We knew immediately that we wanted to take these trucks to Texas. The notion of performance cars in the shape of SUVs would seem perfectly natural there. After all, the Chevrolet Suburban has been embraced as the national car of Texas, and countless Texans use crew-cab diesel pickups as everyday rides. Not to mention that when you're driving a group of vehicles whose EPA city gas mileage is mired in the low teens, it's good to be in a state that pumps its own oil.
We based ourselves in Austin, because it's one of our favorite cities. We did most of our driving in Hill Country, since we wanted roads that weren't just long, flat straights. Despite the image of Austinites as layabouts (thanks largely to native-son filmmaker Richard Link-later's 1991 film, Slacker), the locals we encountered were very car-aware; our quintet of potent SUVs attracted lots of attention.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8Standing out in a crowd is no accident for the Grand Cherokee SRT8, which looks like an escapee from the SEMA show. With its massive front air dam, center-mounted dual exhausts, and bright twenty-inch wheels, the SRT8 is not for cruising incognito--the rather bland-looking BMW would be the choice for that. The Mercedes is the most highly stylized, but we found the squared-off Range Rover far more handsome. And the Cayenne's recent redo hasn't made it any more fetching, but it still brings out the camera phones simply because it's a Porsche.
Rumbling through Austin, it's the Jeep that wants to mix it up with the locals in stoplight duels. You get the sense that the SRT8 was engineered around the 0-to-60-mph sprint, which it dispensed in an amazing 4.4 seconds in our tests. That's quicker than any of the European bluebloods, including its twice-as-expensive and slightly better-endowed German cousin (with 6.2 liters of hand-built AMG V-8 versus the Jeep's 6.1-liter Chrysler Hemi). At low speeds, the SRT8's throttle response is explosive; credit the Hemi and the Jeep's relatively light weight. The full-time four-wheel drive, though, seems a shame--you really want to burn rubber in this thing.
We found the Grand Cherokee relatively easy to maneuver and park in town, thanks to its tidy size and optional rearview camera. The downside is a cabin and cargo hold that are on the smallish side, compromising utility. Additionally, the SRT8 tows less than other Grand Cherokees (3500 pounds, versus 7400 pounds with the 5.7-liter V-8), and the central tail-pipes necessitate a custom-made hitch.
The SRT8's slightly numb but straightforward steering, paired with its one-inch-lower ride height, beefed-up suspension, and ultrawide tires, had us carving easy turns on the smooth, curving ranch roads that follow the Colorado River northwest out of Austin. But once we were on the rougher backcountry two-lanes, with their bumps, drops, and cattle guards, the choppy-riding Jeep was over its head. "It feels to me like the width and the offset of the front wheels are incompatible with the fundamental chassis engineering," said technical editor Don Sherman. "Bumps trigger wandering that the steering rack can't contain, so you feel like you're merely along for the wild ride, not fully in charge of your directional destiny."
Its back-road performance is a reminder that the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is clearly a traditional SUV given a pimp-my-ride makeover rather than a cohesively engineered sporty sport-ute. The Jeep provides obvious bang for the buck at a starting price of just over forty grand, but it's really more of an amusing toy than a serious machine.