80 mph. That’s what the speedometer reads as I toss the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 into the second corner of Willow Springs’ so-called “big course.” It’s a long, sweeping right-hander that’s punctuated with a late apex that catches many first-timers by surprise. The big brute turns in quickly and hangs on the race line, tossing my thigh against a bolster and slamming my kneecap into a speaker grille on the door panel.
The grip is superb, but my passenger, an engineer with Chrysler’s Street and Racing Technology brand, implores me to turn in even more. I’m bewildered: there’s more grip available? You cannot be serious.
He is. I crank the wheel just a little more, and with just a hint of wiggle from the rear end, the nose comes around, hooks up, and pulls towards the apex. In a run-of-the-mill sports coupe or a stereotypical supercar, this would be impressive, but when we’re talking about a large SUV that tips the scales at over 5000 pounds, it’s beyond impressive. It’s downright incredible.
Best of Both Worlds
The idea of a Jeep performing such seemingly impossible feats on a road course isn’t exactly new. After all, the original Grand Cherokee SRT8, launched in 2005, offered massive power, incredible grip, and was capable of returning some stunning numbers. When we tested it back in 2007, it blasted from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and blitzed through the quarter-mile in 13.2 seconds at 105 mph.
But in normal use, the brute suffered. SRT engineers insist that, apart from the Dodge Viper, the original Grand Cherokee SRT8 was the purest performance machine they’d ever crafted. As a result, it compromised ride quality, passenger comfort, and overall practicality for ultimate performance.
Does the new 2012 Grand Cherokee SRT8 follow in the original’s footsteps? In terms of packing a wallop and pushing the boundaries of physics: absolutely. But from the get-go, engineers sought to create a vehicle that was as usable in everyday life as it was competitive on a track.
Brash Looks, Beautiful Interior
At first glance, the new SRT8 appears to abide by the original’s formula. Riding one inch lower than other Grand Cherokee models, the SRT8 model bears a wild front fascia riddled with functional air intakes, fog lamps, and LED running lights, along with deep heat extractors gouged into the hood stamping. Five-spoke, 20-inch aluminum wheels, wrapped in 295-profile performance tires, accentuate the SUV’s slammed stance, as do the unique side sills. Out back, a new rear bumper design allows two exhaust tips — each measuring four inches in diameter – to exit on either side of a dramatic valance panel. The entire package is quite dramatic — or, as SRT brand president Ralph Gilles puts it, “absolutely delicious.”
You shouldn’t judge this book by its cover, though, because beneath its surface lies a surprising level of refinement. As is the case with other WK2 Grand Cherokees, the 2012 SRT8 offers a sumptuous cabin that is devoid of tacky materials, blocky surfaces, or gaping panel gaps. A leather-trimmed dashboard, center console, and door panels are bundled in an optional Luxury Group package, but all SRT models receive satin chrome and carbon fiber trim accents throughout the interior. Front bucket seats that are unique to the SRT8 incorporate hefty bolstering and are trimmed in both Nappa leather and perforated suede, and a new SRT-designed flat-bottom steering wheel incorporates small shift paddles. Buyers can opt for either a panoramic sunroof or a single-pane unit when bundled with a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
Solid Platform, Flexible Suspension
The refinement isn’t relegated to the interior. Engineers rave about how structurally superior the WK2 Grand Cherokee is over its predecessor; according to their calculations, torsional stiffness is increased 146 percent over the previous generation model.
A stiffer foundation allowed the SRT team to further play with suspension tuning – and thanks to a new adjustable damping system, you can, too. Bilstein adjustable dampers lurk at all four corners and are tied into Jeep’s signature Selec-Track controller. Crank the knob to track mode, and both impact and rebound damping go to full stiffness; sport mode dials it back a notch, allowing for a little more compression. The auto position renders the ride as supple and smooth over rough surfaces as any other Grand Cherokee — a far cry from the last model, which chipped our teeth and rattled internal organs when used as a commuter vehicle.
Beneath those large 20-inch wheels lurks an equally impressive brake system. Developed with Brembo, the front brakes make use of massive six-piston monoblock calipers along with 15-inch rotors. Out back, four-piston calipers grab hold of 14-inch rotors.
