Directly in front of my hood rises the second-largest granite outcrop in the United States. I've been warned not to try to walk up its steep face -- too dangerous. But I've been encouraged, directed even, to drive the newly refreshed 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee right up the slope, then to follow a U-turn trail and drive back down again. I'm in four-wheel low, and the Jeep Selec-Terrain knob is turned to "ROCKS." I use the steering wheel paddle shifter to select third gear on the new eight-speed automatic transmission, and I gingerly add pressure to the throttle with my right foot. The Grand Cherokee moves forward predictably, and we begin to climb. Granite is replaced by sky in my windshield, and gravity pulls my head back against the headrest. I continue to apply throttle, and the GC continues to climb up the impossible angle. A little bit of wheel slip does nothing to upset the SUV -- as long as I trust the electronics and keep the wheel straight, we continue to climb. Finally, we reach the level U-turn area, and I look back down the granite face, amazed that we're here. Even more amazingly, now we have to drive back down the same path. I select second gear, check to make sure that the new Selec-Speed Control is engaged, and point the wheels toward the bottom of the hill. I take my feet off of the throttle pedal and keep them off of the brake pedal -- no small accomplishment, because the windshield that was full of sky upon our ascent is now full of ground. If I touch the brakes, I'll override the Grand Cherokee's sophisticated hill descent function, and by this time, I've come to trust the onboard electronics completely. The potentially terrifying descent from the second-largest granite outcrop in the United States is reduced to an uneventful demonstration drive.
Any purists who were worried that the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee was in danger of getting too pretty for the trails can relax now. Base prices for Jeep's newly refreshed flagship will start at $28,795 for base model Laredo 4x2 and go all the way up to $50,995 for a top-of-the-line Summit 4x4.
Jeep isn't let any moss grow under its feet. Grand Cherokee last underwent a revision for the 2011 model year, and it's not like that one wasn't a big success. Grand Cherokee was widely awarded, and was the top-selling Jeep in a very hot-selling lineup. According to Jeep, they've focused on five areas that they wanted to improve in Grand Cherokee: Fuel Economy; Luxury; Capability; Technology; and Safety.
There are now three engine choices for Grand Cherokee: The Pentastar 3.5-liter gas V6 (17 mpg city/24 highway 4WD; 17 mpg city/25 highway 2WD); a 5.7-liter gas V8 (14 mpg city/20 mpg highway 4WD; 14 mpg city/22 mpg highway 2WD); and a new 3.0-liter diesel V6 (21 city/28 highway 4WD; 22 city/30 highway 2WD). All three engines are mated to a new eight-speed automatic transmission, which is said to significantly improve fuel economy. I drove all three variants, and all are livable choices. The V8 will only be necessary for folks who regularly tow heavy loads, but will still be popular with lead-footed driving enthusiasts (like me) with company gas credit cards (not me, unfortunately). Both gas and diesel V6 models have plenty of power for everyday driving and do a fine job of merging on freeways.
Grand Cherokee has always been an attractive SUV, and a few tweaks have made it a little sharper still. A new horizontal headlight array with sleek HID headlamps and LED daytime running lights and turn signals balance larger, more prominent fog lamps. Bigger taillamps also get LED elements, and a bigger rear window improves rearward visibility. The "Jeep" logo stands out proudly in chrome at the center of the tailgate. Laredo models come with 17" wheels; Limited models get 18"; Overland and Summit models get 20" wheels. Of course, Laredo and Limited buyers can choose to upsize as an option.
In the Driver's Seat
Chrysler Group's exterior designs have been widely praised, but interior design and execution has lagged behind. Jeep made a distinct effort to close the gap with Grand Cherokee, setting Head of Interior Design Klaus Busse loose on the refreshed vehicle. The result is a big upgrade in surfaces and materials with unique color combinations, and an altogether more elegant interior. I felt like the upgrade hit a sweet spot in the mid-grade Limited trim level, where a one-piece dashboard top trumps the Overland and Summit's busy stitched leather dash cover.
Technology is a big story in the Grand Cherokee's dash. A 7" thin film transistor (TFT) customizable display takes center stage in the instrument panel, flanked by additional analog gauges on each side. The TFT display can be set up to emulate an analog or digital speedometer. It can also display audio settings, navigation commands, Selec-Terrain settings and other pertinent vehicle information, accessible via steering wheel mounted controls.
The center stack also gets some technology upgrades. Laredo and Limited models get a 5" color touchscreen display, upgradeable to a big 8.4" touchscreen (standard on Overland and Summit). Easy access redundant controls are still installed on the stack -- sometimes, it's just more efficient to turn down the radio with a physical knob than by using a touchscreen. Chrysler's UConnect system doesn't receive all the hype that SYNC with MyFordTouch or Toyota's Entune or GM's OnStar have gotten, but it's a very straightforward Bluetooth handsfree system that works, and keeps adding capabilities all the time. The latest UConnect adds independent emergency communications through a partnership with Sprint, so that the vehicle can contact the authorities in case of an accident, even if the owner's cellphone is damaged or out of service.
