model years 2011 to 2013.
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
Before we go any further, let’s break down the various configurations. All trims come standard with the new 3.6-liter 60-degree V-6, which makes 290 hp at 6400 rpm and 260 lb-ft at 4800 rpm, increases of 80 hp and 25 lb-ft over the ancient 90-degree V-6 fitted to the previous GC. The Laredo X, the Limited, and the Overland can then be upgraded to the 360-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 390 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission — we were told a box with more ratios won’t be available until at least the GC’s mid-cycle refresh — and all trims can be paired with rear- or four-wheel drive. Two towing packages allow up to 5000 pounds of towing capability with the V-6 and up to 7400 pounds with the Hemi.

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.
On-road, where a large part of GCs will spend the entirety of their lives, our test vehicles were as well behaved as they were climbing Moab’s stoic rock formations. That’s not to say the new Grand Cherokee is thrilling, because it’s not. But that’s okay, since a luxury SUV’s lot in life is to be sumptuous and innocuous, and that’s what this Jeep is. The air suspension delivers a comfortable ride that isolates virtually any harshness from the occupants, and head toss and body roll are all well controlled. The steering has a very Mercedes-like quality to its overall weight and lack of tactility — the GC shares the ML’s steering column but has a unique rack — although it doesn’t have the huge variance of effort just off-center found in most Mercs. The GC’s steering loads up predictably and doesn’t have much on-center slack, which means it will work fine for the average buyer. The brakes don’t provide a lot of feedback, but they are up to the task of dealing with the Grand Cherokee’s considerable mass — 4500 to 5200 pounds, according to Jeep’s estimates.

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 old GC was never particularly terrible to drive. It was simply a terrible place to spend time, with interior plastics as cheap and depressing as those in something with a Power Wheels logo on the side. But the interior now befits an entry-luxury SUV that Jeep says will carry out such varied duties as driving the trail to delivering tuxedoed folks to the symphony. A direct journey might be a stretch — have you seen how dusty a tuxedo can get after a day out on the trails? — but the refinement and quiet of the new truck won’t disappoint any hoity-toity passengers.

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
Auto headlamps, heated side mirrors, Sirius satellite radio, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio and cruise controls are among the bits included on all Grand Cherokees. Laredo X models and above get heated front seats, leather upholstery, an upgraded stereo with a subwoofer, a backup camera, auto climate control, and 18-inch wheels. The Limited piles on more stuff, including a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, bixenon headlamps, rain-sensing wipers, and heated second-row seats. The Overland basically goes whole hog with navigation, a power tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, and interior upgrades. The options include packages that net various niceties such as the ventilated seats, a heated steering wheel, a power liftgate, rear-seat DVD entertainment, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot monitoring. Then, of course, you can add the Hemi V-8, special paint, a towing package, and a choice of off-road packages.

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.

Performance Data
PERFORMANCE (C/D EST):

Zero to 60 mph: 7.0–8.1 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.5–16.4 sec

FUEL ECONOMY (MFR’S EST):
EPA city/highway driving: 13–16/19–23 mpg

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BB02 - 7/28/2014 6:58:14 PM