The Jeep Grand Cherokee offers superior off-road capability comparable to that of the upscale Land Rover LR3. This makes the Grand Cherokee a fine choice for families who venture off-road or vacation in the mountains or other remote areas.
Its edgy and angular lines make it instantly recognizable as a Jeep. Inside, the atmosphere is light, comfortable, and enveloping, with lots of seat adjustments, and excellent outward vision around relatively slim windshield posts.
With nearly 70 cubic feet of cargo space, the Grand Cherokee is useful for hauling whatever a family may need.
A wide range of engines is available. The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is updated for 2009, increasing from 330 to 357 horsepower. The Hemi is particularly good for towing or driving at higher elevations. The high-performance SRT8 model has a 420-horsepower 6.1-liter Hemi V8 and can accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds. The smaller, 4.7-liter overhead-cam V8 works quite well and it can run on gasoline or up to 85 percent ethanol.
The Grand Cherokee also offers a Mercedes-Benz 3.0-liter common-rail turbo-diesel (CRD) V6, allowing it to tow up to 7,400 pounds (with proper equipment) and range 425 miles between fill-ups. The diesel engine makes it frugal for an SUV of its size.
Grand Cherokee was last redesigned for the 2005 model year. The current Grand Cherokee offers better handling than that of pre-2005 models, leaning less in corners. It rides better on all surfaces and its turning radius is tighter.
Four-wheel-drive models have hill-start assist and hill-descent control. Hill-start assist holds the brakes on a hill to allow smooth launches. Hill-descent control uses the ABS to control the rate of speed when driving down steep hills.
A trailer sway control system is available that applies braking pressure to individual wheels to help stabilize trailers during towing.
Also new for 2009 is tire-pressure monitoring and fuel saver notification displays in the instrument panel, an available 9-inch rear DVD entertainment screen in place of an 8-inch screen, and an available iPod interface.
Last redesigned for 2005, the Grand Cherokee looks square-edged but modern, with a fashionably high waistline and small side windows. The shape of the body is designed to protect the sides of the vehicle from potential road debris.
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 frame 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.
Limited models present a flashier appearance than Laredos, with a chromed grille, bright inserts in the bumpers, and accent-color 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 moldings, roof-rack side rails, liftgate light bar, and mirrors. The wheels are chromed, and the front sill guards are brushed stainless.
Jeep reached deep into its heritage for 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 trim at the belt level and bodyside and accented by enormous five-spoke, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels. Functional air ducts in its more buff 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.
The seats are large and cushy (in all trim levels except SRT8). In Laredo models, they are upholstered in cloth with leather as a package option, while Limited seats are two-tone leather with perforated inserts. In Overland, the seats are upholstered in saddle-perforated high-contrast two-tone Ultrasuede, featuring accent piping and embroidered Overland logos. Overland also features real wood trim on the steering wheel, instrument panel, door panels, and gear selector. The center armrest is leather-upholstered, and unique colors are employed in the instrument cluster.
The SRT8 goes for the high-tech racer look with deeply contoured sport seats, and lots of faux 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.
Overall, the Grand Cherokee cabin is nice, though not as posh as you might expect at its price point.
The instrument panel on all models is a cohesive design with a nice combination of shiny plated parts, matte-finish parts, and a first-rate layout. In all Grand Cherokees, the two-tone, dark-over-light theme set by the instrument panel flows into the door trim. The instrument panel and dashboard are made of plastic that, while sturdy, is not up to snuff for the Overland's luxury-level pricing.
The available navigation system integrates the audio system and other functions, and it includes a 30-gigabyte hard drive that holds songs, pictures and the navigation information. It can hold thousands of songs, and you can program it to display your own digital pictures. The screen 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 from Acura and Lexus, however. There's a separate Enter button, which can be annoying because intuition suggests pressing the toggle switch down. The daytime setting is so bright at night as to be distracting.
Similarly, all Chrysler products, including Jeeps, use a separate Set button for pre-setting radio stations, which seems unnecessarily difficult. Setting these on most radios is just a matter of holding down the desired preset.