I was impressed with the attention to detail inside the Grand Cherokee's cabin. A new material called "Dinamica" covers the headliner. It feels like the faux suede, Alcantara, that many luxury automakers use for the same purpose, but is said to be more durable, and looks great in black. Color schemes within the cabin have a theme, like "Grand Canyon," "Vesuvius" and "Morocco," themes that influence the colors and textures throughout the interior, down to and including the background color on the center stack's touchscreen display. Nice.
On the Road
Jeep's reputation is based on off-road prowess. Most Grand Cherokee owners will never explore their vehicle's limits off-pavement -- especially owners who choose 4x2 models. 4x4 buyers will have a very capable off-roader in their control, with plenty of potential and great bones. Two suspension setups are available on the GC. The standard conventional suspension delivers 8.6" of ground clearance; the premium Quadra-Lift air suspension system can jack that up to an impressive 11.3". Wading depth is a little disappointing at 20", so be careful in those really deep puddles and streams. Three sophisticated levels of traction control are available on 4x4 models, with the most advanced, Quadra-Drive II, capable of splitting torque front/rear/left/right up to 100% in any direction, depending on demand. Throttle response with all three engines is superb, an essential component to vehicle control on and off-road. Braking is similarly precise, with great feel that's easy to modulate. The sum total of all of these technologies working together is a remarkably capable off-road vehicle.
On-road, the Grand Cherokee is also impressive. The big news is that new EcoDiesel engine, available for a $4,500 premium at all trim levels. Diesel technology has advanced to the point that it is nearly transparent -- you might not even know that you're driving a diesel until it comes time to fuel up. There's no tell-tale clatter from under the hood, and you can hardly detect any diesel odor during operation. Application of the throttle results in gobs of torque (420 lb-ft at peak), and the engine is capable of great efficiency -- up to 30 mpg in 2WD trim. Modern diesel engines require a supply of urea to reduce emissions. The Grand Cherokee's 8 gallon reservoir must be replenished every 10,000 miles or so, or the diesel will not operate. Be sure to calculate the cost and convenience if you're considering a diesel Grand Cherokee.
The vast majority of Grand Cherokees sold will probably be the V6 gas model, which makes a lot of sense. Thanks to the new 8-speed automatic transmission, fuel economy is up from the outgoing GC, while power remains a constant. I had fun driving the V8 model, too, but I'd recommend the V6 for most drivers.
Grand Cherokee's new exterior design has resulted in a very low (for an SUV) coefficient of drag, which helps with fuel economy. It also results in a very quiet ride. Wind noise hardly disturbs the serene cabin, contributing to the air of premium quality.
I had only one minor gripe with the Grand Cherokee's design as it affected off-road prowess. No matter how high I sat in the driver's seat, I couldn't see over the raised portion of the center hood to precisely locate the vehicle's front corners. That made squeezing through tight areas between obstacles a little more challenging than it needed to be, as I had to trust my estimation of the front end's width rather than trusting my eyes. Serious off-roaders, take note.
A mid-cycle refresh doesn't usually garner much attention. But when the refresh includes a new diesel engine, a new transmission up and down the lineup, a new trim level and a substantially redesigned interior, I take notice. Especially when the vehicle is a flagship SUV like the Grand Cherokee. I like many of the changes that Jeep has implemented on the new GC, and I've even picked out the sweet spot in the lineup: I'd order up a gasoline-powered 3.6-V6 Limited 4x4 with the Limited Luxury Package and Off-road Adventure I Group in Brilliant Black Crystal Clear Coat with a Light Frost/Jeep Brown interior. As impressed as I was by the EcoDiesel engine, the $4,500 premium price would keep me from ordering it. At current fuel prices, it would take too long to recoup that investment.
If you're considering a Grand Cherokee, there are several competitors you should drive before buying. There aren't a bunch of diesel SUVs available in the United States -- there's an Audi Q7 TDI, a Porsche Cayenne Diesel and a Volkswagen Touareg TDI. Mercedes-Benz's ML350 BlueTEC is another. In terms of gas-powered SUVs, check out the Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Subaru Tribeca. Jeep would like to compare Grand Cherokee with premium brand vehicles, like Land Rover's Range Rover, but the comparison isn't really apt. If you can afford a $100,000 Range Rover, you'll get better performance on-road and off-road, along with higher levels of luxury, fit and finish. Of course, you can buy two Grand Cherokee 4x4 Summit models for the price of one Land Rover Range Rover Autobiography -- so you'd better get more for your money. The question is: how much do you need out of your vehicle? The value equation is personal, and might be the most important question that every buyer needs to ask themselves before setting out to find a new vehicle.
When I calculate the value equation for myself, I find that the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee meets my expectations. I would give the new GC serious consideration if I were in the market for a new SUV, and if it suits your needs, I'd recommend that you consider it, too. Grand Cherokee is a fun, solid, capable vehicle with great levels of comfort and even luxury, and a pretty good value for the dollar.