The edgy, angular body is devoid of cladding and is proportioned differently from earlier Jeeps. It looks new and contemporary, but people instantly recognize it as a Grand Cherokee.
Interior materials are dramatically improved over the previous generation's, which left much to be desired. The atmosphere inside the latest Grand Cherokee is light, comfortable, and more enveloping than the previous model; from the driver's perspective it's more bolted in than hanging on, with lots of seat adjustment, excellent outward vision around relatively slim windshield posts, and with all the switches and controls clearly labeled and easy to find and use. In back is nearly 70 cubic feet of cargo space.
A more sophisticated suspension gives the current Grand Cherokee much better handling than that of pre-2005 models, with less leaning in corners, along with better ride quality. Its turning radius is tighter, too, good for crowded parking lots.
All four available engines are modern. The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is particularly good for towing or driving at higher elevations. The SRT8 has a 420-hp 6.1-liter Hemi and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than five seconds. The smaller, 4.7-liter overhead-cam V8 works quite well, however, and the standard overhead-cam V6 is a big improvement over Jeep's old overhead-valve inline-6.
Overall, 2006 Grand Cherokee retains the rugged spirit of the Jeep brand, combined with engineering and quality control closer to the Daimler-Benz tradition.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 2WD ($27,165); Laredo 4WD ($29,135); Limited 2WD ($33,415); Limited 4WD ($36,005); Overland 2WD ($39,240); Overland 4WD ($42,230); SRT8 4WD ($39,300)
This makes it more stable than the previous generation models. In appearance, it is at once more modern and more square-edged. With its higher waistline and smaller windows, it is looks more assertively American.
While conventional SUVs, such as the Dodge Durango, are built on a separate frame like a truck, the Grand Cherokee uses an unusual construction scheme Jeep calls Uniframe, a close marriage of a welded steel unit-body and underlying front and rear modules. This is an extremely sturdy and rigid concept developed back in Jeep's days with unit-body pioneer American Motors. The Grand Cherokee has earned a five-star safety rating in both front and side impact tests from the federal government.
Laredo models come with a body-colored grille and bumpers, black door handles, and contrasting-color bodyside and sill moldings. Limited models present a somewhat flashier appearance, with a chromed grille, bright inserts in the bumpers, body-color door handles, and Platinum bodyside molding.
The Overland is distinguished by mesh-texture grille inserts between its traditional vertical grille bars, which are Platinum in finish; Platinum accents also appear on the bumpers, side molding, roof-rack side rails, liftgate light bar, side-view mirrors, and wheels, while sill moldings are body-color.
Jeep reached deep into its heritage to revive the Overland name. First built in 1903, the Overland automobile was the earliest ancestor of the Willys. Willys played an instrumental role in the development and production of the World War II-era Jeep, but was also the first automaker to seriously envision a civilian market for a military-style utility vehicle. The Willys Jeep debuted in 1946 and had its name shortened to just-plain Jeep in the early 1960s. Although the Jeep brand has passed through several owners since then, its lineage remains unbroken.
The SRT8 has a monochrome look all its own, relieved by bright accents at the belt level and bodyside and accented by enormous five-spoke, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels. Functional air ducts in its more bluff front bumper fascia improve brake cooling. The rear bumper is cut out to accommodate dual four-inch exhaust tips, and the extended side sills are claimed to enhance downforce. SRT8 is available only in Bright Silver, Brilliant Black or Inferno Red. It looks hot, very sporty. Our silver 2006 SRT8 drew a lot of admiring glances when we drove it around Los Angeles, a place where vehicles don't garner attention easily. When we pulled up to a posh restaurant, the valets insisted in posing it in front, a position usually reserved for Ferraris and such.
We found the seats to be larger and cushier than in any previous Jeep, with supportive contours. There's more travel in the seat tracks, allowing more legroom for tall drivers. There's also increased headroom, which adds the feeling of extra space to the interior.
The instrument panel has no more of that pasted-together, black-plastic look of the last generation, but is a real, cohesive design with a nice combination of shiny plated parts, matte-finish plated parts, and a first-rate instrument layout. A four-gauge instrument cluster with LED illumination features black gauges with brilliant red pointers. On the Limited model, the gauges are surrounded by chrome rings. The handbrake lever has a spindly, low-quality feel to it, however.
The 2006 Grand Cherokee Overland model enhances these interior improvements with high-contrast two-tone Ultrasuede seats featuring accent stitching and embroidered Overland logos; plus real wood trim on the steering wheel, instrument panel, door panels, and gear selector. Even the center armrest is leather-upholstered, and unique colors are employed in the instrument cluster.
