2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Expert Review: Autoblog
We're finally beginning to get a glimpse of exactly what Chrysler has been up to since snagging a whopping $6.6 billion in federal funding during the automotive implosion of 2009. While General Motors has been busily chugging along like nothing happened, the Pentastar hasn't exactly rolled out a wave of new and refreshed models. There's been an obvious hitch in the Chrysler giddy up, and those loyal to the company's three brands (okay, four) have been forced to settle for little more than slightly reworked option packages... until now. As 2010 comes to a close, the company is pulling the covers off a range of new models, each as important to its future success as the last.
At the front of the pack is the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, a vehicle that's become synonymous with Chrysler's righting of itself in the public eye thanks to some of the most well-crafted advertisements in the industry. If you don't know what we're on about, we highly suggest pointing your browser toward YouTube and spending a few minutes watching the company's "The Things We Make, Make Us" spot. Be prepared for an overwhelming sense of patriotic duty, as well as a burning desire to pick up a hammer and bang some nails.
You've been warned.
Even before Chrysler's run-in with Chapter 11, there were flickers of hope within the company's fleet. The Dodge Ram packed one of the best interiors in the segment, and the previous-generation Grand Cherokee wasn't a horrible place to spend a few hours. The 2011 Grand Cherokee picks up those cues and runs with them in all directions, resulting in a vehicle that's as capable off road as it is jousting with mid-town traffic. If this is the new face of Chrysler, we like what we see.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL
This is a handsome vehicle. Jeep has a long and storied history of brutish designs to pull from, and the 2011 Grand Cherokee picks from the best. The familial squared-off fender arches and seven-slot grille join new, glowering headlamps for a look that's all around more determined than its predecessor. The narrow lights and upright fascia give the Grand Cherokee an aggressive nose that looks all but determined to pull the new Chrysler from the ashes of the old single-handedly. Short overhangs front and rear are plenty functional for taking on your favorite trails, but they also give the SUV the sort of ready-for-anything stance that made buyers fall in love with high-riders to begin with. In a world populated by bubble crossovers, the Grand Cherokee clearly stands apart.
That look continues down the side of the vehicle. With blacked-out B- and C-pillars backed up by angular rear bodywork, the design is beautifully modern. For once, the designers at Chrysler don't seem to be completely beholden to retro styling, and that fact pays huge dividends for the Grand Cherokee. Light splashes of chrome on the door handles, mirrors and roof rack are more fine jewelry than bling, and demonstrate a level of restrained taste that we don't see too often from domestic manufacturers. In short, it's a vehicle that you're proud to drive, and that draws attentive stares no matter where you go.
Chrysler was one of the first domestic companies in recent times to underscore the fact that a vehicle doesn't have to wear a luxury badge just to have an excellent interior, and the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee takes that knowledge to heart. While our tester came equipped with the feature-heavy Overland package and all of the leather niceties that entails, we're told that lower rung models are no less gorgeous. Deep, real-wood accents are traced with chrome along the door panels and dash, and the excellent leather seats wear stylish contrasting piping. The cabin is lined with a host of small details that simply make it obvious that Chrysler's team put in the hours stressing over fit and finish. Five years ago, we simply wouldn't have thought this level of refinement was possible from any Chrysler branch, let alone Jeep.
To us, the icing on the cake is the steering wheel in the Grand Cherokee. Chrysler finally seems to have realized that the chunky, one-size-fits-all unit of yore wasn't doing anyone any favors, and chucked it in favor of piece that does considerably more for the overall cohesiveness of the interior. We can't underscore enough how important a steering wheel is to a vehicle's cabin, and Chrysler has absolutely nailed it with the Grand Cherokee's new tiller.
Our Jeep came packing the much-celebrated new Phoenix 3.6-liter V6 under the hood. With 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the new engine is a few millennia ahead of the engine it replaces. During our First Drive, we felt like the six-pot didn't have quite enough gusto to shuffle around the 5,000 pound Grand Cherokee in a dignified fashion, but after a full week with the new engine, we're changing our tune. A little. The V6 handles day-to-day driving duties without any real issues, and will even summon up enough courage for interstate passes on command. It's smooth, though if you're expecting to dart out into the left lane, brace for plenty of revs from the wee sixer.