The rear DVD entertainment system comes with Sirius Backseat TV and, for 2009, a nine-inch screen instead of an eight-inch screen. The TV system requires a monthly subscription for its three channels: Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon. We tried it and found the reception to be good. With Sirius Backseat TV, if you forget the DVDs, you can still keep the kids entertained.
One area of concern for family shoppers is rear seating. Despite its midsize SUV dimensions, the Grand Cherokee's rear seat lacks the leg room to make rear adult occupants comfortable, especially if taller passengers are riding up front. Such an issue might be a deal breaker for customers who regularly carry adult-size passengers.
The cargo area, on the other hand, is quite useful, though also smaller than that of rivals such as the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner. It 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 second-row seats fold down for a total of 67.4 cubic feet of cargo space, but they don't fold flat for optimal utility. By comparison, none of those aforementioned competitors have less than 75 cubic feet of cargo space.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee combines mountain-goat agility in rugged terrain with stable and responsive handling on the paved roads where most buyers will spend most of their time.
The Laredo and Limited come standard with Chrysler's 3.7-liter V6, borrowed from its sister trucks, the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Ram, with its own five-speed overdrive automatic transmission. The single overhead cam V6 produces 210 horsepower and gets an EPA-rated 15/20 mpg City/Highway with four-wheel drive and 16/21 with rear-wheel drive, not much better than the V8s. The V6 is capable of towing 3500 pounds, but it's overmatched in the Grand Cherokee, and doesn't provide willing passing power.
The 4.7-liter V8, on the other hand, works really well in the Grand Cherokee. This modern, overhead-cam engine is smooth and powerful 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, this engine might be your best choice. The 4.7-liter V8 produces 305 horsepower at 5650 rpm and 334 pound-feet of torque at 3950 rpm. It's EPA-rated at 14/19 mpg with rear- or four-wheel drive. It's also flex-fuel capable, meaning it can run on gasoline or up to 85 percent ethanol (E85). And it can tow up to 6500 pounds.
The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is also a thoroughly modern engine, featuring twin spark plugs, direct ignition, and electronic throttle control, though it is a pushrod-overhead-valve design. The Hemi is upgraded for 2009. It now produces 357 horsepower (up from 330) at 5200 rpm, and torque is up from 375 to 389 pound-feet at 4350 rpm. Fuel economy is an EPA-rated 13/19 mpg with rear drive and 13/18 mpg with four-wheel drive. Note that the Hemi delivers much stronger torque yet 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, and it can really feel it with the Hemi. With the 2009 changes, the Hemi is stronger than ever, giving the Grand Cherokee head-snapping low-end thrust and power that keeps on pulling.
The Hemi's highway fuel economy rating is aided by Jeep's Multi-Displacement System, which shuts down four of the engine's eight cylinders whenever it detects a steady-state cruise condition and then reactivates them on demand. The Hemi also has a Fuel Saver Mode display that informs drivers when four cylinders have been shut down.
The 4.7- and 5.7-liter V8 engines use 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 a manual shift gate.
The 3.0-liter common-rail turbo-diesel (CRD) V6, engineered by Mercedes-Benz, produces 215 horsepower at 3400 rpm and 375 pound-feet of torque at 1600 rpm. That's as much torque as the Hemi, at half the engine speed. Towing capacity also matches the Hemi, at 7400 pounds (with 2WD); while EPA fuel economy of 18/23 mpg with rear-wheel drive (17/22 mpg with four-wheel drive) yields a driving range of more than 400 miles on one tank of fuel. Clean-diesel technology reduces carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 percent, but the diesel is not clean enough to be sold in Maine, New York, Vermont, Connecticut or California.
On the road, the diesel is considerably rougher and noisier than either V8. That's surprising because most modern diesels are smoother. We did observe about 23 mpg in 300 miles of mostly highway driving, though, which is impressive for a midsize SUV.
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 is competent in this sort of socially unacceptable behavior because it's easy to drive and rewarding within the limits of its tires. There seems to be a flatfooted, stable attitude with this Jeep, similar to that of the car-based crossover SUVs recently introduced (in fact, it's better than some). The steering is reasonably quick, accurate, and nicely weighted. A tight, 37.1-foot turning circle provides advantages off-road as well as in crowded parking lots or when making a U-turn. Still, the Grand Cherokee feels more like a truck than the typical crossover SUV.
