Test Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee review
Grand Cherokee takes on Land Rover
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee (Chrysler)
An off-road-capable midsize SUV perhaps isn't the best type of vehicle to debut when the car-buying public has set off a seismic shift toward crossovers, but it's what the automaker has to put in the game right now.
Those things aside, the new Grand Cherokee manages to provide on-road driving refinement that can go toe-to-toe with the best that the crossover segment has to offer — and it does so without sacrificing its considerable off-road capabilities.
It's a no-excuses SUV if there ever was one and, in effect, takes on Land Rover at its own game. Let your brain wrap itself around that concept for a moment, and it becomes clear how much the Grand Cherokee has evolved.
Rugged, yet refined design
The 2011 Grand Cherokee pulls off the challenging feat of possessing a clear design connection with its predecessor while looking completely new and modern. It's clearly a Grand Cherokee, but it has a sleekness that its predecessor lacked. The old Grand Cherokee's design was blocky, but the new model looks like it was shaped by a wind tunnel. In keeping with its looks, the new design cuts through the air better, with a 0.37 drag coefficient compared with the old model's 0.41.
The SUV is about 2 inches longer, 3 inches wider and one-half inch taller than the 2010 model, but its wheelbase has grown by 5.3 inches to 114.8 inches overall, resulting in more backseat legroom. Mark Allen, Jeep's head of design, said current Grand Cherokee owners made it clear they didn't want the SUV to get too big with its redesign, and it's evident that Jeep listened. (To see a side-by-side comparison of the 2010 and 2011 Grand Cherokee, click here.)
The Grand Cherokee's ride comfort is its most impressive quality. The new four-wheel independent suspension soaks up bumps easily without getting flustered like a traditional SUV can, and it corners confidently without any of the top-heavy motions normally associated with SUVs. It really does drive like a crossover; it reminded me of a softer version of the Honda Pilot or Mazda CX-9.
The ride gets a little cushier still if you get the optional Quadra-Lift adjustable air suspension, but the difference is subtle. Grand Cherokees with the air suspension do a better job of masking pavement imperfections, and the SUV floats a little more over bigger bumps.
Jeep found the desired middle ground with the Grand Cherokee's steering tuning. There's enough power assistance that your arms won't tire turning the wheel, but it's also not overboosted like some systems; there's some heft to the steering wheel. The SUV tracks confidently on the highway with good straight-line stability.
Going & stopping
Driving the V-6 Grand Cherokee reminded me that the laws of physics can't be changed. The SUV uses Chrysler's new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 rated at 290 horsepower and 260 pounds-feet of torque, but this is a heavy vehicle. The curb weight of the V-6 Limited 4x4 I drove was 4,850 pounds, and lugging all that weight around makes the V-6 labor; you can tell that it's working hard when you're accelerating. The V-6's performance is strong enough — which is good because Jeep expects 75 percent of Grand Cherokee buyers to opt for it — but it doesn't make the SUV feel quick. Once up to highway speeds, the V-6 cruises easily at 70 mph.
The V-6 teams with a five-speed automatic transmission, and it helps make the most of the V-6's available power. The transmission readily kicks down when you need more power to pass, and it shifts smoothly.
Choosing the optional 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 gives the Grand Cherokee more effortless acceleration; there's none of the laboring you feel when driving the V-6 on hilly terrain. However, considering the V-8 is rated at 360 hp and 390 pounds-feet of torque, it still doesn't feel as quick as you might expect. Again, the 5,210-pound curb weight of the V-8 Overland 4x4 I tested was like an anchor holding the engine back. Like the V-6, the V-8 drives a five-speed automatic.
Four-wheel disc brakes are standard, and the brake pedal has a very natural, linear progression.
Jeep is one of a few car brands with an identity strongly associated with off-road capability, and even though the new Grand Cherokee significantly improves the SUV's on-road refinement, it doesn't come at the expense of its off-road chops, which are impressive. My time with the Grand Cherokee included off-road driving at Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area in Northern California, where I had an opportunity to test the Grand Cherokee's off-road hardware.
A Grand Cherokee with Quadra-Lift and Jeep's new Selec-Terrain traction system (explained in more detail later in this review) made easy work of the rocky paths and steep grades at Hollister Hills. The SUV felt secure and sure-footed at all times — even when looking up at the sky on a steep hill climb.