During the darkest days of 2009, when Chrysler was skidding toward bankruptcy and many wondered whether the company was worth saving, it used the occasion of the New York auto show to unveil one of the brightest hopes for its tenuous future: the totally redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee (which wasn't due in showrooms for another year). Despite all the bad news surrounding Chrysler at the time, the new Grand Cherokee was undeniably impressive.
Riding on an all-new platform, development of which had begun during the failed marriage to Daimler, the new Jeep retained its five-seat layout but sat astride a 5.3-inch-longer wheelbase that opened up interior space. With soft-touch surfaces, high-quality materials, and plenty of high-tech equipment, that interior was leaps and bounds beyond anything in Chrysler showrooms at the time -- except perhaps the just-updated Ram pickup. The new Jeep would be the first model to get Chrysler's new DOHC Pentastar V-6, which far eclipsed the company's other V-6 offerings in power output and also promised greater efficiency. Long a key player -- and a key profit-maker -- in the Chrysler lineup, the Grand Cherokee had the look of a hit.
When it finally arrived at dealerships in late spring of the following year, the 2011 Grand Cherokee did indeed prove to be hugely popular, and by the end of the year, it was selling at triple the pace of the old version. A tremendously important vehicle for Chrysler, the Grand Cherokee was an obvious choice for a Four Seasons test, the third we've conducted with this nameplate.
Our Grand Cherokee Overland arrived just in time for winter. As the near-top-spec model -- only the Overland Summit is fancier -- it had the full benefit of Chrysler's newfound interest in interior quality, sporting soft leather seats, real wood trim (including on the steering wheel), and stitched leather on the dash. To the Overland's long list of standard features we added a rear-seat entertainment system ($1495); adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and forward-collision warning ($1295); and the Off-Road Adventure II package ($275), which consists of little more than skid plates and eighteen-inch wheels in place of the standard twenties. Naturally, we went with the all-new V-6, which was paired with a five-speed automatic and Quadra-Trac II all-wheel drive.
With 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, the new V-6 has enough muscle to move the chunky, 5077-pound Jeep, although it sometimes sounds a bit strained. "Plenty of power from this V-6," wrote deputy editor Joe DeMatio early on. "I see no need for any more than this." The only reason to go for the 5.7-liter V-8 would be if you regularly tow more than 5000 pounds (the Hemi is rated to tow 7200 pounds). Speaking of towing, we never hooked up anything more than a utility trailer, which was only about half the Jeep's maximum rated weight. With that load attached, senior editor Eric Tingwall found acceleration to be "adequate but not outstanding." He thought that our recently departed long-term Audi Q5, despite having less output from its smaller V-6, was better able to handle the same task. He did, however, credit the five-speed automatic for holding fourth gear rather than hunting between fourth and fifth.
It's interesting that Tingwall gave the transmission those props, because he was otherwise critical of it. "Both the hardware and the software seem to be from another age," he wrote. "I'd like to see shorter gears for both third and fourth. At 70 mph, dropping into fourth raises the engine speed by just 400 rpm, which isn't enough to accelerate. Instead, you typically end up dropping to third, raising the revs by 1400 rpm. Gear ratios aside, it also seems that the transmission is hesitant to downshift."
He wasn't alone in his criticism, as it was widely agreed that although the Pentastar V-6 engine has enough power, the five-speed automatic isn't terribly adept at dispensing it. That situation should be alleviated come 2013, when this engine is due to get the ZF eight-speed automatic, a combination that's already available in some other Chrysler products, such as the Dodge Charger and the Chrysler 300.
More gears should also improve gas mileage, which would be welcome. Fuel economy has never been a Jeep strong suit, going back to the original Grand Cherokee (and beyond). The EPA rates this engine at 16/22 mpg city/highway with four-wheel drive (2012 models are rated at 16/23 mpg). That's better than the V-8's
13/19 mpg, but we might have expected better from this all-new engine. We did on a couple of occasions achieve 23 mpg on the highway; overall, though, we averaged 18 mpg.
Another major new feature of this Grand Cherokee is its independent rear suspension, once considered anathema to Jeep engineers. Additionally, Overland 4x4s come standard with Jeep's new Quadra-Lift air suspension (it's optional on other four-wheel-drive models, except the base Laredo). The chassis tuning is quite nicely done, and assistant editor David Zenlea characterized the Jeep as "smooth-riding, yet composed." Ride quality, even on the challenging pavement of southeast Michigan or New York City, is very good; the old head toss is gone.
We liked the fact that the air suspension goes into aerodynamic (lower) mode automatically at highway speeds, but we would like to be able to put it there ourselves at lower speeds. As senior web editor Phil Floraday noted, "I don't need this much ground clearance to tackle my commute to work." In fact, the suspension can be lowered by choosing Sport mode from the terrain-selector dial, but that also switches off stability control. The tall ride height leads to a high step-in height, which was a problem for shorter drivers. You can lower the Grand Cherokee 1.5 inches by selecting Park mode, but you have to do it every time. Unfortunately, the standard suspension is no better -- with it, the car sits half an inch higher.
