2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2001 Grand Cherokee front.jpg

Reviewed by Gaywheels.com

This is going to be two stories, really: a story about a car, and a story about a company. The car is the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and the company is Chrysler.

You remember Chrysler, don’t you? And the Grand Cherokee? It arrived back in 1993 as the bigger, more suave brother of the Cherokee, which itself was a boxy, square-jawed little wagon — sort of the crew cut of cars. More importantly, the Grand Cherokee that followed on the Cherokee’s heels actually lived up to the promising name. It was more civilized, sophisticated and comfortable than the Cherokee. More “grand” than the rolling utilitarian toolbox that came before it. Just as importantly, it was vastly more stylish and in many ways more capable than the reigning king of SUVs, the 1990’s-era Ford Explorer.

2011 Grand Cherokee interior.jpgYes indeed, Chrysler had a hit on its hands. If you wanted an upscale SUV, you bought a Grand Cherokee. And 1.4 million people around the globe did just that. They bought the original generation of “luxury” SUV, and basically everyone loved ’em. And after they put 200,000 miles on their first one, they bought another, only to find that it was almost exactly the same as the last. Remarkably little had changed. Fair enough.

But by the time customers came back for the third time, the Grand Cherokee was still looking — and feeling — like their first Grand Cherokee, which meant that customers started looking elsewhere. And when they looked, they found that the competition had caught up and accelerated right past the Jeep. The Lexus RX floated by in the luxury lane, the BMW X5 clipped the Jeep in a corner, and the Mercedes ML took the Grand Cherokee’s place in the valet-park starting grid.

Which brings us to Chrysler. After buying Jeep from AMC, they’ve been the keepers of the brand, only to see their own fortune controlled by Mercedes-Benz, who owned them from 1998 – 2007; Cerberus Capital Management, who neglected them from 2007 – 2009; the U.S government, who forced them into bankruptcy; and now Fiat, who is helping them back on their feet. It’s a wonder that Jeep survived at all.

But Jeep means something to American buyers. And this new 2011 Grand Cherokee means that Jeep and Chrysler have a shot at redemption. In other words, despite the odyssey of owners and insolvency, Chrysler has kept its eye on the ball and built a Grand Cherokee worthy of the name. It’s an excellent new SUV. 

Gone is the slightly flexy, flimsy-feeling body structure of the old model. And in its place is unitized body/chassis architecture, co-developed with Mercedes back when Germany was calling the shots. This point should be emphasized, because Mercedes builds rock-solid vehicles, and the new Grand Cherokee feels tighter and more robust than any Jeep vehicle I’ve driven in 30 years. And I’ve driven and owned plenty. So we’re off to a good start here.

Next, Jeep tossed the old solid rear axle in the trash bin and replaced it with multi-link suspension featuring aluminum lower control arms. At which point we now have a Jeep that doesn’t hop, skip and jump over bumpy pavement, but rather rolls over rough surfaces with control and composure that was heretofore unheard of in a Jeep. In short, the pogo-stick suspension is gone. So too is the side-to-side head-tossing ride quality. Also missing is the cranky V6 that powered the outgoing model.

Of course, if you haven’t driven an Acura, Lexus or BMW with a six-cylinder engine, the old Grand Cherokee’s six might seem adequate. That is if you think 210 horsepower is adequate for moving roughly 4500 pounds of SUV. And trust me, you don’t. This engine must have sent numerous Grand Cherokee shoppers walking away from a test drive, shaking their head, and heading for a Toyota dealership.

2011 Grand Cherokee Dash.jpgSo Chrysler finally stepped up and engineered a thoroughly modern V6. The 290-horsepower output and happy sounds coming from under the new hood signal that Chrysler is serious about the Grand Cherokee…again. In fact, the new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 is so good it’s got me wondering how many people will want to spring for the 5.7-liter Hemi V8. Not that I’m going to argue with 360 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of torque, but unless you need to pull a mighty big trailer on a regular basis — up to 7400 lbs. for the V8 — the V6 is so competent you probably won’t feel the need.

You also won’t need to apologize for the Grand Cherokee’s fuel economy. Granted, it’s no Prius, but rear-drive (2WD) models with the V6 are rated at 16/23, and four-wheel-drive (4WD) models promise 16/22 for city/highway fuel economy. And seeing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently updated its ratings protocol, these figures are somewhat realistic. On the other hand, the Hemi V8 might help you get up into the Sierra Nevada a bit faster, but upon arrival you’ll have to hand over your Sierra Club membership: the 4WD Grand Cherokee V8 is rated at 13/19. But whatever: that’s between you, your conscience, and your credit card.

Speaking of 2WD/4WD, Chrysler has kept the Grand Cherokee close to its Jeep roots by offering no less than four drive systems: Traditional rear-drive with traction control; full-time 4WD with four-wheel traction control (Quadra-Track I); full-time 4WD with a two-speed transfer case plus Selec-Terrain and hill-descent control (Quadra-Track II); and all that plus a limited-slip rear differential (Quadra-Drive II).

2011 Grand Cherokee rear.jpgChoose Quadra-Track II or Quadra-Drive II, and the new Selec-Terrain system tailors the throttle, traction control, transfer case and transmission for five different driving conditions: Sand/Mud, Sport, Auto, Snow and Rock. Add the newly available Quadra-Lift air suspension, and you can lift the vehicle for off-road work, lower it for cargo loading, or set it in an aerodynamic mode for high-speed cruising. Yes, this is the kind of high-end drive and suspension system engineering you get with a mega-bucks Range Rover or Land Cruiser, and I’m here to tell you it works. The Chrysler/Jeep folks turned us loose on some gnarly, technical trails, and the Grand Cherokees climbed up and down rutted fire roads that would leave a Lexus RX, BMW X5 or Mercedes ML for dead. The traction systems worked flawlessly. And while a similarly priced Toyota 4Runner or Nissan Pathfinder might have navigated the same roads, I doubt they would have done it with such unflinching mechanical ease.

So while the Grand Cherokee is far more stout than the likes of a car-based Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot, it’s also notably more refined and civilized than the truck-based 4Runner or Pathfinder. And hence, the Grand Cherokee is back in its niche. It’s not a camouflaged minivan like many of the seven-passenger crossover vehicles. Nor is it a domesticated truck. No, this is an amazingly civilized five-passenger Jeep.

The build quality is light years ahead of the original — and the existing model, for that matter. The on-road performance is leagues beyond anything else in its price range, and the off-road capability, when the vehicle is equipped with one of the upper-grade drive systems, is exactly what you expect in a Jeep. And here’s the kicker: the base Laredo V6 2WD starts at $31,000, and the only demerit is cheesy-looking cloth upholstery. The rest of the interior is surprisingly high quality. And the full-boat Overland 4WD tops out around $48,000, loaded with navigation, premium audio, every electronic trick in the book, and get this: real wood interior trim and a hand-stitched leather-covered dash that matches the leather seats.

So guess what fellow taxpayers? After driving the new 2011 Grand Cherokee, I think our $10 billion Chrysler/Jeep bailout was probably a good bet. Because if the economy holds, this vehicle should help return the investment.