The Jeep Grand Cherokee has very good road manners, five-passenger capacity, more cargo room than its predecessor and, if properly optioned, can be taken off the highway.
Grand Cherokee was thoroughly redesigned for 2011. For 2012, Jeep has made a few notable changes, brought back the SRT8 high-performance model, and added an Overland Summit to the top of the luxury range.
2012 Grand Cherokee models also get changes in packaging and pricing. While the least-expensive version appears about $3,000 less than last year's base model, it isn't really because it doesn't include power seats and other features that were standard for 2011. Every 2012 Grand Cherokee above the base model has seen a price increase.
Jeep Grand Cherokee continues to evolve toward luxury wagon and away from the utility vehicles that made the name famous. Many Grand Cherokee models come with piped leather, and the list of features includes a heated, power tilt-telescope steering column, ventilated front seats, and collision warning system.
Two-wheel drive is standard across the board. Four-wheel drive, low-range gearing, and a full-size spare tire required for genuine off-road activities are optional. And while you can get tow hooks, they're optional on most and chrome plated on the top of the line. A variety of all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive systems and suspension arrangements are available. A 3.6-liter V6 engine is standard and more than sufficient for anything but heavy towing. For that, they offer a 5.7-liter V8. A 5-speed automatic goes with the V6, and mileage has improved slightly for 2012.
The Grand Cherokee interior is stylish and made with high-quality materials. The luxurious Overland Summit model is as stitched-and-piped as any Chrysler and similarly expensive. The 60/40 rear seats recline for comfort, enabling passengers to look up at the sky through the optional panoramic sunroof that extends over both rows of seats; and the front seat folds flat for kayaks or two-by-fours.
The styling of the Grand Cherokee is uptown, with a sloped windshield and backlight, sculpted sides, and clean lines everywhere. The development of the Grand Cherokee goes back far enough that it paralleled the Mercedes-Benz M-Class. If there's a safety feature you want that isn't standard you can probably get it as an option.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee competes against a spectrum of vehicles including four-wheel drives, including the Land Rover LR4, Mercedes-Benz G-Class, Toyota 4Runner and Land Cruiser, any number of mid-size crossovers and niche models, and with the Chevy Tahoe and Ford Expedition.
The 2012 Grand Cherokee SRT8 is a street bruiser performance wagon like the Porsche Cayenne, BMW X5 and X6 and Mercedes-Benz AMG utilities. It's the fastest, most expensive, thirstiest Grand Cherokee, and the last one you want to take to a trail.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo ($26,995); Laredo AWD ($28,995); Limited ($36,795); Limited 4WD ($39,295); Overland ($39,495); Overland 4WD ($42,995); Overland Summit ($43,095); Overland Summit 4WD ($46,595); SRT8 ($54,470)
Every inch of sheetmetal was new for 2011, although it's still quite easy to identify as a Grand Cherokee. Although fancier versions have more liberal chrome and polish (except for the SRT8) the basic shape has sufficient character that we prefer the simpler entry model appearance.
The lines are more fluid than before, and are 8.5 percent more aerodynamic, with a Cd of 0.37, lowered from 0.40 after 250 hours in the wind tunnel. (Note aerodynamic resistance also includes frontal area, so the taller, wider Jeep will not be as sleek as a typical car.) This brings better economy, with less wind noise. It has a wider stance and shorter nose with less front overhang, giving it a subtle look of substance.
And it definitely has substance. This latest generation, starting with the 2011 models, is wider and longer, but most of the added length comes between the wheels for better handling and more interior space.
The seven-slot chrome grille is defined by six chrome slats over the black slots, while the headlamps sweep like winglets out from the top corners. Smooth frontal fascia with black airdam, recessed to lessen drag, and tidy small foglamps in trapezoid pockets. Aerodynamic bellypans run the full length of the chassis, chasing fuel mileage.
