Redesigned for 2005, the third-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee remained true to its heritage, retaining a trail-friendly size, formidable off-road prowess, and refined on-road manners. Evolutionary styling looks both forward and back, with a chunky, geometric take on the SUV two-box form. Jeep resisted the urge to cram in a third row of seats, leaving large-scale people-hauling to the new, Grand Cherokee-based 2006 Commander.
The new GC arrived with a new independent front suspension designed to improve on-road comfort and agility, and an available 330-horsepower Hemi V-8 giving it class-leading power. For 2006, the Grand Cherokee receives Chrysler’s SRT treatment, with the SRT-8 model packing a 6.1-liter/415-horse Hemi V-8, along with upgraded brakes and suspension and big, 20-inch wheels. The SRT-8 should get to 60 mph in around five seconds, putting it in Porsche Cayenne Turbo territory for about half the price.
Consistent with Chrysler’s design philosophy–better that a design incurs a love/hate reaction than boredom–the new Grand Cherokee’s styling is more polarizing than the last generation’s. It harkens back to Jeep’s military past, with sharp lines and flat sides, and its silhouette isn’t dissimilar from the last two generations’. Jeep’s trademark upright grille looks as basic as grilles get, but it’s flanked by sculpted, round composite headlamps that provide one of the exterior’s few bits of visual jewelry and a nice contrast on the front end. The wheels, no matter which style, appear strong. The overall look isn’t what you’d call pretty, but it’s cohesive and it consciously avoids any design elements that might be construed as “cute” (e.g., the smaller Liberty’s bug-eyed front end). It’s a look that suits the Grand Cherokee and speaks to the vehicle’s undeniable toughness.
The Grand Cherokee’s interior is handsomely designed, looking better than it feels, with a two-tone color scheme on the hard-plastic dash and console. The steering wheel has cruise-control buttons on the front and audio controls tucked on the back–a good thing, since the dash radio controls are a bit of a reach for the driver. The optional Boston Acoustics sound system is loud and clear enough to please most non-audiophiles, and Sirius satellite radio is an option. Front-seat room is generous, but the rear seats lack legroom if the front seats are moved back very far. A roof-mounted rear-seat DVD system is a $1,200 option that could be worth every cent if you regularly shepherd kids around. Shorter drivers will appreciate available power-adjustable pedals. Messy cargo can be accommodated in the rear by a clever reversible floor panel, which can be mounted carpet-side up for a flat load floor, or plastic side up to provide a shallow waterproof recess for muddy boots and the like.
There’s a full complement of safety equipment available for the Grand Cherokee, but you have to pay extra for most of it. Front airbags, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and traction control are standard. On the options list are a ParkSense rear backup system (very useful with the Grand Cherokee’s high rear window and fat pillars), front and rear side curtain airbags, and an electronic stability-control system. Check all these options boxes and the Grand Cherokee is competitive with most other luxury SUVs.
Jeep gives you the choice of tepid (the 3.7-liter/210-horse V-6), adequate (the 4.7-liter/235-horse V-8), rowdy (5.7-liter/330-horse V-8), or extreme (the 6.1-liter/415-horse Hemi V-8). In addition to standard RWD, there’s a choice of three 4WD systems from single-range, all-wheel-drive with open differentials (Quadra-Trac) to the dual-range Quadra-Trac II, to Quadra-Drive II, which offers low range and electronic limited-slip front and rear differentials that can transfer engine power to the wheel with the most traction almost instantly. All engines are backed by a five-speed automatic transmission.
The theme here is choice, but the 5.7-liter Hemi is a nice way to go. In addition to providing gobs of torque, the Hemi employs a “multi-displacement system” that can shut down half the cylinders under light loads to improve fuel economy. Fuel economy in a V-8-powered SUV is a relative thing, but the Hemi’s 19 mpg highway rating isn’t bad in this class, and it matches that of the much less powerful 4.7-liter V-8.
Jeep made on-road dynamics a much higher priority here than in Grand Cherokees past. While it doesn’t have an independent rear suspension, a la the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot, the new GC does have a revised five-link arrangement, which, together with an independent front suspension, noticeably improves both ride and handling. The ride tends to be on the firm side, though without harshness. The biggest ride weakness is the head toss one experiences in a tall SUV with tight roll control–stutter bumps on one side of the vehicle render a shudder effect on passengers.
The 5.7-liter engine provides more thrust than you probably need, with enough low-rpm grunt to move the vehicle off the line in a hurry without seeming like it’s really trying–it’s effortless, American-style power. The Hemi also emits a satisfyingly throaty gurgle, and the five-speed automatic transmission offers a manual control mode, another nod to on-road performance. While the Hemi Grand Cherokee’s performance slays that of other SUVs in this price class, the SRT-8 version delivers acceleration on par with Chevrolet Corvettes and Porsche 911 Turbos of just a few years ago. Off-road, the Grand Cherokee is downright amazing given its on-road character. Fitted with Quadra-Drive II, the GC can heroically tackle the most extreme terrain, putting it in rare company with the likes of the Land Rover LR3.
The Grand Cherokee has carved out a well-defined niche for itself. It’s aimed at people who want abundant, torquey power (from V-8 versions), don’t need a third-row seat, and might actually take their vehicles off-road now and then. They also want luxury accoutrement, but don’t want to pay European prices and don’t expect the attendant quality of craftsmanship and materials. The Grand Cherokee straddles a fine line–priced to compete with the Ford Explorers of the world on the low end, but having enough brand cachet and luxury options to tempt the BMW X5/Mercedes ML/Lexus RX set on the high side. For instance, for your low-$40,000 outlay, you could either get a loaded Hemi Grand Cherokee, or an extremely basic six-cylinder X5.
The Grand Cherokee has elevated its on-pavement game to the point where that’s an option worth pondering–the carlike imports with independent rear suspension still go around corners better, but you’ve gotta spend some money to get an ML, X5, or Volkswagen Touareg that’ll just touch a Hemi Grand Cherokee in acceleration. The Ford Explorer gets the Mustang’s V-8 for ’06, but that 4.6-liter unit is still well shy of the Hemi’s output. The Toyota 4Runner is a lot like the Grand Cherokee in spirit, offering real off-road ability–and perhaps as important, an off-road image–with a big V-6 or a V-8, but it can’t match the Hemi for sheer grunt. The Chevrolet Trailblazer is getting old, but this year sees the addition of a model that mirrors the Grand Cherokee SRT-8’s performance mission: the TrailBlazer SS, which gets a slightly detuned version of the Corvette’s 6.0-liter V-8.
An SUV for the power-hungry who don’t want to spend import money to get on-road luxury and extraordinary off-road ability.
An all-new design debuted last year, so the basic 2006 Grand Cherokee is largely unchanged, with the exception of an all-new performance model this year, the SRT-8. That top-dog Grand Cherokee gets a 415-horsepower V-8, along with upgraded brakes and suspension to go with it.
The biggest temptation on the options list is the Hemi V-8, although the 4.7-liter V-8 still offers plenty of oomph. Off-roaders and those who tow will want the 4×4 Popular Equipment Group, which includes a wiring harness and hitch receiver, as well as skidplates, tow hooks, and all-terrain tires. The ParkSense rear backup assist is $255 well spent.