Chrysler mated the Phoenix with a five-speed automatic transmission that, while plenty smooth, seems to be the weak spot in the driveline. The EPA hasn't been kind to the Grand Cherokee V6, slotting our tester at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. During mixed driving, we saw around 19, so the feds figures are spot on. Throwing an extra cog into the transmission would go a long way toward squeezing an extra mpg or two out of the SUV. Of course, losing a pound or hundred wouldn't hurt things, either.
Nestled behind that transmission is what Jeep calls its Quadra-Trac II four-wheel-drive system. With a bevy of settings (including ride-height adjustments) for nearly every type of off-road or slippery driving condition, the system is supposed to be to trails what a stand mixer is to baking – necessary.
Unfortunately, our time with the Grand Cherokee was abbreviated by a last-minute trip, so we weren't able to put the Grand Cherokee through its paces in the red clay of East Tennessee. Not that it's going to be asked to conquer the Sahara on a regular basis by average owners.
We can say with some authority that the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is as mild mannered while soft roading as one could possibly expect from of a vehicle that's still more an SUV than it's actual body-on-frame competitors. Chrysler has done a fantastic job with the suspension, providing a ride that soaks up breaks in pavement without succumbing to wallow or excessive body roll. Don't get us wrong, this isn't your momma's crossover, and as such, you can't expect to hustle it through a series of twists without appropriate amounts of understeer, but for a vehicle that we're told can keep pace with a Wrangler once the tarmac evaporates, it's an excellent driver.
Most domestic manufacturers seem to have finally gotten the memo that quiet means quality to the vast majority of buyers out there, and as such, the Grand Cherokee's cabin insulates you and yours from agitations like wind, road and engine noise. Really wind that 3.6-liter V6 up, though, and you will hear it sweating from the engine bay.
Jeep is asking around $30,215 for the base, two-wheel-drive version of the 2011 Grand Cherokee, though our nearly top-of-the-line tester hits the wallet for a more heady $43,695 with destination. Of course, that's with nearly every option the company could possibly cram into the truck with the exception of the mighty 5.7-liter V8. Speaking of that eight-pot, we've got to wonder if we'd opt for the more potent powerplant were it our name on the dotted line. At around two mpg less in both city and highway driving with an additional 70 horsepower, we'd certainly consider it. The sad fact is that the new V6 – or more accurately, the transmission – just doesn't offer enough in the way of fuel economy to warrant the hit in horsepower. There's some word that Chrysler will be bolting the Fiat Multiair system onto the Phoenix with significant increases in horsepower sometime soon. If that's the case, sign us up. Otherwise, we'll take the 5.7-liter, please.
Chrysler really has done something impressive with the 2011 Grand Cherokee. The company is plainly operating with a dearth of resources compared to both Ford and General Motors, but has managed to turn out a product capable of keeping pace, if not besting comparable metal, from those two at the same time. Here's hoping the Pentastar can pull off similar feats of engineering and accounting wizardry with the rest of its fleet.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL
In the span of three years, Chrysler has been bought and sold more times than Duke Cunningham. Its warped "merger of equals" with Daimler ended in 2007 and the disastrous reign of incompetence extended into its relationship with Cerberus Capital Management – now a "bad word" within the hallowed halls of Chrysler, according to one exec.
After filing for bankruptcy in April of 2009, the reformed Chrysler Group partnered with the Italian automaking juggernauts at Fiat and have since rolled out a five-year business plan that's nothing if not ambitious.
But you didn't come here for an abbreviated history lesson on Chrysler and its failed suitors. You want to find out how your $6.6 billion in federal funding is being spent and if the company's products are finally up to snuff. Well, here's the short version: The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the first Chrysler product since the 300 that deserves your attention. Follow the jump to find out why.
Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
Unlike the scads of products being teased by the Big Three for the past few years, the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee has struck the perfect balance of exposure in the run-up to its on-sale date later this year. And if you're fond of the ZJ and WJ models of yore, then there's a lot to like about the new WK2's exterior.
The Grand Cherokee's design is the epitome of evolution, retaining the short overhangs, trapezoidal wheel openings, fast windshield and backlight, and of course, the iconic seven-slat front grille. Mark Allan, Jeep's head of design, was committed to retaining the overall shape of past GCs, saying, "You should be able to tell its a Jeep from far away, but we wanted it to be more serious; more stern."
Allan and his team have succeeded – not just with the overall design, but in the details. The deeply recessed creases in the doors, the blacked-out B- and C-pillars, furrowed brow, standard fog lamps, color-matched spoiler and the tasteful use of chrome – something most domestic automakers still haven't mastered – all blend into a cohesive whole that's at once masculine and refined. And they've even fitted a set of front tow-hooks, something the designers and engineers fought hard to include.
