New Car Reviews

First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

With three owners in the past three years, it’s been a tumultuous time for Chrysler. The lineup has aged and it’s been uncomfortably quiet in terms of new product announcements. The 2011 Grand Cherokee breaks the silence and leads a handful of fresh vehicles into showrooms. While Italian automaker Fiat now controls Chrysler, development of this Grand Cherokee began in 2006, when Chrysler was still tied up with Daimler-Benz (the parent company of Mercedes-Benz). For that reason, the newest Jeep has a lot in common with the Mercedes-Benz ML.

Jeep’s “other icon”
The styling is purely Jeep, though, as designers played it safe when sculpting the sheetmetal. “It’s our other icon,” says Mark Allen, head of Jeep design, paying deference to the brand’s hardy off-road legend, the Wrangler. The familiar Grand Cherokee look is retained via the same proportions, basic shapes, and seven-slot grille as the outgoing model. But with more athletic sculpting and softer edges, the new Grand Cherokee is better dressed to mingle with the soft-roader crossovers in the suburbs. The design may suit the marketplace, but it does little to advertise the Grand Cherokee’s off-road capabilities.

Allen also notes that focus groups often tell designers and engineers that they don’t want the vehicle to grow any larger. Despite that request, the Grand Cherokee is 1.8 inches longer and 2.6 inches wider than the 2010 model. Stretching the wheelbase by 5.3 inches has the positive result of adding four inches of knee- and legroom for rear-seat passengers, along the visual benefit of reducing the SUV’s overhangs.

Jeep has made an effort to create a unified look across the trim levels, so that lower trims don’t stand out as the “cheap” models with missing fog lights or tacky black plastic in place of body-color bits. Fog lights and stainless steel window trim are standard on all trims (called Laredo E, Laredo X, Limited, and Overland). There are still some extras as you climb the trim ladder – body-color fascias, larger wheels, and chrome mirrors and handles – but Jeep has accomplished its goal of making the lowest priced trim just as attractive as the top-end trim.

An interior reboot
Inside, the Grand Cherokee surprised us with exceptional quietness. Laminated glass on the windshield and front doors reduces wind noise, while insulating wheel-well liners hush road and tire noise. Under the hood, there’s a panel between the engine and dashboard made from aluminum and composite material that keeps the engine hum contained. It’s a great way to highlight how much the interior has grown up.

Building on the precedent set by the 2009 Dodge Ram, the well-executed cabin should be a key factor in reestablishing Jeep’s claim that this is a premium SUV. The top-trim Overland receives a stitched leather dash and real wood accents that could pass muster in a Lincoln or Infiniti. Lower trim levels might not boast the same high-end finishes, but they benefit just as much from nicer materials and upgraded switchgear. The comfort features are premium as well. Standard equipment includes a passive entry, keyless ignition, a power driver’s seat, and satellite radio. Options include a heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, navigation, a power liftgate, and a panoramic sunroof.

Two engines, three four-wheel-drive systems
The Grand Cherokee is the first vehicle to use Chrysler’s new Pentastar V-6, an engine that is set to replace a total of seven different six-cylinders currently used in the company’s cars, minivans, and trucks. The aluminum-block 3.6-liter boasts a substantial power increase with a modest fuel economy benefit over the Grand Cherokee’s outgoing 3.7-liter unit. That outdated engine had just two valves per cylinder controlled by a single camshaft over each cylinder bank. The Pentastar uses a decidedly more modern design, with four valves per cylinder, two camshafts per bank, and dual cam phasing. City fuel economy is unchanged at 16 mpg, but highway climbs two ticks to 23 mpg on the highway (22 mpg for four-wheel-drive vehicles). The power gain is decidedly more impressive, climbing from 210 hp to 290 hp with a torque output of 260 lb-ft.

At more than one mile above sea level in the hills surrounding Moab, Utah, we needed every bit of power to hustle our 4850-pound test vehicle. The power is adequate for most situations, but we’d like more for the uphill sprints, highway merges, and inviting roads. Our V-6 Limited model was also burdened by inconsistent behavior from the standard five-speed automatic transmission. The lightest throttle application sometimes delivered aggressive downshifts. Other times, we would plant the gas pedal without response from the transmission, left to build revs from 3000 rpm. Despite those complaints, the 80-hp boost over the old 3.7-liter is worth celebrating and the engine is unobtrusive in relaxed driving.

The safe bet for passionate drivers is the familiar 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that can be had in cars like the Dodge Challenger. It makes 360 hp and 390 lb-ft in the Grand Cherokee, and will quash any acceleration complaints. A five-speed automatic is again the only transmission, but it’s an entirely different gearbox and the programming is better sorted out. Downshifts are predictable and upshifts are smooth. Early estimates put the fuel economy of four-wheel-drive V-8 trucks at 13/19 mpg.

Regardless of how often Grand Cherokees are or aren’t taken off-road, the reputation for all-terrain competence is core to this Jeep’s image. Three unique four-wheel drive systems are available, with varying degrees of complexity and capability, along with a rear-wheel-drive offering for those in southern states. The entry-level system is more for foul weather and a sense of security. Called Quadra-Trac I, it fixes the torque split at 48 percent to the front and 52 percent to the rear wheels.

Quadra-Trac II is the bare minimum for any serious off-roading with its two-speed active transfer case. The active part means that the torque distribution can be varied between the front and rear axles from 100 percent at the rear wheels to a 50/50 split. The two-speed portion indicates that there’s a low-range gear for low-speed, high-torque crawling on dirt, in sand, or over rocks.

