We caught our first glimpse of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee way back in 2009 at the New York Auto Show. It was more of a sneak peek, though, as Chrysler's bankruptcy and shotgun wedding to Fiat had the new father-in-law, Sergio Marchionne, personally ensuring every new model going on sale under his watch met his expectations. So the Grand Cherokee quietly faded out of the picture until this May when we finally took our first drive in the new Grand.
While the Grand Cherokee was receiving its finishing touches, the rest of the 2011 Jeep lineup underwent upgrades that range from minor appearance packages on the Liberty to an extensive suspension, interior, and exterior makeover with the Compass. Mike Manley, president and CEO of Jeep, says Jeep "continues to improve the formula" as it prepares to celebrate its 70th birthday.
For a complete look at the changes each model receives for 2011, read on.
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
What's New? Virtually everything about the Grand Cherokee is new, and a lot of the interesting features are borrowed from the Mercedes ML platform. Even though Fiat is now in control of the Chrysler brands, the Grand Cherokee was developed under DaimlerChrysler days and possesses an interesting mix of German, American, and now Italian engineering and design touches. An air suspension and the Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 are some of the most significant enhancements for this all-new model.
The interior is very luxurious and demand has been especially strong for loaded Grands. A new trim level, the Overland Summit, makes the inside even more luxurious with saddle brown leather seating and dash coverings. Those who opt for navigation will find a very nice Garmin-branded system in the dash that displays the speed limit as well as the vehicle's speed as determined by GPS. The display is very nice and the touch-screen is quite snappy. When the sticker climbs near $50,000, Grand Cherokee buyers no longer have to apologize for the interior quality, fit, or finish.
How Does it Drive? Very, very well. Jeep had the off-road thing pretty much nailed in the past, but the on-road ride was compromised. The engineers at Daimler really taught the Jeep team how to make a big SUV drive well on pavement at speed. You can notice the difference in handling because Jeep has some impressive engines available: the 3.6-liter V-6 is rated at 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, which is good for 16/22 mpg ratings with four-wheel drive, or the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 cranks out 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque with 13/19 mpg ratings. An SRT8 version should be available soon and that's where we'll see the full extent of Jeep's new suspension knowledge.
Do I Want One? If you're a real outdoors person who doesn't want to deal with the sort of cheap interior or compromised on-road dynamics that plague so many full-size SUVs, the Grand Cherokee is a great choice. Fuel economy could be a bit better with either engine, so those who have no use for off-road features will be better served by a comparable crossover. When money and fuel economy are of little concern, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee offers a great blend of style, luxury, and no-compromises four-wheel drive performance.
2011 Jeep Compass
What's New? Just take a look at that face! The design team at Jeep did an amazing job of making the Compass more attractive in an incredibly short period of time. With a front end that looks like a mini Grand Cherokee, the Compass now looks good enough to lure some shoppers in for a test drive. Once those shoppers get behind the wheel (a much nicer steering wheel, we might add) there are a variety of soft-touch plastics and trim pieces adorning the cabin as well as better noise insulation.
Engineers spent time revising the suspension of the Compass and Patriot, which are platform mates, and the higher spring and damper rates, plus new rebound springs, really firm up the vehicle's response on-road. A thicker rear anti-roll bar also adds some stability. The suspension revisions, along with the thicker steering wheel, make the Compass feel much more substantial while going down the road. You no longer feel like you've been put in a penalty box when you drive a Compass.
Another big improvement to the Compass is the addition of a "Trail Rated" Freedom Drive II all-wheel drive system. Freedom Drive II is new for the Compass in 2011 and adds hill descent control, brake traction control, and a 19:1 crawl ratio that comes from locking the CVT into its lowest ratio. The Compass still lacks an actual transfer case, but the electronic substitutes will likely appease consumers.
How Does it Drive? The suspension and NVH refinement go a long way towards making the Compass competitive in the small all-wheel-drive crossover market. We were very surprised by how much more responsive the Compass is on a twisting road -- don't expect driving dynamics anywhere near a Grand Cherokee, but the Compass now inspires confidence instead of fear when you turn the wheel. There's still not much acceleration to be had, but the 0-60 mph time did drop a half a second for 2011 and now takes about 10.5 seconds. Road noise still penetrates through the Compass' chassis, but there's no significant wind noise coming through the windshield or A-pillars at highway speeds.
Do I Want One? No matter how much work Jeep has put into this crossover for 2011, the Compass nameplate carries some serious baggage. The Compass will always be remembered for trying to stretch the Jeep brand a little too far and it isn't long for this world. Even Brian Nathan, chief engineer for Compass and Patriot, admits "the vehicle's life cycle is very short at this stage." During a press conference in 2009, it was announced the Patriot and Compass would be killed off by 2012 to make room for a single Fiat-based small SUV wearing a Jeep badge. If you absolutely need a small Jeep today, the Compass will do, but smart shoppers should wait to see what 2012 holds.