The whole package has grown by three inches in width, but only 1.8 inches in overall length, with a 114.8-inch wheelbase – over five inches longer than before. With the rear wheels shoved so far back, it pays dividends for rear-seat passengers, with an additional four inches of rear leg room. But that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wholesale changes inside.
The pitiful excuse for interiors that Chrysler, and by extension Jeep, have foisted on consumers for the past 20 years has finally been addressed, and if the GC's insides are any indication, journalists will need a new horse to flog if these kind of appointments disseminate throughout the Pentastar's offerings.
Behold: textured plastics that don't make you wretch. Faux aluminum trim that doesn't feel like it's been liberated from a Ukrainian toy factory. Switchgear – in particular, the window controls and climate knobs – that are (shocker!) pleasing to thumb and won't detach in your palm. Granted, it's not exactly Audi-grade stuff, but it's easily on par with some of the best from the domestic luxury set, and in many cases, even better. And it's not just limited to the high-end Overland model.
The Laredo and Limited variants get a soft-touch dash, chrome-trimmed instrument panel and LED lighting. The leather on the seats and console hasn't been sourced from a Burger King-grade bovine, and when you open up the hinged console to reveal the illuminated cup holders, they gracefully recess into the side with decidedly Germanic damping. It's all in the details. And the list is long.
In the Overland, real wood flanks the dash and doors, including the top of the leather-wrapped, tilt and telescope steering wheel. The cowhide goes up a grade and comes complete with contrast stitching that extends to the dash – close your eyes and run your hand over the top and you'd be convinced you're sitting in something from Cadillac. Or better.
A touchscreen sat-nav is optional, along with Jeep's massive "CommandView" dual-pane sunroof, but the niceties aren't just limited to the big-budget options. Heated and ventilated front seats, warmed rear thrones, four-way power lumbar controls, rain sensing wipers and "Keyless Enter-N-Go" are all for the taking, along with a rearview backup camera, memory seating and heated steering wheel. A FloTV system for rear seat passengers and Chrysler's UConnect WiFi setup are also options, and yes, a power liftgate complete with a "flipper" rear window is still available.
Underneath that highly revised interior is a platform based largely on the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, with a fully independent suspension equipped with variable rate springs in the rear. More importantly, Jeep has introduced a duo of new suspension technologies to blend on-road refinement with off-road capabilities.
First, we have Quadra-Lift, an air suspension system that can raise or lower the GC to five different heights depending on the task at hand. The Normal Ride Height offers 8.1 inches of ground clearance to boost fuel economy and aerodynamics. Hit the highway and the system automatically adjusts to Aero Mode by lowering the Jeep by 0.6 inches, further improving consumption and reducing drag from the GC's low .37 Cd. Those settings, along with the Park Mode, which drops the ride height by 1.5 inches to make entrance and exit slightly more graceful, is the staid stuff. Here's where it gets interesting and where Jeep's off-road heritage shines through: All the settings are controlled through Jeep's Selec-Terrain knob on the center console. The two that matter: Off-Road 1 and Off-Road 2. The first raises things 1.3-inches (for a total of 9.4 inches of ground clearance), while the latter boosts ride height to 10.7 inches. Partnered with the stability control and traction electronics, 12 different settings for power, throttle, braking and transmission adapt to the terrain by selecting one of the five settings, all of which are self-explanatory.
Sand/Mud, Snow and Auto are exactly what you'd expect, dialing in the proper amount of torque and wheelspin to suit the surrounds. Sport brings things down a notch and focuses on on-road performance, while Rock raises the ride height to its maximum setting and partnered with the transfer case, differentials and throttle, delivers maximum low-speed control. But when it comes to how that power gets to the wheels, things get slightly more complex.
Forget about the 4x2 versions of the Laredo, Limited and Overland. If you're buying a Jeep for more than kiddie schlepping, you're after the 4x4 variants. And with that selection comes choice. In Quadra-Trac 1 guise, you've got a full-time four-wheel-drive system that performs the majority of the duties for you, but swaps the sophistication and customization for a single-speed transfer case and boosted fuel economy. What you're really interested in comes in the form of the upgraded Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II systems, both of which come standard with the Selec-Terrain system.