The sides have big rectangular concave sculpting, as if it's a place where Jeep meets BMW, and slightly trapezoidal wheel arches, a distinctive if still subtle touch. The side glass is straight and unaffected, with black B pillars, darkly tinted glass and bright trim.
Jeep says the rear styling gives a nod to the 1963 Wagoneer that started it all, and it's true (although we wonder how many besides us will remember Mom's '63 Wagoneer in high school that we snuck to the drag strip in the next state, one Sunday afternoon, and ripped off crowd-pleasing 4-wheel-drive holeshots).
The backlight balances the slope of the windshield, although, retro touch notwithstanding, the entire rear view looks like that of a thousand other full-size SUVs. That's because function rules, as it should; when SUV rear-end styling gets fancy, visibility is often lost. The taillamps are big and extend into the liftgate, with four backup lights whose beams improve the video view of the rear back-up camera, a detail where some cars are lacking.
There's an aerodynamic body-colored spoiler, level with the roof and over the sloped liftgate, and it looks good. We also like the flipper glass window in the liftgate, which has a convenient opening handle. The vehicle locks with the press of a button on the door handle, as at the tailgate.
The body-colored parts in the Laredo (mirrors, door handles, ding strip) look better than the chrome trim on the upscale Overland, whose 20-inch wheels with five thick spokes just look big and bright and unimaginative. Far more Jeeps will be Laredo models (65 percent, expects Jeep) with 17- or 18-inch wheels, which look better.
The SRT8 model has unique touches from the window-line down. A painted grille is flanked by bi-xenon headlamps and LED running lights, while a gaping maw below the bumper feeds cooling air to engine and brakes. The bulging hood has a pair of air extractors forward and you needn't worry about rain or snow given the copious amounts of hot air generated below. Clean wheel arches help cover foot-wide tires and menacing wheels, while extended rocker panels channel air and runoff. A deep rear bumper and substantial exhaust ports highlight the rear end.
No Jeep has ever felt this high-quality inside (especially when it gets rolling). The interior was totally redesigned for 2011, headlined by four more inches of legroom in the rear seat, with 19 percent more cargo space. The Grand Cherokee would make a good family vacation vehicle.
A fold-flat front seat is standard, adding to the 68.7 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats flat. The rear seats recline 18 degrees, and with the added legroom, life is easy back there. There's also an abundance of storage pockets and bins, including two bins under the cargo floor. A new rear suspension allows the spare tire to be stored inside the vehicle under the cargo floor, as opposed to underneath it.
The front door openings are 2 inches wider and 2 inches higher, and the rear doors open 78 degrees compared to 67 degrees on the previous (pre-2011) model. That increased convenience is just one of the many details that made the 2011 Grand Cherokee such an improvement.
We found the leather seats in our Laredo X test model to be just right, almost sigh-inducing, with excellent bolstering, not to mention total adjustability with lumbar support. We haven't examined the cloth seats, but Jeep has always done good rugged cloth. The stitching on the Overland Summit's leather dashboard straddles the fence between subtle luxury and Cowboy Cadillac.
The instrument panel features clean white numbers and needles and clear lighting. The tachometer adds a blue area, from 800 to 2500 rpm, a reminder of the best fuel-mileage range.
The three-spoke steering wheel tilts and telescopes, and includes cruise control with audio buttons at the back of the spokes. The Overland steering wheel is wood from about 10 o'clock to 2, and, with the internal heating elements, makes a very thick wheel perhaps better suited for yacht helm duty.
The LED lighting in the cabin works well, to erase the yellow harshness of the old days. There's an optional giant dual-pane panoramic sunroof that opens wide to the sky. So you can see the stars, maybe better than you can see out the rear window through the rearview mirror. The sloped backlight and rear headrests pinch the space for visibility.
The location and operation of things on the center stack, such as the electronic switchbank and HVAC controls, is all good. Except for the position of the shift lever, which does not lend itself to manual shifting in the Sport mode, because your elbow hits the center armrest. You have to cock your elbow high and bend your wrist too much. If you do much shifting like that, you'll be screaming for paddles on the steering wheel.
