Back in the 1990s, the Jeep Grand Cherokee was in the right place at the right time. Compact, tough, and stylish, it put the sport in sport-utility and became as fashionable in New York as it was in Aspen. But there are a lot more choices these days, and Jeep recognizes that reality re-quires a suburban station wagon, not those rock-crawling adventure devices you see on TV.
That's why it's no surprise that the all-new 2005 Grand Cherokee begins with carlike hardware such as rack-and-pinion steering, an independent front suspension with unequal-length control arms, and a five-link, live-axle rear suspension. The wheelbase is 3.6 inches longer, and the track is 2.5 inches wider. As a result, the Grand Cherokee goes down the road with delicious carlike composure, and there's no trace of the old Grand Cherokee wobbliness that shook your head as if you were a bobblehead doll. There's even an optional, hydraulically actuated antiroll-bar system to help this 4500-pound Jeep corner more like a car.
The Jeep designers also have given the Grand Cherokee a carlike appearance. The interior of the upscale Limited model is trimmed with chrome, wood, and two-tone leather. There are plenty of grab handles, cubbyholes, and tie-down hooks, plus the latest luxury electronics, such as a Bluetooth-compatible telephone hookup and a DVD player. Most important, the interior cabin is almost spacious (though there's no third seat), and the ambient noise level is quieter than even the Toyota Highlander's.
Such quietness is all the more remarkable because the Grand Cherokee has plenty of power under the hood. The 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 from the Jeep Liberty behaves with far more refinement than we remember thanks to a five-speed automatic. The 4.7-liter V-8 from the previous Grand Cherokee has 230 horsepower as well as a five-speed automatic of its own. The 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is the engine everyone wants to hear about because of its 325 horsepower, but equally impressive is the way the engine can deactivate four cylinders while cruising, in order to deliver better highway mpg. And the transition is undetectable, since the engine switches modes in milliseconds.
We figured Jeep would call it quits once it had created a perfect station wagon, especially since 25 percent of the Grand Cherokee model mix will be two-wheel-drive. But Jeep takes this trail-rated stuff seriously, so the Grand Cherokee offers three different all-wheel-drive systems. Quadra-Trac I is a full-time awd system with brake-activated traction control. Quadra-Trac II adds a two-speed transfer case for more serious all-terrain mobility. Quadra-Drive II integrates awd; a two-speed transfer case; electronically activated front-, center-, and rear locking differentials; plus electronic stability control.
We weren't able to bash the red rocks of the Moab plateau in Utah the way the Jeep engineers did during the new Grand Cherokee's development, but we drove some steep trails in the ranchland north of Santa Barbara, California, and negotiated ravines so narrow and rough that it was nearly impossible to walk. The Grand Cherokee's front wheels articulated over the obstacles without twisting the steering wheel out of our hands, and the new, longer-travel suspension sucked up the bumps. A V-8 engine always makes low-speed throttle control very difficult, but the Quadra-Drive II's electronic locking differentials and carefully programmed drive-by-wire throttle unexpectedly made it possible to walk the Grand Cherokee over obstacles without breaking traction.
When the new Grand Cherokee was introduced, we were prepared to find a station wagon. Instead, we discovered a Jeep.