With Quadra-Trac II, you've got a two-speed transfer case with highly adaptive electronics that can quickly shuffle as much as 100 percent of the torque to the axle with the most traction. Good, but it gets better. Select the Quadra-Drive II system and the rear diff is swapped out with an electronic limited-slip differential with higher sensitivity and the ability to immediately and seamlessly transfer power to the appropriate rear wheel. How good is it? Jeep set us out on a few trails at the Hollister Hills SVRA to find out.
Now, we've done these kind of staged off-road expeditions before. And generally, the courses have been carefully selected and perfectly prepped (and in some cases, explicitly designed) for the vehicle in question. So it speaks volumes that Jeep's team chose a section of the park largely unexplored by the PR team to let the new Grand Cherokee loose in the hands of hamfisted journos. One Jeep official confided in us that they hadn't scouted out the location until a few days before our arrival, so if the GC couldn't handle it, serious embarrassment would be the order du jour.
Jeep says this is the most capable off-road vehicle it's ever produced, and in the midst of a steep upward ascent followed by a treacherous trek down, we're keen to agree. With the transfer case set to 4WD Low, steady-state throttle and a few steering corrections allowed us to skirt up the side of a hill without a bead of sweat on our brow. At the top, we stood by for a few seconds as our Wrangler lead vehicle slowly made its way overtop a rock outcropping and down a severely steep bank. Easy for him. But in a leather-lined luxo-'ute? No problem, apparently.
We came up to the same crest, set the system into its fully automated mode and crawled over the uneven boulder at the top of the hill. Our Jeep exec co-driver hopped out for an impromptu photo-op just as the GC was doing its best downward-facing dog followed by a three-wheeled lifted leg. He hopped back in and with a touch of the throttle we were on our way down.
What impressed the most was the complete lack of skill necessary to navigate down the sandy, rock-strewn descent. We simply kept our foot off the pedals, turned the wheel a few degrees when necessary and then got back on the throttle when things evened out. This could've been a lazy Sunday drive if it weren't for the lower air dam being removed and the clunking and clattering of the transfer case as it shuffled power fore and aft.
So, the Grand Cherokee is obviously a capable off-roader. But we all know that most owners won't be tackling Moab, so its on-road demeanor is arguably more important – and here's where the real revelations comes in.
The GC's Benz architecture makes for a seriously pleasing ride on the open road, and with a triple-sealing strategy to separate engine and wind noise from the cabin, NVH levels are vastly improved. We're talking Lexus quiet. Thicker carpet lines the transmission tunnel, so much of the noise that emanated from the center of the last-gen GC has been completely removed, along with that vehicle's galling amount of tire roar thanks to acoustical wheel liners. Steering and brake feel is more direct and supple then we remember, albeit slightly detached, and outward visibility is particularly pleasant. You know where the corners are, and even without the backup cam, you've got a keen sense of what's going on in the rear.
On the powertrain front, it's a bit more of a mixed bag. We enjoyed a brief stint in the variable valve timing-equipped 5.7-liter V8, and with 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, it does a more than an adequate job of motivating this massive slab of SUV. The Multi-Displacement System, which shuts down four of the eight cylinders while cruising, was seamless in its activation, and if there's anything missing from the V8 model, it's a HEMI badge on the boot. Apparently, that's another four-letter word in this increasingly fuel-conscious climate.
So instead, the real focus is the first application of Chrysler's new "Phoenix" V6 – an engine that's set to proliferate through the automaker's lineup over the course of the next year. With 3.6-liters of displacement, an aluminum block, dual-overhead cams and variable valve timing, it makes the old 3.7-liter mill look positively archaic, particularly when scanning the stats. The laughably low 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque of the outgoing engine has been increased to 290 hp and 260 lb-ft, with peak twist arriving at 4,800 rpm. Fuel economy has improved as well, with a maximum of 23 mpg when cruising on the highway, 16 in the city and a claimed 500 miles of range on a single (24.6-gallon) tank. Naturally, you sacrifice a bit of towing capacity in the process – 5,000 pounds with the V6 or 7,400 pounds with the big boy V8.
But does it matter on the road? The new six is certainly more refined, spinning smoothly towards the far side of the tach, but failing to provide sufficient passing power on occasion. Blame the GC's nearly 5,000-pound curb weight if you must, but despite the V6's "all-new" designation, it still feels about a half-generation behind the competition. Thankfully, that's where Fiat's tech-infusion will come into play. The Italian automaker's much-hyped MultiAir valve-actuation system is netting significant increases when fitted to existing engines. A Chrysler engineer we spoke with expects a 10-to-15 percent boost in output when it's fitted to the Phoenix, so power is set to increase to compete with the newest sixes from Ford, GM and others. When it's finally going to arrive, though, remains to be seen.