2011 Jeep Patriot
What's New? Not surprisingly, the 2011 Jeep Patriot has virtually the same changes as the 2011 Jeep Compass. The two share virtually everything under the exterior sheetmetal, but the Patriot is supposed to be a more stripped-down vehicle that might appeal to buyers who can't afford a Wrangler. Patriot's exterior refresh isn't nearly as impressive as the Compass', but it was always the better looking of the pair, so it needed less help in the first place. All the suspension modifications we detailed on the Compass come to the Patriot, as do the soft-touch materials on the interior and the new steering wheel.
How Does it Drive? Not surprisingly, the Patriot drives like a Compass. It gets a bit quieter, a bit more refined, and a whole lot more solid feeling for 2011, but it's still based on a rather lackluster platform that doesn't excel at on- or off-road driving. The Patriot is the least expensive Jeep and you notice that. Even the Wrangler felt quieter on the road, though the Patriot feels more buttoned-up behind the wheel.
Do I Want One? Sadly, the Patriot's only selling point is price. Now that the Compass arguably looks better and offers a Trail Rated badge with the off-road package, the Patriot has an even smaller niche to play in. As with the Compass, your absolute best bet is to wait and see what Jeep brings to replace this platform in 2012. These twins have pushed the platform about as far as it can go, and it still comes up short in comparison to the rest of the small crossover/SUV segment.
2011 Jeep Liberty
What's New? Not much, really. Earlier this year Jeep unveiled the Liberty Renegade, a throwback trim level designed to appeal to off-road enthusiasts. Renegade models include skid plates, hill descent and hill start assist, more aggressive tires, tow hooks, a display for individual tire pressures (quite helpful when airing down tires for a trail), and fog lamps. For buyers more interested in upscale urban transportation (yes, that's a full-fledged oxymoron with the Liberty), the Liberty Jet offers 20-inch polished wheels, blacked-out headlights, a bunch of chrome exterior trim, and available dark grey leather seating. All Liberty models get the new corporate steering wheel that debuted on the 2011 Grand Cherokee.
How Does it Drive? Since nothing has changed in the suspension or powertrain departments, we didn't bother driving the 2011 Liberty on the road. We opted for two different off-road loops and were reminded how competent the Liberty is when the road turns muddy and rocky. It won't be as capable as a Wrangler Rubicon since there are no locking differentials offered, but the Liberty is a convenient size on the trail. If Jeep dropped the Pentastar V-6 and a more advanced transmission (read: a gearbox with more than four forward gears) in the Liberty, it would even have pretty solid credentials for road driving.
Do I Want One? The Liberty will soldier on until 2013 when a Fiat-based vehicle replaces it. If you're the type of driver that requires off-road capability and wants a proven platform, the Liberty is a reasonable choice. There's some aftermarket support that can enhance its off-road capability, though nowhere near the same support Wrangler enjoys, and it's not a terribly expensive vehicle. Buy now if you fear the level of four-wheel drive capability will decrease once the Liberty moves to a Fiat platform.
2011 Jeep Wrangler
What's New? Fiat knows the Wrangler is an icon and the ultimate expression of the Jeep brand. Ever since the first MB was assembled in Toledo, Ohio, Jeep has been known for its four-wheel-drive, doorless wonder. There's no real competition for the Wrangler, but Jeep needs to keep upgrading it to give shoppers a reason to buy new instead of simply picking up a used version. For 2011, the Wrangler gets its biggest upgrade since moving to the JK platform in 2007 in the form of a revised interior. Now soft-touch plastics abound and the new corporate steering wheel can be found in every Wrangler model. Improved sound deadening efforts make the hard top 2011 Wrangler eerily quiet at speed if you've spent any time in an older Jeep.
How Does it Drive? The incremental improvements to the interior don't change anything in terms of the Wrangler's on-road performance, but they make a driver much more comfortable on longer journeys and just might be enough to bring in new buyers for the Wrangler. There's no apologizing for the utilitarian interior now that the materials used on it are almost as nice as you'd find in a traditional SUV with a fixed roof and doors that aren't designed to be removed once the temperature tops 70 degrees. Two-door models can still be a bit of a handful on the road at times due to the short wheelbase, but overall the Wrangler is remarkably composed on the highway. Like the Liberty, the next major upgrade the Wrangler needs is that 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 and a better automatic transmission.
Do I Want One? Unless you're bent on the luxury of a Grand Cherokee, there's virtually no reason not to buy the Wrangler if you want a new Jeep. If you really want to go off-road, there's no better choice than the Wrangler since it still allows the stability and traction control systems to be completely turned off. Wheelspin is sometimes needed off-road and the number of vehicles that won't intervene with the brakes to stop a slipping wheel is dangerously close to zero these days. Factor in the quieter interior, unequalled aftermarket support for everything from floor mats to lift kits to beefy bumpers, and it's impossible to argue any other vehicle on the market is a better base for off-road fun and short commutes.