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.