By the same token, we'd be remiss not to point out that Jeep's decision to stick with a five-speed automatic seems decidedly boorish considering the plethora of transmission options available from the competition. It's not a bad 'box by any means, shifting smoothly and thrusting itself into the meat of the engine's powerband when mashing the throttle, but there's always an overarching sense that a few more MPGs could've be squeezed out with an additional gear up top and a bit more grunt could be delivered down low in second and third. The only reason it stands out is the level of detail that's gone into everything else, but considering Chrysler's recent financial situation, sacrifices had to be made and developing a new gearbox was likely among them. Not to mention its effect on the bottom line.
To that end, the 2011 Grand Cherokee's pricing is very competitive given the equipment levels and its overall capabilities. Jeep is keen to point out that not only has it reduced the price of nearly every trim (we're talking hundreds, not thousands here), but it's increased the amount of features on each model to net anywhere between $2,000 and $6,000 in additional kit.
You can scan the model mix and pricing in our previous post, but on the low end, the Laredo 4x2 comes in at just over $30k, while the top-spec Overland 4x4 with all the trimmings maxes out at $42,995. The bulk of Grand Cherokee sales are likely to be in the middle, but even then, you've got a range of options to choose from whether you're a serious off-roader with visions of rock-crawling or a mild-mannered mom with a gaggle of soon-to-be soccer stars.
No matter your destination or proclivities, there's a Grand Cherokee to suit your needs on road, and the competition doesn't even come close to matching its abilities off road. For that, you'd need to look at something hailing from Solihull, which makes the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee more of a budget-minded Range Rover than a Lexus RX or Ford Explorer competitor. If this is the shape of things to come from Chrysler, there might just be a little life yet in the halls of Auburn Hills.
Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
All-new, with silky new V6 and taut suspension.
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 4x4 V6 uses a single-speed transfer case, while the 4x4 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.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee comes in three models, each with a choice of two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.
Grand Cherokee Laredo ($30,215) and 4WD ($32,215) come with cloth seating, fold-flat front passenger seat, power eight-way driver seat with four-way lumbar, LED lighting, reclining rear seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, halogen headlamps, roof rails, flipper liftgate glass, foglamps, 17-inch aluminum wheels, trailer sway control, keyless ignition, electronic vehicle information center, 12-volt auxiliary outlets. Laredo X ($4,000) upgrades to leather seating, heated front seats, 18-inch aluminum wheels, nine-speaker 506-watt CD/DVD/HDD/MP3 audio, rearview camera, hands-free communication, 115-volt power outlet, and remote starting.
Grand Cherokee Limited ($36,320) and 4WD ($38,820) add heated rear seats, bi-xenon headlamps with auto leveling, dual-pane panoramic sunroof with power shade, navigation, rain-sensitive windshield wipers. Also touches of brightness like: silver strakes in rear cargo area, door sill scuff pads with bright insert and Jeep logo, body-colored fascias with bright insert, bright door handles, bright exhaust tip. The V8 ($1,495) is optional.
Grand Cherokee Overland ($38,715) and 4WD ($41,120) feature an air suspension system and Nappa leather seating with piping, ventilated front seats, wood and leather heated steering wheel with memory, cargo net, power liftgate, premium audio with navigation and SIRIUS travel-traffic information, 20-inch aluminum wheels. The V8 ($1,495) is optional.
Safety equipment includes electronic stability control, electronic roll mitigation, ABS with brake traction control system, trailer sway control, hill start assist, hill descent control, frontal airbags, front side airbags, full-length side curtain airbags, active head restraints, and tire pressure monitor.
Options include UConnect Media Center, FLO TV, rear-seat entertainment system, Sirius backseat TV, Sirius XM satellite radio, UConnect Web, UConnect Navigation, and UConnect phone.
Note: All prices are Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) as of May 12, 2010, which may change without notice at any time. Prices do not include destination charges.
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.
Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x2 ($30,215); Laredo 4x4 ($32,215); Limited 4x2 ($36,320); Limited 4x4 ($38,820); Overland 4x2 ($38,715); Overland 4x4 ($41,120).
Options As Tested
Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo X 4x4 ($36,215).
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Information
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