The SRT8 comes with a special steering wheel with paddles. The SRT8 also comes with sport seats to keep you in place working them. Gauge graphics are revised for the SRT8 and the electronic vehicle information center adds functions not found on other Grand Cherokees such as performance parameters.
Underway, the Grand Cherokee cabin is very quiet, even with the throttle floored, even over rough pavement. There are three layers of noise insulation, adding to the weight but the quiet is impressive.
We've driven several versions of the Grand Cherokee and came away most impressed with the Laredo X with the V6 engine.
The Overland with the Hemi V8, with its teen fuel economy and base price of more than $43,000 with 4WD and before options, would have been more of a hit in 2006. About the only thing you'd need that big Hemi for is its 390 pound-feet of torque for towing more than 5000 pounds beyond rolling hills (maximum is 7200 pounds with 4WD, 7400 with 2WD). And for that, the Grand Cherokee would not be our first choice.
Compared with the Laredo V6, the Overland V8 ride is firmer on 20-inch tires, steering is heavier and less responsive on the highway, and the chrome trim detracts from the cleanliness of the styling. Plus, ours had a vibration we felt in the small of our back while accelerating in second-gear Sport mode. That's the only time it appeared, but it wasn't our imagination, our passenger felt it, too. We can't say what it means, but it shouldn't be there.
There are two automatic transmissions with manual modes. The unit matched to the V6 is called a five-speed and, like most, offers a single overdrive. It is calibrated for fuel economy (up one city mpg on 2WD and one highway on all-wheel drive for 2012). As a result it is quick to upshift and frequently kicks down out of overdrive, so in rolling terrain or varying traffic we often shifted ourselves.
For the 5.7-liter V8 it's now called a six-speed automatic, but it has the same gears in it as last year's five-speed. Confused? The old five-speed automatic had two different ratios for second gear, a 1.67:1 as it up-shifted and a 1.50:1 as it down-shifted. Now that you can (for 2012) manually select either one Jeep is calling it a six-speed automatic, but we're calling that marketing; a real six-speed automatic has benefits in performance that this one won't. The 5.7 V8 does offer two overdrives and lopes down the highway but its highway economy is matched by some midivan city ratings.
Though heavy, the chassis is quite rigid, one key to the feel of overall quality. When you combine a rigid chassis with a well-executed independent suspension, the result is a vehicle that feels like a Mercedes. In fact, design of the Grand Cherokee began in Germany years ago, when Chrysler was still Daimler-Chrysler, and some components are shared with the Mercedes M-Class SUV.
We put our Grand Cherokee Laredo through the paces, on patchy San Francisco freeways, city streets, and through some curves on the Pacific Coast Highway, and the vehicle knocked off each challenge with ease, comfort and control. We were highly impressed with the chassis and suspension.
The Laredo base model has near-ideal weight balance front to rear, and its among the nicest to drive. You'll hear Chrysler say in their marketing that quality craftsmanship has returned to the Pentastar, and the Grand Cherokee backs up the boast. The chief engineer for the Grand Cherokee worked with the Mercedes engineers in Stuttgart to gain ideas for the architecture and suspension geometry. Then the Grand Cherokee went through more final testing than was done in the past to refine the vehicle to as close as perfect as they could get it.
Despite the new model's added width and wheelbase, the turning circle remains at the same 37.1 feet as the old Grand Cherokee. This is better than the same-size M-Class or most seven-seat utes, and within inches of the 4WD seven-seat Land Rover LR4 and many minivans. On or off the highway the Jeep is maneuverable, though the ever-rounder bodywork makes it more difficult to see corners on the trail.
For 2012, the V6 adopts electro-hydraulic power steering, usually an aid to fuel economy, and it has not compromised steering feel at all.
The V6 is a double-overhead cam 3.6-liter with variable valve timing, making 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, delivering an EPA-estimated 17 city and 23 highway miles per gallon with 2WD, or 16/22 mpg with 4WD. A huge fuel tank (24.6 gallons) allows a range of 500 miles. The V6 engine feels like a winner, silky smooth and powerful. The horsepower is welcome but a shortage of torque is why it shifts out of overdrive a lot.