Three different four-wheel-drive systems come with confusing names and complicated mechanical differences. The base-level system that comes with the V6 is called Quadra-Trac I, a single-speed, full-time four-wheel-drive that uses electronic clutches in the center differential to pass torque out to the front or rear wheels as needed for best traction. It works full time, so there are no switches, no buttons, and no handles to operate. It does not offer a low-range set of gear ratios.
The more flexible Quadra-Trac II (standard with the 4.7-liter V8) also uses electronic clutches in the center differential to distribute torque in High range, but adds a locking Low range. Both systems are slightly rear biased, with 52 percent of the torque normally going to the rear tires and 48 percent to the front.
Quadra-Drive II, Jeep's most sophisticated system, uses electronic limited-slip differentials (ELSD) at the front, center, and rear. ELSD replaces the Vari-Lock progressive axles in the Quadra-Drive system, with quicker response to changing conditions and greater torque capacity.
The SRT8 flat out flies, and it sounds terrific, too. Jeep claims it can thunder from 0 to 60 mph in less than 5 seconds, which is even faster than the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger SRT8s. Like those cars, the Jeep comes with a 6.1-liter Hemi V8. It is rated at 420 horsepower at 6200 rpm and 420 pound-feet at 4800 rpm in the Grand Cherokee, five horsepower less than in the Charger and 300. We loved the sound and found ourselves accelerating harder than necessary just to hear it. Throttle tip-in seems overly sensitive at times, causing us to leap off the line more abruptly than desired. At other times, it seemed slow on the uptake, but eventually we recalibrated our feet to enable smooth takeoffs from intersections. The throttle tip-in characteristics make the SRT8 less attractive as a commuter vehicle in stop-and-go traffic.
The SRT8 Hemi V8 features a higher compression ratio (10.3:1 vs. 9.6:1), a more aggressive cam, and higher-flow cylinder heads when compared with the standard Hemi. It's mated to its own super-duty five-speed automatic transmission and four-wheel-drive transfer case. The latter is a special unit put together from existing Jeep parts to optimize durability while minimizing weight. In normal conditions, it directs only five to 10 percent of the power to the front wheels, but it can redirect as much as needed to the front wheels to maintain traction. The rear axle is a Dana 44 with a tougher-than-standard ring gear and housing. Despite the high-performance parts, the SRT8 is rated to tow just 3,500 pounds, so think twice about ordering the fast one to pull your bass boat.
The SRT8 rides an inch lower than a standard Grand Cherokee, on specially tuned springs, shocks, bushings, and anti-roll bars. The ride is quite firm but not punishing. The steering geometry is altered for its high-performance mission. Forged 20-inch wheels come shod with Goodyear W-rated four-season tires with run-flat capability. Tire dimensions are P255/45/20 in the front, and a massive P285/40/20 in the rear. The brakes are upgraded with four-piston Brembo calipers (painted gloss red, as a decorative performance element that shows through the wheels) that clamp down on 14.2-inch vented rotors up front and 13.8-inch vented rotors in the rear. Jeep claims it can stop from 60 mph in less than 125 feet. We found the brakes effective, smooth and easy to modulate.
The SRT8's ride is quite firm and the steering is direct and very responsive. This is what you want when making time on back roads or blazing down a lonely highway at high speeds. It makes for tight handling, good transient response and high-speed stability. We're not sure we'd want it for everyday driving, however. The SRT8 was too jouncy for our tastes on rippled freeways in Los Angeles. It does a good job of filtering out roughness, but dips and other undulations make for uncomfortable cruising. And the steering is a bit darty for casual driving. But many drivers love it.
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. The Grand Cherokee is a great choice for those who want to tow, go off-road, or both. And if fuel economy is your goal, the available diesel has it without sacrificing power. Families may want a vehicle with more seat room, and if you don't plan on going off road, you might not want to pay the Grand Cherokee's price premium.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Jim McCraw filed this report from Santa Barbara, California, with Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles and correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.