An off-road-capable midsize SUV perhaps isn't the best type of vehicle to debut when the car-buying public has set off a seismic shift toward crossovers, but it's what the automaker has to put in the game right now.
Those things aside, the new Grand Cherokee manages to provide on-road driving refinement that can go toe-to-toe with the best that the crossover segment has to offer — and it does so without sacrificing its considerable off-road capabilities.
It's a no-excuses SUV if there ever was one and, in effect, takes on Land Rover at its own game. Let your brain wrap itself around that concept for a moment, and it becomes clear how much the Grand Cherokee has evolved.
A Design That's Rugged, Yet Refined
The 2011 Grand Cherokee pulls off the challenging feat of possessing a clear design connection with its predecessor while looking completely new and modern. It's clearly a Grand Cherokee, but it has a sleekness that its predecessor lacked. The old Grand Cherokee's design was blocky, but the new model looks like it was shaped by a wind tunnel. In keeping with its looks, the new design cuts through the air better, with a 0.37 drag coefficient compared with the old model's 0.41.
The SUV is about 2 inches longer, 3 inches wider and one-half inch taller than the 2010 model, but its wheelbase has grown by 5.3 inches to 114.8 inches overall, resulting in more backseat legroom. Mark Allen, Jeep's head of design, said current Grand Cherokee owners made it clear they didn't want the SUV to get too big with its redesign, and it's evident that Jeep listened. (To see a side-by-side comparison of the 2010 and 2011 Grand Cherokee, click here.)
The Grand Cherokee's ride comfort is its most impressive quality. The new four-wheel independent suspension soaks up bumps easily without getting flustered like a traditional SUV can, and it corners confidently without any of the top-heavy motions normally associated with SUVs. It really does drive like a crossover; it reminded me of a softer version of the Honda Pilot or Mazda CX-9.
The ride gets a little cushier still if you get the optional Quadra-Lift adjustable air suspension, but the difference is subtle. Grand Cherokees with the air suspension do a better job of masking pavement imperfections, and the SUV floats a little more over bigger bumps.
Jeep found the desired middle ground with the Grand Cherokee's steering tuning. There's enough power assistance that your arms won't tire turning the wheel, but it's also not overboosted like some systems; there's some heft to the steering wheel. The SUV tracks confidently on the highway with good straight-line stability.
Going & Stopping
Driving the V-6 Grand Cherokee reminded me that the laws of physics can't be changed. The SUV uses Chrysler's new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 rated at 290 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque, but this is a heavy vehicle. The curb weight of the V-6 Limited 4x4 I drove was 4,850 pounds, and lugging all that weight around makes the V-6 labor; you can tell that it's working hard when you're accelerating. The V-6's performance is strong enough — which is good because Jeep expects 75 percent of Grand Cherokee buyers to opt for it — but it doesn't make the SUV feel quick. Once up to highway speeds, the V-6 cruises easily at 70 mph.
The V-6 teams with a five-speed automatic transmission, and it helps make the most of the V-6's available power. The transmission readily kicks down when you need more power to pass, and it shifts smoothly.
Choosing the optional 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 gives the Grand Cherokee more effortless acceleration; there's none of the laboring you feel when driving the V-6 on hilly terrain. However, considering the V-8 is rated at 360 hp and 390 pounds-feet of torque, it still doesn't feel as quick as you might expect. Again, the 5,210-pound curb weight of the V-8 Overland 4x4 I tested was like an anchor holding the engine back. Like the V-6, the V-8 drives a five-speed automatic.
|Midsize SUV Gas Mileage (city/highway, mpg)|
|V-6 2WD||V-6 4WD||V-8 2WD||V-8 4WD|
|2010 Toyota 4Runner*||17/23||17/22||--||--|
|2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee||16/23||16/22||14/20||13/19|
|2010 Nissan Pathfinder||15/22||14/20||--||13/18|
|2010 Ford Explorer||14/20||13/19||15/21||14/19|
|2010 Volkswagen Touareg||--||14/19**||--||--|
|*The two-wheel-drive 4Runner is also available with a four-cylinder engine that gets 18/23 mpg.
**Gas engine estimate. The available diesel V-6 gets 18/25 mpg.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, and the brake pedal has a very natural, linear progression.
Jeep is one of a few car brands with an identity strongly associated with off-road capability, and even though the new Grand Cherokee significantly improves the SUV's on-road refinement, it doesn't come at the expense of its off-road chops, which are impressive. My time with the Grand Cherokee included off-road driving at Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area in Northern California, where I had an opportunity to test the Grand Cherokee's off-road hardware.
A Grand Cherokee with Quadra-Lift and Jeep's new Selec-Terrain traction system (explained in more detail later in this review) made easy work of the rocky paths and steep grades at Hollister Hills. The SUV felt secure and sure-footed at all times — even when looking up at the sky on a steep hill climb.
Jeep staff advised drivers that the best way to advance in the Grand Cherokee was by maintaining steady pressure on the gas pedal to get the wheels slipping so the four-wheel-drive system could do its thing, and the method paid off.
With hill descent control, the Grand Cherokee crept slowly down steep grades without drama. One nice touch: The system lets you speed things up if you want by pressing the gas pedal. Most competing hill descent systems restrict you to a single speed.
The Grand Cherokee is available with a choice of three four-wheel-drive systems: Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II or Quadra-Drive II. Quadra-Trac I is a single-speed system that splits engine torque 50/50 front to rear, while the latter two systems have a two-speed low-range transfer case that can vary how much torque goes to each axle. Quadra-Drive II also adds a rear electronically controlled limited-slip differential that can apportion power between the left and right rear wheels, even on dry roads.