In other chassis news, the precise and nicely weighted steering earned praise, but more feel would be welcome. The Overland's fat-rimmed, wood-and-leather (and heated!) steering wheel was very nice to grip. We appreciated the tight turning radius, which is one area where the Jeep has an advantage over many transverse-engine crossovers. The Grand Cherokee's still-reasonable size (it's 1.8 inches longer than before) also aids maneuverability, but outward visibility is hampered by the fat A-pillars, and the high hood makes it hard to judge the front corners. Aiding the cause of visibility were the optional blind-spot warning system, which most drivers embraced, and the backup camera, which is an essential that's standard in all but the base models.
The former is bundled with adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warning. "The adaptive cruise control, which I typically hate with a passion, is fairly natural in both decelerating and accelerating according to the traffic in front of you," reported editor-in-chief Jean Jennings. Toward the end of our year, however, it began to get very fussy about having a clean sensor, which is located in the lower front fascia.
We were not so enamored with the Jeep's navigation system, which, due to an early-production parts shortage, was the rather basic Garmin unit available in lesser Grand Cherokees and not the higher-end system that's standard in the Overland. The map is small and slow acting, and the car icon is too large; also, too many functions are on-screen only.
Except for the navigation unit -- and the occasionally balky Bluetooth connectivity -- the controls were well received, and the interior never failed to impress. "Each time I get behind the wheel I'm blown away by the beautiful, comfortable, user-friendly interior," said managing editor of digital platforms Jennifer Misaros. The two-tone leather with contrasting piping was rich looking, and padded surfaces have replaced hard plastics just about everywhere. Floraday used only a bit of hyperbole when he characterized the interior as "a hundred times better" than the previous model's.
Also improved, although perhaps not to the same degree, is passenger space. On a drive to New York, DeMatio reported that there was "excellent rear-seat legroom and comfort, a big improvement over the old Grand Cherokee." Copy editor Rusty Blackwell drove to Minnesota with three buddies to see a college-hockey tournament, and his passengers -- one of whom has an '06 Grand Cherokee -- also were impressed with the accommodations. Blackwell, though, was one of two drivers to complain that the pedals are offset to the left.
Besides people, we also carried plenty of cargo, of course. Associate web editor Jake Holmes tossed his bike in the back and found that "the rear seats fold flat in one swift motion, and the liftgate opening is positively huge." But managing editor Amy Skogstrom discovered that the cargo area isn't quite wide enough to place your golf bags sideways.
We have several owners of previous Grand Cherokees among the Automobile Magazine extended family, and they were all smitten with the new model. "I like it a lot," said one. "But I can't help but remember that when I had my first-generation Grand Cherokee, I liked it a lot at first, too, but after two years it was a piece of crap." Encouragingly, although our Overland was not perfect (there was some wrinkling in the leather on the dash and less-than-perfect fits elsewhere in the interior), it did not deteriorate over four seasons and nearly 30,000 miles. In the Jeep's final month, DeMatio wrote, "As I drove to work this morning, I reflected on how well the Jeep has held up over the past year. Not just how well it has held up physically, but in our collective estimation."
Indeed, Tingwall nominated the Grand Cherokee as the vehicle "most likely to transcend its price," noting that while $45,805 as tested isn't cheap, "it is a value." With its much-improved interior and ride quality along with undiminished capability, the Grand Cherokee, he asserted, could sell for $15,000 more with a German badge on it.
As we mentioned at the outset, this is the third Grand Cherokee to undergo a Four Seasons test. So it seems right that our concluding thought should come from someone who is able to take the long view. "I drove the very first Grand Cherokee and remember clearly how shockingly civilized it was compared with what had come before," said Jennings. "This newest Grand Cherokee is at least that big of a step forward."
|Our Test Results|
|0-60 mph:||9.1 sec|
|0-100 mph:||24.7 sec|
|1/4-mile:||16.9 sec @ 86 mph|
|30-70 mph passing:||9.7 sec|
|Peak acceleration:||0.52 g|
|Speed in gears:||1) 54; 2) 88; 3) 113; 4) --; 5) -- mph|
|Cornering L/R:||0.74/0.72 g|
|70-0 mph braking:||184 ft|
|Peak braking:||0.98 g|
|Warranty:||3-yr/36,000-mile; Bumper-to-bumper 5-yr/100,000-mile powertrain; 3-yr/unlimited-mile corrosion|
|18,126 mi:||Clear air-suspension-failure code, no problems found|
|1428 mi:||Purchase WeatherTech FloorLiner kit, $197.90|
|25,828 mi:||Purchase, mount, and balance Goodyear UltraGrip Ice WRT winter tires, $889.34|
|EPA city/hwy/combined||16/22/18 mpg|
|Cost per mile:||(Fuel, service, tires) $0.23 ($0.64 including depreciation)|