We went to an off-road course during our one-day drive, and, needless to say, the Jeep was fairly dazzling. We climbed over rocks and through gulleys and crept down radically steep hillsides, terrain far more challenging than owners will want to put their pretty new Grand Cherokees through.
The Jeeps we drove were equipped with the optional Quadra-Lift air suspension that adds up to 4.1 inches of lift, using controls on the console. There are five settings: Normal ride height, with 8.1 inches of ground clearance; Off-road 1, with 9.4 inches; Off-road 2, with 10.7 inches; Park, which lowers the vehicle to 6.6 inches for loading and unloading; and Aero, at 7.5 inches, for freeway driving and better fuel economy.
An important note here that the air suspension and low-range four-wheel drive are not available on the $29,000 base all-wheel drive; plan on spending nearly $40,000 minimum for that level of trail ability. The all-wheel-drive system on base models is meant for mild off-road use and inclement weather; low-range gearing is available as an option on that model, standard on V8s.
On the off-road course, Selec-Terrain electronically coordinates 12 different powertrain, braking and suspension systems, including throttle control, transmission shift, transfer case, traction control, and electronic stability control. What this means is that a monkey could have driven the Jeep over these terrain challenges. The computers did it all. For example, down the dizzying steep dirt trail, with hill descent control, all we did was keep the steering wheel straight, using no feet at all; the car's computers did it all. And all we did to get over the rocks was gently apply the gas, and wait until the sensors made adjustments to allow the slipping wheels to find their traction. Where a dead battery in the original Jeep was merely an inconvenience it will render this one a fancy umbrella.
The SRT8 uses a 6.4-liter V8 like that in the Challenger 392 and other rear-drive SRT sedans. With 470 horsepower, 465 lb-ft of torque, a crisp-shifting automatic, full-time all-wheel drive and foot-wide sticky tires it goes quickly. Acceleration lifts the bow and braking brings some nosedive, both tradeoffs for the solid roll control to keep the big, 5200-pound box stable. Don't even think of driving it off road.
Virtually every component that affects performance, be it bodywork, cabin pieces, electronic or mechanical is addressed by SRT, resulting in a package that isn't overpowered, underbraked or unable to use its power. On the contrary, the SRT8 likes to be pitched into a turn where it takes a set and you simply stand on the gas and let the all-wheel drive sort out the traction; the dynamics are impressive at this price. Like BMW's X5M and Mercedes' AMG M-Class not to mention the Porsche Cayenne, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 proves a utility vehicle can make good time on the pavement.
Like most other 2012 SRT products the Grand Cherokee gets adaptive dampers from Bilstein, meaning a choice of Touring comfort, which is fine even for unknown winding road, and Sport, in which things are buttoned up tighter. If your race car tends to break down and you want to keep running for the weekend, this might be the best way to tow the race car to and from the track. Just use your tow vehicle as your back-up race car. And since we complained at the introduction of the last Grand Cherokee SRT8 that center exhaust outlets are useless for towing they now are at the sides where they belong. Clearly, they were listening to us.
Of course the SRT8 carries penalties typical of super-sport utility vehicles. Gas mileage is usually closer to the EPA city rating of 12, and the tires, easily used up making a heavy truck work like a sports car, are more than $440 each.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee boasts a capable chassis, comfortable interior that's utility useful or fashion friendly, competitive powertrains. It offers the off-road capability that mid-size SUVs should offer. It offers serious towing capability. The new SRT8 puts the Germans on notice that there are super-ute alternatives, and this one costs a lot less. We were particularly impressed with Laredo with a V6 and think it offers the best value proposition.
Sam Moses reported from San Francisco after his test drive of the Grand Cherokee near San Francisco, with G.R. Whale reporting from the Mojave desert after his test drive of the SRT8.