Choosing Quadra-Trac II or Quadra-Drive II also adds Jeep's Selec-Terrain system, which is similar to Land Rover's Terrain Response technology and a dial-operated system in the upcoming 2011 Ford Explorer. With Selec-Terrain, you simply choose the appropriate setting for your conditions — Sand/Mud, Snow, Rock, Auto or Sport — and the Grand Cherokee configures its systems to provide the appropriate response to your conditions.
Selec-Terrain also coordinates the Quadra-Lift air suspension on models that have it. Quadra-Lift provides up to 10.7 inches of ground clearance in its highest mode compared with 8.6 inches of clearance with the regular suspension. The air suspension has five height settings: Normal (8.1 inches of clearance), Off-Road 1 (9.4 inches), Off-Road 2 (10.7 inches), Park (6.6 inches) and Aero (7.5 inches).
The previous-generation Grand Cherokee lacked an interior to match its price, but the all-new cabin in the 2011 model uses premium materials and a less blocky design to give the SUV a more luxurious bearing. Upscale materials include a stitched leather dashboard and real wood trim on Overland models, and interior panel fit seemed much better compared with the old Grand Cherokee.
Despite the strides, there's still room for improvement. The silver trim that runs from the center of the dash down to the console isn't pretty, and the buttons for the optional automatic air-conditioning system don't have an upscale, well-oiled feel. The bin door at the front of the center console doesn't sound the greatest when closing, either. You might call this nit-picking, but in an SUV that can easily run into the mid-$40,000 price range, you should expect every detail to be accounted for. (Jeep said the Grand Cherokees were preproduction models, but I doubt these aspects will be much different from the ones on dealer lots. Be sure to check it out yourself if this is important to you.)
All of the Grand Cherokees I drove had leather seats, but base Laredo versions come standard with cloth upholstery. Front-seat cushioning is firm, but the seats were comfortable for a day of driving. Part of the credit goes to the longer seat cushions and the extra thigh support they provide. I'm 6-foot-1 and often find that I could do with longer seat cushions in many of the cars I test, but the Grand Cherokee's cushions were just right.
The longer wheelbase helped add an extra 4.4 inches of backseat legroom to this generation. With the front seat adjusted to where I'd drive, backseat legroom was generous, with a few inches between my knees and the front seatbacks.
The backseat doesn't slide forward or back, but I didn't miss the feature because of the ample legroom. The rear backrest is split 60/40, and you can adjust its angle by pulling a lever on the sides of the second-row seats, which is far more convenient than the top of the backrest where some automakers choose to place the release.
The same handle folds the seats flat with the cargo floor, and lifting it begins an orchestrated dance where the backrest comes down, the seat cushion drops closer to the floor and the head restraint flips forward so as not to get caught on the back of the front seat. It all happens in one quick motion.
Cargo & Towing
The Grand Cherokee's cargo area measures 35.1 cubic feet, which is 5.6 cubic feet larger than the prior model's cargo area but less than what the Toyota 4Runner (47.2 cubic feet) and Nissan Pathfinder (49.2 cubic feet) provide behind their second rows. With the Grand Cherokee's backseat folded, cargo room increases to 68.7 cubic feet.
The wheel wells intrude somewhat into the sides of the cargo area, but the bigger issue for some will be clearing the tall rear bumper; the cargo floor was nearly as high as my hip. The optional air suspension's Park mode provides some relief by lowering the ride height 1.5 inches.
A powered liftgate is optional, and it readily stops if anything obstructs its movement. You can also easily open and close the liftgate manually, which is sometimes difficult on models with power liftgates. All models have a rear window that opens independently of the liftgate.
All Grand Cherokees are rated to tow up to 5,000 pounds by adding an appropriate trailer hitch. For maximum towing capacity — 7,400 pounds for the rear-wheel-drive V-8 model or 7,200 pounds for the four-wheel-drive V-8 version — you will need the optional Trailer Tow Group IV Package, which features heavy-duty engine and engine oil cooling, a 220-amp alternator, a full-size spare tire and a Class IV receiver hitch with wiring harness.
The 2011 Grand Cherokee is a 2010 Top Safety Pick from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. To earn the designation, it received Good overall scores in IIHS' frontal-offset crash test, side-impact crash test, roof-crush test and whiplash-prevention test. The final requirement for the award is the availability of an electronic stability system, which is standard in the Grand Cherokee.
Additional standard safety features include antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags for both rows and active front head restraints. Rear parking sensors and a backup camera are optional, and collision-warning and blind spot monitoring systems are bundled together in an option package for Limited and Overland trims.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
Grand Cherokee in the Market
In the '90s, the Grand Cherokee, Ford Explorer and other SUVs fueled a boom that changed the landscape of American roads. Things move quickly in the automotive world, though, and Grand Cherokee competitors like the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and GMC Envoy have since been discontinued. The upcoming 2011 Explorer, meanwhile, will move from its truck-based roots to a new car-based unibody platform.
But despite sticking with a formula it's used for years — unibody construction with an integral frame and true off-road capability — the 2011 Grand Cherokee has managed to change with the times, too. We hope reliability improves with this generation, but impressive on-road manners and stylish looks inside and out make the Grand Cherokee a model that must be on your test-drive list if you're shopping for a new SUV — even if you don't plan on taking it off-road.
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