80 mph. That's what the speedometer reads as I toss the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 into the second corner of Willow Springs' so-called "big course." It's a long, sweeping right-hander that's punctuated with a late apex that catches many first-timers by surprise. The big brute turns in quickly and hangs on the race line, tossing my thigh against a bolster and slamming my kneecap into a speaker grille on the door panel.
The grip is superb, but my passenger, an engineer with Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology brand, implores me to turn in even more. I'm bewildered: there's more grip available? You cannot be serious.
He is. I crank the wheel just a little more, and with just a hint of wiggle from the rear end, the nose comes around, hooks up, and pulls towards the apex. In a run-of-the-mill sports coupe or a stereotypical supercar, this would be impressive, but when we're talking about a large SUV that tips the scales at over 5000 pounds, it's beyond impressive. It's downright incredible.
Best of Both Worlds
The idea of a Jeep performing such seemingly impossible feats on a road course isn't exactly new. After all, the original Grand Cherokee SRT8, launched in 2005, offered massive power, incredible grip, and was capable of returning some stunning numbers. When we tested it back in 2007, it blasted from 0 to 60 mph in 4.4 seconds and blitzed through the quarter-mile in 13.2 seconds at 105 mph.
But in normal use, the brute suffered. SRT engineers insist that, apart from the Dodge Viper, the original Grand Cherokee SRT8 was the purest performance machine they'd ever crafted. As a result, it compromised ride quality, passenger comfort, and overall practicality for ultimate performance.
Does the new 2012 Grand Cherokee SRT8 follow in the original's footsteps? In terms of packing a wallop and pushing the boundaries of physics: absolutely. But from the get-go, engineers sought to create a vehicle that was as usable in everyday life as it was competitive on a track.
Brash Looks, Beautiful Interior
At first glance, the new SRT8 appears to abide by the original's formula. Riding one inch lower than other Grand Cherokee models, the SRT8 model bears a wild front fascia riddled with functional air intakes, fog lamps, and LED running lights, along with deep heat extractors gouged into the hood stamping. Five-spoke, 20-inch aluminum wheels, wrapped in 295-profile performance tires, accentuate the SUV's slammed stance, as do the unique side sills. Out back, a new rear bumper design allows two exhaust tips -- each measuring four inches in diameter - to exit on either side of a dramatic valance panel. The entire package is quite dramatic -- or, as SRT brand president Ralph Gilles puts it, "absolutely delicious."
You shouldn't judge this book by its cover, though, because beneath its surface lies a surprising level of refinement. As is the case with other WK2 Grand Cherokees, the 2012 SRT8 offers a sumptuous cabin that is devoid of tacky materials, blocky surfaces, or gaping panel gaps. A leather-trimmed dashboard, center console, and door panels are bundled in an optional Luxury Group package, but all SRT models receive satin chrome and carbon fiber trim accents throughout the interior. Front bucket seats that are unique to the SRT8 incorporate hefty bolstering and are trimmed in both Nappa leather and perforated suede, and a new SRT-designed flat-bottom steering wheel incorporates small shift paddles. Buyers can opt for either a panoramic sunroof or a single-pane unit when bundled with a rear-seat DVD entertainment system.
Solid Platform, Flexible Suspension
The refinement isn't relegated to the interior. Engineers rave about how structurally superior the WK2 Grand Cherokee is over its predecessor; according to their calculations, torsional stiffness is increased 146 percent over the previous generation model.
A stiffer foundation allowed the SRT team to further play with suspension tuning - and thanks to a new adjustable damping system, you can, too. Bilstein adjustable dampers lurk at all four corners and are tied into Jeep's signature Selec-Track controller. Crank the knob to track mode, and both impact and rebound damping go to full stiffness; sport mode dials it back a notch, allowing for a little more compression. The auto position renders the ride as supple and smooth over rough surfaces as any other Grand Cherokee -- a far cry from the last model, which chipped our teeth and rattled internal organs when used as a commuter vehicle.
Beneath those large 20-inch wheels lurks an equally impressive brake system. Developed with Brembo, the front brakes make use of massive six-piston monoblock calipers along with 15-inch rotors. Out back, four-piston calipers grab hold of 14-inch rotors.