Everything about the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is new and excellent, including a lowered price. There's a new DOHC V6 that's smooth and powerful, making 290 horsepower and getting 16-23 mpg. There's a new super-stiff chassis with well-tuned independent front and rear suspensions that provide a comfortable ride on any surface, with solid and secure cornering. The new Grand Cherokee offers more interior space, especially four more inches of rear seat legroom and more cargo capacity. It's 3 inches wider for better handling and more hip room, with a wheelbase that's increased by 5 inches while overall length is only increased 1.8 inches, thanks to a reduced front overhang.
The interior is stylish and made with high quality materials, especially the leather seats in the Laredo models. 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 to carry long things like kayaks or two-by-fours.
The styling moves uptown, with a sloped windshield and backlight, sculpted sides, and cleaner lines everywhere. Nothing is missed in the standard safety equipment.
The standard engine is a sweet new 3.6-liter V6 with double overhead-cams making 290 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. We preferred it. The big 5.7-liter V8 Hemi is still an option for all models. All models come with a five-speed automatic transmission.
Off-road capabilities, with three separate systems, plus an optional air suspension system, are matched only by Land Rover but not at the Jeep price.
Several different types of four-wheel drive systems are used depending on the engine. The 4×4 V6 uses a single-speed transfer case, while the 4×4 V8 uses a two-speed transfer case with Selec-Terrain and Hill Descent Control. There are three levels of 4WD capability. Quadra-Trac I is a full-time system with a single-speed transfer case and 48-52 front-rear transfer. Quadra-Trac II uses a two-speed transfer case and electronic sensors that distribute the torque according to tire slippage, up to 60 percent to front or rear wheels. Quadra-Drive II is available with an electronic limited-slip rear differential. Additionally, a traction control system called Selec-Terrain is standard with Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II; it allows the driver to set the for five different terrain situations. Normal, Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud, and Rock. Each of these settings enables different transmission, throttle, and transfer case functions.
Every inch of sheetmetal is new, although it's still so unmistakably Grand Cherokee that it's not going to turn heads. Few will say, Wow, look at that new Jeep, although they probably should, because it's so much cleaner. The real Wow will come when they drive it.
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. This brings better economy, with less interior noise. It has a wider stance and shorter nose with less front overhang, giving it a subtle look of substance. It's a fast windshield, meaning more sloped than before.
And it definitely has substance, being longer and heavier, stretched in the wheelbase by 5.3 inches, although it's only 1.8 inches longer overall thanks to less front overhang. It's also 3 inches wider, 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 stainless steel trim. Cool.
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 bigger and extend into the liftgate, with four backup lights whose beams improve the video view of the rear back-up camera, an area 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, like at the tailgate. This is nice.
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.
There are some new colors, including a dark green that's non-metallic, bringing a welcome and rugged touch, like a nod to the Wrangler.
No Jeep has ever felt this high-quality inside (especially when it gets rolling). The interior is totally redesigned, headlined by four more inches of legroom in the rear seat, with 19 percent more cargo space. 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. The Grand Cherokee would make a great family vacation vehicle. 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 model. That increased convenience is just one of the many details that make the 2011 Grand Cherokee such an improvement.
Jeep engineers also spent a lot of time on NVH, and their work is reflected in the very quiet cabin, even with the throttle floored, even over rough pavement. There are three layers of noise insulation, adding to the weight but worth it.
We found the leather seats in our Laredo X test model to be just right, even almost sigh-inducing, with excellent bolstering too, not to mention totally adjustable with lumbar support. We haven't seen a model with cloth seats, but Jeep has always done good rugged cloth. The stitching on the Overland's leather dashboard looks classy.
The instrument panel is redesigned, nicely, with clean white numbers and needles and nice backlight. 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 to 2, and it makes the steering wheel too thick, because of the heating elements.
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.
We'll get the Overland with the Hemi V8 out of the way first, because it's not our tested model, and we didn't enjoy it as much as the Laredo X with the new V6 engine. The Overland V8, with its estimated 13-19 mpg and base price of more than $44,000 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.
The Overland V8 ride is also firmer on 20-inch tires, steering is heavier and less responsive on the highway, leather seats less comfortable (on the pre-production model we drove; they were still fine-tuning the seats), and the chrome trim detracts from the cleanliness of the styling. Plus, ours had a vibration we felt in the small of our back, under acceleration 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, both called 5-speeds, but one was a 5-speed with overdrive and the other without. The overdrive increases gas mileage, but it kicks down out of overdrive frequently, around town. Maybe the problem is that it's programmed to go into overdrive too soon.
The chassis itself is 146 percent stiffer than before, stiffer than a BMW X5, with a redesigned structure, new improved steels and structural adhesives, and more than 5400 welds in the body, for a 53 percent increase in spot welds and 42 percent increase in arc welds. This is certainly one key to the feel of overall quality. When you combine a well executed new independent suspension, the result is a vehicle that feels like a Mercedes. In fact, design of the Grand Cherokee began in Germany four years ago, when Chrysler was still Daimler-Chrysler, and some components are shared with the Mercedes ML 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. 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.
Almost amazingly, the turning circle remains at the same 37.1 feet as the old Grand Cherokee, despite the 5-inch increase in wheelbase. This doesn't happen without a lot of suspension thought and work. It means nimble around-town handling, and parking that's no more difficult.
The all-new V6 feels like a winner, too. It's a double-overhead cam 3.6-liter with variable valve timing, making 290 horsepower (up 38 percent over the old V6) and 260 pound-feet of torque (up 11 percent), delivering 17 city and 23 highway miles per gallon with 2WD, or 1 mpg less with 4WD. A larger fuel tank of 24.6 gallons allows a range of 500 miles.
The engine is silky smooth and powerful, and will be around for a long time. Jeep says they've got no fewer than 12 applications planned for it.
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.
On the off-road course, Selec-Terrain electronically coordinated up to 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.
The 2011 Grand Cherokee has a great new chassis, engine, suspension, styling and interior. Like the Dodge Viper that brought Chrysler back from the brink of bankruptcy nearly two decades ago, this Grand Cherokee has the potential to do the same. It's that good. Chrysler is not blowing smoke when it says that craftsmanship has returned.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report after his test drive of the Grand Cherokee in San Francisco.