The name recalls carefree open-air runabouts, extreme off-roaders, and military vehicles that valiantly helped change the course of history. So it's no wonder Jeep took the redesign of their flagship 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee seriously; after selling 4 million of the five passenger SUVs, the beleaguered American carmaker recognized the importance of building a moneymaking next-gen iteration of the boxy Grand Cherokee.
How does Jeep's latest hold the line against the SUV competition? To find out, I tested the new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee both on road and off.
First Glance: Longer, Wider, Sleeker… and Cheaper
Jeep doesn't confuse Grand Cherokee customers with the types of buyers who settle for smaller, compromised vehicles, and their 2011 model exemplifies that attitude.
Based on the next-gen Mercedes-Benz ML chassis that boasts 146 percent greater torsional rigidity, the Grand Cherokee sits longer and wider than its predecessor, and cuts through the air with a lower coefficient of drag. Those new proportions boost interior volume, and add 4 more inches of rear seat knee room and legroom while increasing cargo capacity, as well.
Offered with a choice of two powerplants, the Cherokee can be ordered with an all-new 3.6 liter V6 Pentastar engine that produces 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, or a 5.7 liter V8 that pumps out 360 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. The V6's fuel economy measures 16/23 mpg with 2WD, while 4WD drops the highway figure to 22 mpg. The V8 achieves a less impressive 14/20 mpg with 2WD, which drops to 13/19 mpg with 4WD despite a multi-displacement system that shuts off four cylinders for gas savings. Both engine options are mated to five-speed automatic transmissions, and three 4x4 systems enable varying levels of offroad capability. Towing capacities range from 5,000 lbs for the V6 model to an impressive 7,400 lbs with the V8.
2WD trim levels include Laredo ($30,995), Limited ($37,495) and Overland ($39,495); 4x4 versions jump to $32,995, $39,995, and $42,995, respectively.
Grand Cherokee comes with a 3-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, and 5-year/100,000 mile powertrain coverage.
In the Driver's Seat: A Grander Cherokee, Indeed
A more spacious interior is the primary benefit of Grand Cherokee's longer wheelbase, and its reworked proportions enable a nearly 19 percent improvement in cargo volume, for a total of 35.1 cubic feet.
But more immediately satisfying is the proliferation of soft touch surfaces throughout the otherwise generally no-nonsense cabin. An available panorama roof adds an element of airiness to Grand Cherokee's interior, and the Limited package includes a power 8-way driver seat, heated second row seats, and a Garmin-based navigation system with a built-in hard drive. The upmarket Overland version adds supple Napa leather with piping, real wood inserts, and tidbits like a power liftgate and 20" polished aluminum wheels, among other goodies.
Climb aboard Grand Cherokee, and you'll settle into a comfortable seat that's perhaps firmer than you expected, especially if you're used to the soft, cushy perches found in big American luxury cars of yesteryear. The view of the road is commanding without feeling unnaturally elevated, and the rear seats offer adequate, though not expansive amounts of legroom. The interior designers deserve kudos for the uncluttered dashboard design and sparing use of plastic trim bits; the leather-lined dash on the Overland model ups the luxury ante, without feeling too over the top or precious for daily use. Overall, the new cabin has become a more pleasant place to motor while maintaining Jeep's inherent sense of functionality.
On the Road (& in the Dirt): Quiet and Comfortable, but How About That Gearbox?
I tested two Grand Cherokee trim levels on the winding roads connecting Sausalito to Half Moon Bay. The first leg of my journey was aboard a V6-powered Overland model which started at $41,140, and stickered at $43,695 with a U-Connect equipped media center, adaptive cruise control, Offroad Adventure II package, panoramic sunroof, and Quadra Lift suspension with Selec-Terrain.
Power from the 290 horsepower V6 feels modest, but the cabin is impressively quiet and isolated from driveline vibration and noise. Perhaps to preserve fuel economy (and help achieve the V6 model's best in class cruising range claim), the 5-speed automatic transmission sometimes feels reluctant to downshift. Gear ratios also feel a bit tall, which—along with this SUV's considerable curb weight—can lend a ponderous feeling to Grand Cherokee's acceleration. However, when it's not in "Sport" mode, the air suspension's softer damping makes this Cherokee a comfortable long distance driver.
For the second leg of my journey, I chose a V8-powered Limited model with Media Center, adaptive cruise control, and panorama roof. Starting at a more modest $38,820, our tester's sticker price leapt to $43,885—just a hair more than V6 version. Though it lacked the luxurious leather-lined dash and more upscale trim, the V8's enhanced thrust offered a more satisfying drive, and drew less attention to the shortcomings of the 5-speed transmission.
An offroad interlude revealed that the Quadra-Lift's available 10.7 inches of maximum clearance helps make Grand Cherokee a surprisingly capable offroader, tackling deep ruts and steep grades with ease.
For the most part, the guys at Jeep have built a worthy successor to the Grand Cherokee platform, which has sold an impressive 4 million units so far.
On the positive side, the new Grand Cherokee offers a roomier and more upscale interior, and a chassis that's well suited to both long distance cruising and rugged offroading. Efficiency—at least with the V6-powered models—is enhanced, and the optional Quadra-Lift air suspension makes this SUV capable of handling everything from canyon carving sessions and all-day interstate excursions to challenging ventures into mud, dirt, and uneven terrain.
On the other hand, the Grand Cherokee's high curb weight can make it feel cumbersome on mountain roads, and that reality isn't aided by the arcane 5-speed transmission. The gearbox may shift smoothly, but in an era where smaller cars have moved on to 6-speed transmissions and some luxury cars are venturing into 7- and 8-speed setups, the Grand Cherokee's transmission does a disservice to both of its available powerplants. Jeep executives have mentioned that an 8-speed gearbox will eventually make its way into the lineup, and that won't come a moment too soon.
Jeep's 2011 Grand Cherokee steps up the value and luxury compared to its predecessor, and tech-heavy options like Uconnect, Wi-Fi, 3G cellular connectivity, and a 20 station FLO TV system for rear passengers confirm that Chrysler is hip to the changing needs of new car buyers.
The new Grand Cherokee has come a long way, but we won't see its true potential until it becomes endowed with the gearbox it deserves.