We left suburbia behind as we headed east into the hills on California 78. Up around Julian, we found ourselves on some serious switchbacks, a knee-dragging, sport-bike-rider's delight. It's no sport bike, but when it first came out, the Grand Cherokee was considered fairly agile thanks to its coil-spring suspension and relatively light weight (3600 pounds). Like so many Americans, the Grand Cherokee's svelte past is but a memory (the V-6 four-by-four has put on roughly 1000 pounds). Meanwhile, the unlikely emergence of a whole crop of high-performance SUVs like the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne means there are lots of sport-utes that could eat up a road like this. The Grand Cherokee is not one of them, but this new version -- which was initially developed in tandem with the Mercedes-Benz M-class and which now uses an independent rear suspension for the first time -- was far more fluid than we expected, even if it is still tall and heavy-feeling. Credit also the vastly stiffer body structure, which helps create a ride that is positively plush. Owners of previous Grand Cherokees might not know what to make of it.
Handling has never been an Explorer forte. Built as it was on the Ranger pickup chassis, the first Explorer rode on Ford's ancient "twin I-beam" front suspension and a live rear axle. Later, of course, when its Firestone tires started failing catastrophically, the Explorer revealed a fatal handling flaw -- the tendency to roll over, which helped create the worst automotive recall disaster in a generation. The follow-up version was totally reengineered and had an independent suspension all around, but it still wasn't what you'd call agile. So to say that this new Explorer is far and away the best handling to date is really not saying much, although it's certainly true. The Explorer understeers resolutely, and you can tell the front wheels are doing all the work, but it doesn't have the body lean of its predecessors. Push it in a corner, and it feels like an extralarge Taurus. For the new Explorer, Ford adds a feature that it calls curve control, which senses when the driver has entered a turn at too high a rate of speed and then applies the brakes to help stabilize the vehicle.