Both our V-8 and V-6 test vehicles were equipped with the top-end Quadra-Drive II. The all-wheel drive hardware is the same as Quadra-Trac II with the addition of an electronically controlled limited-slip differential on the rear axle that manages side-to-side power distribution.

Riding on air
The chassis is where you’ll find most of the commonalities between the Grand Cherokee and the next-generation Mercedes-Benz ML. The two vehicles share key chassis dimensions, suspension geometry, and brake packages. The suspension uses control arms in the front and a multilink setup in the rear. Steel coil springs are standard, but optional air springs are a must-have for anyone planning to take their Grand Cherokee off-road.

Known as Quadra-Lift, the air suspension can adjust the vehicle’s height to one of five levels. Normal ride height sets the Grand Cherokee 8.1 inches off the ground. Two off-road settings raise the ground clearance to either 9.4 or 10.7 inches. Park mode lowers the vehicle for easier entry while aero mode automatically activates at speeds over 60 mph to lower the SUV for improved fuel efficiency.

A rotary dial on the center console controls the new Selec-Terrain system, optional on four-wheel-drive Laredo models and standard on the four-wheel-drive Limited and Overland. Selec-Terrain alters the behavior of the engine, braking, transmission, transfer case, stability control, and traction control for specific conditions. It also controls the ride height on vehicles equipped with the air suspension. Auto, snow, and sport modes are intended for paved roads, while the sand/mud and rock settings prep the Grand Cherokee for the trails.

The new Grand Cherokee makes improvements on its angle of approach (34.3 degrees) and departure (26.5 degrees), as well as its breakover angle (23.1 degrees). To achieve that approach angle, Jeep has designed the lower front fascia so that it can be removed in less than a minute without tools. Off-roaders will also appreciate the hill descent control and hill-start assist.

Confident on-road and off
On pavement, the Jeep provides acceptable, but not engaging, driving dynamics. With the air springs, the car rides comfortably, closer to stiff than soft. Unfortunately, we didn’t have an opportunity to drive a Grand Cherokee with the steel springs. The steering is particularly Mercedes-like in its feel and action. The power assist remains even and relatively light regardless of speed or angle, but it’s also devoid of feedback. Happily, the Grand Cherokee has great on-center response, confidently reacting to slight steering changes. Rotating the Selec-Terrain controller into sport mode allows the air springs to drop the ride height to aero mode for a lower center of gravity. The change, though, is subtle and does little to improve the SUV’s handling.
Cornering ability is on par with other SUVs of this size, which is to say that the limits are fairly low and it’s difficult to feel like you’re fluidly connecting curves when driving aggressively.

Of course, you don’t expect a Jeep’s passion to be corner carving, just as you don’t go to Moab for the roads. The Colorado river cuts through vertical faces of towering bluffs adjacent to well-worn red rocks that make for great off-road driving. At first look, the soft edges of the Hell’s Revenge trail suggest a gentle terrain compared the boulder-strewn surroundings and jagged peaks of the distant Rocky Mountains. As we drive from pavement to dirt, though, that notion is knocked down. The steep slopes fill the windshield with blue sky and picking a decent line among the dips and humps is more than dumb luck. Once you’ve put the Grand Cherokee in the right position, though, it’s effortless to scramble up the slick rock faces. Just gently lean into the throttle until the vehicle is moving forward and let the traction control take care of any excess. Even equipped with one of the two off-road packages, the Grand Cherokee still comes with street-oriented 18-inch Michelin Latitude Tour tires. Still, whatever we asked of it, the Grand Cherokee answered with unwavering authority. It may not have the presence of a lifted CJ7 with 35-inch tires, but that didn’t stop us from conquering the same shocking gradients. And the Grand Cherokee does all this with unapologetic luxury that changes the experience of off-roading. Tackling red rock from the comfort of a ventilated leather seat with the panoramic sunroof open to sweeping blue sky is a sweet – if almost sacrilegious – experience.

What’s old is new again
Daimler-Benz has been accused of causing Chrysler’s recent product drought by not providing enough resources for development during its 1998-2007 ownership. While Daimler failed to keep the entire Chrysler portfolio on boil, the 2011 Grand Cherokee is proof that the Germans and Americans were definitely capable of building an all-around competent vehicle.

Even better, the Grand Cherokee’s main selling points – a more powerful V-6, a seriously upgraded interior, and fresh sheetmetal – will sell at a lower price than the outgoing model. The cheapest Grand Cherokee is a rear-wheel-drive Laredo E V-6 priced at $30,995. That’s $495 cheaper than the base 2010 model. A 4×4 Laredo starts at $32,995 and our favorite – a V-8 Overland with Quadra-Trac II four-wheel drive and Quadra-Lift air suspension – begins at $44,990.

Aside from the gentler styling, the new Grand Cherokee doesn’t make any concessions to the trends of downsizing, softening, and generally neutering modern trucks. There’s no hybrid powertrain, no four-cylinder engine, and no front-wheel-drive variant. Whether that old-school approach makes Jeep distinctive or stubborn will be decided by sales (which start in June), but it certainly makes for a uniquely capable vehicle at a compelling price.

Buying Guide
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16 City / 23 Hwy

Cargo (Std/Max):

NA / 68.7 cu. ft.