More Power, More Capability
Like SRT’s other offerings for 2012, the heart of the Grand Cherokee SRT8 lies with a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8. For those keeping score, that extra three-tenths of a liter of displacement over the previous 6.1-liter V-8 brings the power up by 50 ponies, to 470 hp. It also increases peak torque from 420 to 465 lb-ft. Chrysler continues to mate this engine to a five-speed automatic transmission and an all-wheel-drive system with a single-speed transfer case.
Weighing in at 5150 pounds, the new SRT8 has 331 pounds more bulk than the last iteration. Chrysler says its 0-to-60-mph time should be in the range of 4.8 seconds — slower than the 4.4 seconds we noted in 2007. However, given that Chrysler had estimated that the previous model would do the run in roughly 4.9 seconds, this new estimate may be conservative. 0-to-100-mph runs should still be ticked off in a little more than 16 seconds, and quarter-mile times are expected to remain in the mid-13-second range.
There are two important metrics where the new SRT8 absolutely trumps the old. The first? Towing. The last model’s center-exit exhaust pipes may have looked good, but they limited the size and capacity of hitch that could be installed. Since the 2012 model ditches that design, pulling is now a possibility. A class-four receiver and wiring connector are optional and allow the SRT8 to tow up to 5000 pounds — an improvement of 1500 pounds.
While drivers may have difficulty refraining from goosing the throttle, those who show some restraint may also be rewarded with improved fuel economy. The 6.4-liter gains Chrysler’s cylinder deactivation system, which shuts off four cylinders when not under load. EPA figures are still pending final approval, but the SRT8 is estimated to return 12/18 mpg (city/highway) – an improvement of 2 mpg on the highway.
Still a Track Rat at Heart
The new SRT8 may be a more well-rounded vehicle than its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less engaging to toss around, particularly on a track. Hard launches are entertaining, but throwing the massive Grand Cherokee into a corner is perhaps most enjoyable.
The grip is absolutely massive, and the electronic-locking rear differential, coupled with the ability to shift power to the front axle (but not from wheel to wheel) further helps the beast bite into the tightest of corners. A quicker steering rack improves turn-in and facilitates mid-corner corrections but is still reluctant to deliver much feedback to the driver’s hands. We encountered some mild understeer, but it emerges in a predictable fashion and only when the Grand Cherokee is being taxed to the edges of its limits.
Dialing the truck into sport mode defeats traction control but not electronic stability controls. Thankfully, it’s not very intrusive. Engineers aimed to have the all-wheel-drive system (including the rear electronic-locking differential), not a brake-based ESC system, do most of the work in getting the truck to rotate. When ESC finally steps in, it does so in a smooth manner that doesn’t disrupt the driver’s focus.
Pay to Play
You will, however, have to pay to have your cake and race it too. Pricing hasn’t been finalized, but officials suggest that the MSRP for the 2012 Grand Cherokee SRT8 will come in just below the $55,000 mark, excluding destination.
That’s a sizeable jump from the last model, but it’s still a far cry cheaper than other premium SUVs that offer similar performance. The Range Rover Sport, for instance, stickers at $60,495, while the Porsche Cayenne S comes in at roughly $65,000. Better yet, the Jeep still manages to best both those vehicles on the track and no longer forces buyers to live with a subpar interior and a malicious ride.
Is it possible to have it all? Perhaps not, but the Grand Cherokee SRT8 walks the line between daily driver, family hauler, and scream machine better than many other vehicles (let alone sport-utilities) currently on the market. It’s an impressive achievement.
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Base Price: $54,470 (est.)
On sale: Summer 2011
Engine: 6.4-liter SOHC 16-valve V-8
Horsepower: 470 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 465 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
L x W x H: 191.3 x 77.1 x 69.1 in
Legroom F/R: 40.3/ 38.6 in
Headroom F/R: 39.9/ 39.2 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 35.1/ 68.7 cu. ft
Curb Weight: 5150 lb
EPA Rating (city/highway): 12/18 mpg