The SRT8, on the other hand, goes for the high-tech racer look with deeply contoured sport seats, and lots of carbon fiber and aluminum trim. Unique blue-accented gauges include a 180-mph speedometer plus oil pressure and oil temperature readouts in the center stack. The sport seats offer lots of support, with deep side bolsters, but drivers with larger frames may find them too narrow.
The cargo area features a reversible load floor panel that flips over on itself to create a shallow container, for more versatility in the rear storage compartment.
The navigation system, which integrates the audio system and other functions, is a handy feature. It has a nice display, generates crisp maps, and does a good job of directing you to your destination, both visually and audibly. It isn't as easy to program as similar systems are on Acura and Lexus vehicles, however. There's a separate Enter button, annoying because intuition suggests pressing the toggle switch down. Also, it kept defaulting to the daytime brightness setting. Auto did not seem to automatically switch it to the nighttime setting at night, so we had to manually program this. We had to reprogram this each time we restarted the car and this could not be done while underway, meaning we had to stop to fix it, inconvenient when traveling on a busy L.A. freeway. The daytime setting is so bright at night as to be distracting.
Similarly, Chrysler uses a separate Set button for pre-setting radio stations, which seems unnecessarily difficult. Setting these on most radios is a matter of holding down the desired preset.
The Laredo comes standard with Chrysler's 210-hp 3.7-liter V6, borrowed from its sister trucks, the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Ram, with its own five-speed overdrive automatic transmission. The 3.7-liter uses single overhead cams and replaces the old, overhead-valve 4.0-liter inline-6 that was in the last Grand Cherokee. The V6 gets an EPA-rated 17/21 mpg City/Highway, only slightly better than the V8s on the highway but significantly better when poking around town.
The 4.7-liter V8 is terrific. This modern, overhead-cam engine is a paragon of power and smoothness for around-town and highway driving. It has a broad torque band, a lovely sound, and electronic throttle control (drive-by-wire) that's easy to use and precise in tricky downhill off-road situations. If you don't live in the mountains and don't usually tow anything, this engine might be your best choice. The 4.7-liter V8 produces 235 horsepower at 4500 rpm and 305 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm. It's EPA-rated at 14/20 mpg.
The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is a thoroughly modern engine, featuring twin spark plugs, direct ignition, and electronic throttle control, though it is an overhead-valve design. The 5.7-liter Hemi produces 330 horsepower at 5000 rpm and 375 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. Fuel economy is an EPA-rated 14/21 mpg. Note that it delivers much stronger torque yet more than matches the fuel economy of the 4.7-liter. Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and helps you tow trailers up long grades. The slightly better fuel economy on the highway is at least partly thanks to the automatic cylinder deactivation feature, which shuts down four of the engine's eight cylinders whenever it detects a steady-state cruise condition and then reactivates them on demand. DaimlerChrysler claims this can improve fuel economy by up to 20 percent.
Both V8 engines get a heavy-duty five-speed automatic transmission with a direct fourth gear for towing. Both this transmission and the five-speed automatic that's mated to the V6 feature the Chrysler/Mercedes-Benz manual override function.
The Grand Cherokee offers a nicer ride and better cornering than any other Jeep in history. We don't recommend flinging 4500-pound SUVs into corners, but the Grand Cherokee can encourage this sort of socially unacceptable behavior because it's easy to drive and rewarding within the limits of its tires.
These ride and handling benefits are the result of the Grand Cherokee's newly developed five-link rear suspension, independent front suspension, and rack-and-pinion steering. Two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive versions use the same independent front suspension. Front suspension travel is increased by almost 10 percent over the previous Grand Cherokee. It's coupled with a lighter, more compact and more precise power rack-and-pinion steering that's reasonably quick and accurate, and nicely weighted. New steering geometry yields a tighter turning circle, important off road as well as in crowded parking lots or when making a U-turn.
There's plenty of understeer dialed into the handling, good for a vehicle this tall and this heavy where you don't want directional changes to happen too quickly. There seems to be a more flatfooted, glued-down attitude with this big Jeep, with far less body roll than in the previous generation. Jeep built roll into the old model, and it paid some comfort dividends off-road. But this one is just as comfortable on- and off-road without it. The current Grand Cherokee chassis is also much stiffer and stronger than the previous version, with nary a squeak or a rattle in our experience with it.
Tow ratings for the Grand Cherokee are 3,500 pounds for the 3.7-liter V6, 6,50
The Jeep Grand Cherokee is an icon among sport utility vehicles and this latest-generation version is far better than older models. It looks wonderful. It's powerful and quiet at the same time. It offers good space efficiency and comes loaded with standard and optional features.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Santa Barbara, California, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles.