Dodge / Ram
The 2005-2007 Grand Cherokee introduced a more angular look to the Grand Cherokee, along with a massive dose of technology. Electronic front and rear differentials lock or unlock instantly, and a new independent front suspension (whicih Jeep pioneered in the 1962 Wagoneer) feels equally at home off road and on. The ancient engine choices - the AMC straight-six, the 318 - are gone, and two new engines with far more power than anything ever to be used in a Jeep are optional, with an active suspension.
Engine choices range from mild to wild, with the Hemi topping the charts at 320 horsepower; it only cost a couple of miles per gallon over the 3.7 liter V6 and 4.7 liter V8, but provided a whole new level of responsiveness. The Bosch-developed Mercedes diesel engine in the 2007 models gives a whole new level of oomph, theoretically while improving mileage quite a bit. The active suspension helps the Hemi and diesel power to be manageable in what is at heart an off-roader, but the heavy weight of the Grand Cherokee makes gas mileage less than it should be, and some of the steps taken to increase economy make the vehicle seem less ideal.
Overall, the current Grand Cherokee has a smoother ride and better on-road handling than past models, yet is more capable on the trail. It feels nimble around paved turns but can still cross a stream; it can outrace some sports cars, but can also go into low-gear four wheel drive for 5 mph rock climbs.
With Hemi and diesel models, a hydraulically controlled active stabilizer reduced body roll while smoothing out the ride when travelling straight by decoupling the front and rear stabilizer bars when they are not needed. The active suspension and fast-acting automatic four-wheel-drive were very helpful in keeping the Hemi tamed around corners, where normally we'd experience considerable skidding and a swing-out tail; but even without the electronic doodads, the Grand Cherokee handled surprisingly well. Ride is not bad, smooth on smooth roads, able to deal with nasty cement and dirt surfaces, but it is still firm and you feel sudden shocks if they're large enough. On old cement roads, the cabin was not shaken by the cracks and minor potholes, but passengers did hear the subsonic reports.
Even though there are lots of electronics to keep the Jeep stable, it seems to do just fine on its own. The heavy vehicle feels fairly nimble and sure-footed around sharp turns and can handle curves at surprisingly high speeds, doing well on emergency maneuvers as well. Taking a turn on broken pavement at fairly high speed, we were surprised by the firm-footedness of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, with just a little protest from the tires from time to time.
The Hemi’s multiple displacement system works imperceptibly, shutting off or activating cylinders in .04 seconds, allowing it to have gas mileage fairly close to the much less powerful 4.7 liter V8 (due for a power upgrade in 2008), and, according to 2008-model-year type measurements, just one or two miles per gallon from the V6, which produces a respectable but far smaller 210 horsepower and 235 lb-ft of torque (which puts it on par with the first Grand Cherokee V8 engines). Gas mileage is fairly poor, but that’s true for all truck-based SUVs. On the lighter side, the Grand Cherokee is a lot quicker (with the right engine), more nimble, and fun to drive than many competitors, especially the Ford poseur trucks. That said, the massive Chevy Suburban 4x4 with the 5.3 liter V8 gets about the same mileage as any gas-powered Grand Cherokee: 14 city, 19 highway, using 2008 EPA testing.
The Hemi is a wonderful engine. It makes just the right noises when operating, is silent when cruising and has an appropriate, deep vrooming noise when acceleration, and provides instant, smooth acceleration at any speed. The Hemi has gobs of torque as well as real, usable horsepower, but it's civilized enough to quietly carry your in-laws around. Or, at least, it would be, except that the transmission on our vehicle dropped a gear just about every time we touched the pedal while cruising, causing a slightly jerky ride exacerbated by the seat design; holding the transmission in gear helped, but you can't hold the transmission in fifth gear. The problem appears to be programming that keeps the engine coasting in as high a gear as possible in order to maximize economy and compensate for the excess weight of the new Jeep. We found ourselves wishing for a "gentle" or "city" setting on the electronic throttle, just as some automatic transmissions have a snow and sport setting. You don't always want to experience awesome Hemi power; sometimes you just want to gently inch forward. (This might have been fixed after the 2005 model year.)
The diesel engine is similar in torque to the Hemi, and you feel it; indeed, it feels even more powerful, because the Hemi smoothly takes you up to full power, while the diesel gives you just about every inch-pound of torque right off idle. The only problem with the diesel, in terms of acceleration, is that it takes a second before it really reacts, whether it's already at highway speeds or sitting at a stoplight; then it comes up hard, with a good kick in the pants. Forget the horsepower rating on the diesel; it’s all about torque, and torque is what it has plenty of. This powertrain is not the best for 0-60 or quarter-mile sprints, perhaps, but most of the time when you hit the pedal it's the first couple of seconds that count, and aside from that brief pause - which brings to mind carburetors but is more likely due to the turbocharger - the diesel has what it takes. It makes getting onto the highway or passing from just about any speed a snap, and provides snappy acceleration under all conditions; 0-60 times are reportedly just under 8 seconds, and the quarter mile comes up in a tad over 16 seconds.
At idle, the diesel engine was nearly silent; it only made that signature clattery noise between idle and around 2,400 rpm, and it was quiet enough that people not listening for it didn't notice it. Full out, the engine seemed no louder than a normal V8. The engine started immediately (we tested in summer) with no wait or "glow plugs" light, acting like a gas engine except for that brief pause and the high torque; and of course the low redline coming in at 4,500 rpm, though the tachometer goes up to 7,000 rpm. Wouldn't it seem more responsive with a 5,000 rpm tachometer? but then, that's standard issue for most manufacturers.
One may wonder about the drawbacks of the diesel. First, there's the cost, nearly four thousand dollars, which will probably not be repaid in gas mileage any time soon; the 2008 EPA ratings seem accurate, at 18 mpg city for a well broken in engine (we maxed out at 17 mg in a moderately new fleet vehicle which was almost certainly not broken in properly, since these vehicles are tested while still babies. However, push the diesel and you can rapidly drop down to an insane 11 mpg. In driving that nets us 21 mpg in a PT Cruiser GT, we ended up at around 15-16 mpg with the Grand Cherokee diesel.) Then there's the longevity and cost of the Bosch-developed, Mercedes-made diesel, which manages to cost more than some competing motors while not lasting as long; though most owners will sell their Grand Cherokees long before they reach 200,000 miles. Balancing those are the tremendous torque, the wow factor, and being able to distill your own fuel (carefully!). The masses of low end torque are especially handy for those who tow or carry very heavy loads.
The Chrysler 545RFE five-speed automatic used with V8s is smooth and responsive, striking a perfect balance (to us) of speed, downshifts, and gentle transitions (except as noted earlier). It has partial engagement in third, fourth, and fifth gears to help with shifting feel and economy. It's also now quieter when shifting - no more solenoid noise - and has a tow/haul mode. The transmission accentuates the strengths of the hemi engine, and almost reads our mind.
The Mercedes five-speed automatic used with the diesel works well on the whole, though it consistently refused to move up a gear after we reached cruising speed. The gear-shift eventually came, but it seemed to take ten or more seconds, and once it arrived, it was obvious it should have gotten there much sooner. We could not hurry it along with the Electronic Range Select.
Electronic Range Select, used in both Chrysler and Mercedes automatics, lets the driver manually pick a gear by moving the shifter left or right, and after some time shuts itself off (you can also deactivate it by knocking the shifter to the right repeatedly). The gear shows as D in the PRNDL (gear indicator) until you use the manual override; then the D turns to a number to show what gear you're in. Unfortunately, you can't lock in fifth gear, and every time you activate it, you start in fourth, and it just seems to ignore your input until you get one gear below where the transmission is. Perhaps there's a logic we're missing on this one, but it seems to be far less useful than AutoStick was.
The shifter itself is gated, but the gate is mellow and you can just zip all the way back to Drive without any gymnastics.
While the Quadra-Drive system on our test model reacts quickly to traction loss, those who go off-road or need extra low-speed traction use low-gear four wheel drive, where a lot of engine revs translates to a small amount of wheel movement, maximizing traction. Moving to low gear four wheel drive simply requires going very slowly while pulling up on a chrome T-handle to the right of the gearshift. Pulling at a higher speed (or from a full stop) brings up an error message. A similar system is used in Quadra-Trac II-equipped vehicles; Quadra-Drive I doesn't come with a low range. The primary advantage of Quadra-Drive over Quadra-Trac II is the use of electronic limited-slip differentials, which respond in fractions of a second for quicker response; they also have higher torque capacity than the previous Vari-Lock axles.
Visibility is good in all directions, with powerful headlights (that can be set to automatically go to high beams when possible, and can be put into either manual or automatic mode), good mirrors, and no major obstructions (when the video system is folded away, at least). The instruments are always easily readable and visible. We'd like to see a windshield wiper defroster and perhaps a washer-defroster, as old Caravans used to have, but that's no more.
Controls are generally logical, particularly the climate control, which is about as good as they get. Driver and passenger side dials are used to control temparature, while the fan speed and vent mode are separately controlled, both with automatic settings. The fan has both high-speed and low-speed automatic positions, ideal for those who don't like the noise of fans on their highest setting. Separate buttons turn on the rear window/mirror defroster, air conditioner compressor, and recirculation. The system worked flawlessly, and vast amounts of heat are produced fairly quickly. The air circulation is quite good; it's easy to set up airflow so a large amount of heat or air conditioning can be blown in without, for example, unwelcome breezes into the driver's eyes or at the back of the neck. The center stack included two power outlets and a small rubber-lined tray, which was duplicated on the left side of the dash, and proved handy for holding an EZ-Pass toll device or cellphone.
Another line of buttons underneath the climate control handled extra features, including the heated seats (with two levels), rear park assist deactivation, pedal fore/aft movement, the tow-haul mode, and stability control shutoff. Above the climate control were the buttons for the trip computer, with the familiar Chrysler controls: compass/temparature (C/T), Reset, Step (for going through the various information types), and Menu, which is used to set up features (automatic headlights and high beams, door locking, light delay, and the like). We appreciated the easy way these options are set up, especially now that the trip computer has roughly 24 characters to play with (and can form any letters). Information on our test car included average gas mileage, distance to empty, two trip odometers, elapsed time, tire pressure, and miles to service (service intervals are customized via the Menu button).
Our test car included rain-sensing wipers, which, surprisingly, worked exactly as they should. The feature can be shut off via the menu system.
The instrument panel itself was classy looking, with chrome rings around the main dials (big ones for speedometer and tachometer, and smaller ones for gas and temparature; sorry, no transmission temparature, oil pressure, voltage, or the like). The speedometer went up to 140, which would normally be a bit silly, except that you can quickly change it from English to metric; then 140 is about 85 mph and no longer excessive. The markings looked elegant, and improved when the white-on-black backlighting was turned on. Overall, it was a good-looking instrument panel which tells its story simply and easily.
The key goes right into the instrument panel, which is easier than the steering column and no doubt cheaper to fix if it goes wrong, but the lock stuck out a little, making the assembly look a bit cheap. That was probably the Grand Cherokee's only real cosmetic slip-up.
Our first test car (2005) also included a navigation system, like many integrated with the stereo, but using real knobs and buttons for the stereo nonetheless. (It does not have a touch screen, so knobs and buttons are used for everything, but some use "menu type" buttons whose function change according to the legend on the screen.) The stereo had excellent sound in all four seats, with clear stereo separation - quite a feat, really. Often what sounds great to the driver is muffled to the rear-seat passengers. The system integrated CD, satellite, and video system using the mode button (a separate button cycled through AM and FM); the song and artist are displayed where possible and appropriate, including on the Sirius satellite radio screen. The video system can be controlled to a degree from the stereo when in video mode, (though the movie can't be seen up front), allowing quick fast-forwarding past annoying or scary bits. Audio quality is controlled by pushing and rotating another knob, which is not our favorite system, but we can understand not using separate knobs for bass, treble, balance, and fade when space is needed for a big screen. The system allows for control of midrange as well as bass and treble. (MyGIG, with a built in hard drive, became available with the 2008 models.)
Pressing Nav brings up the navigation system menu; but then you have to press Enter to agree not to be distracted, and, if you want a map rather than a menu, Cancel. The system works via a dial (see illustrations), and was easy to use as these systems go, providing the usual feature set. The one oddity was that the zoom dial, which is also used to select letters when choosing an address or location, can be pushed in, but it doesn't do anything; you have to select things by rotating the knob, then press the Enter button, just below. That proved to be a little awkward, but so was the old system of rotating and pressing; it was too easy to rotate a little while pressing and select the wrong thing. A little more resistance on the knob's rotation would have helped more than moving the Enter button.
Without the navigation system, the radio was much more sensible. Our 2007 model had a good stereo with satellite capabilities; sound was excellent, but the satellite radio suffered more dropouts than we've ever had with this kind of system. Trees knocked it out fairly easily. The system was easy to manage, with dials for volume, audio qualities, and tuning, as well as steering wheel mounted controls to bump up or down one station at a time. Pressing the INFO button told us about the radio station, and gave us the song title and artist. As always, we enjoyed the range and freedom from commercials of satellite radio.
The interior includes a good variety of cargo bins and such, with an overhead sunglass bin, a glove compartment that can actually hold move than the owner's manual, a center covered console, and a couple of padded ledges; all doors have map pockets. The center console in our test car had a well-designed integrated coin holder (no pennies) and netting on the top to hold DVDs, CDs, or tissues. It was deep enough to hold two sets of headphones and a remote control for the video system. The front cupholders in the center console can be removed, with some difficulty, for cleaning. The seats were unnecessarily hard, and hurt one of our backs, but that might not be an issue for everyone.
The cargo area, which seems larger than on the prior generation, includes a power outlet, netted side bin, and reversible load door panel is carpeted on one side has a large shallow tray which grips boxes and such on the other. With the rear seats folded flat down, there's quite a bit of room. Even without them, you can store a sizable amount of stuff in the cargo area; there's also good room for passengers in the rear seats. A folding console comes down from the middle of the seats, and dual cupholders fold out from underneath them.
The optional rear seat video is well integrated, with the controls and CD loading in a floor-mounted console that is well protected from youngsters, yet easy enough to reach and use for those mature enough to do so safely. It's easier to deal with there than up in the ceiling, where the screen itself is. When the screen is down, the driver's rear view is badly obstructed - a problem with nearly all such systems. Two sets of wireless headphones and a remote control are included, along with a movie, Brother Bear, that seems to have unnecessary amounts of trauma dumped in with an old, old plot and recycled Great White North skits. On the lighter side, the movie was free, and you can always toss it out.
The sunroof control was convenient, with single-push opening and closing (saving the driver from long periods with a finger on a button), and a separate button for venting (just lifting the back). Not having a Bluetooth-enabled phone, we could not test the clever UConnect system, which not only lets you use the internal mic and speakers for phone calls, but even automatically transfers calls to and from your phone as you get in and out.
The rear park assist system was also quite nice, providing both visual and audio feedback when reversing. It's definitely worth the money - it can prevent and accident or save a life (you'd be surprised how many people are run over when people are backing out of driveways).
Overall, the Grand Cherokee is almost an ideal vehicle for those who spend much of their time on the highway but also go off-road; it is more off-road capable than most competitors, including the Volkswagen Touareg, Ford Explorer, and Mitsubishi Montero (according to a magazine's tests), yet is quite nice on-road. The Hemi engine provides boundless power and excellent acceleration, and the automatic keeps things civilized. (The Touareg's V8 produces about the same power as the Hemi, but it doesn't feel as strong.)
Wind noise is lower than in the past model, and ride is often better, with nasty concrete roads being straightened out even if sudden shocks and such aren't as well filtered. On the other hand, gas mileage is fairly poor regardless of the engine - a problem with the entire class, but still, if you're looking for something to move people around in safety and comfort, the best bet is still a Grand Caravan, which has surprisingly good handling and decent acceleration, a huge, comfortable interior, and an unbeatable price given the whole package - with over 22 mpg to be expected in mixed city/highway driving, compared with about 14-18 on the various Grand Cherokee powertrains (EPA ratings are higher). The V6 and diesel do better on gas mileage, and the V6 is “fast enough.”
The 2007 Limited 4x4 starts at $38,340, including destination; that brings the side curtain front and rear airbags, side airbags, accident response system, traction and stability control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, Quadra-Trac II, flex-fuel 4.7 liter V8, power sunroof, rain-sensitive wipers, remote starter, tire pressure monitor, dual-zone automatic climate control, power adjustable pedals, cruise, power everything, tilt wheel, 6-disc CD changer and Boston Acoustics speakers, seat/radio/mirror/pedal memory, garage door opener, trip computer, floor mats, fog lights, and seventeen-inch aluminum-alloy wheels. In short, this is a Grand Cherokee with just about every feature other than a nav system and hard-drive stereo. Not much really needs to be added, but on our test vehicle, some items were - the $225 red paint, a $225 towing package (mainly a wiring harness), and the diesel engine. As we mentioned before, the diesel comes in at $3,700, but that’s as part of a larger package that includes a 22-gallon fuel tank, satellite radio (with one year subscription), engine block heater, Quadra-Drive, and electronic limited-slip front and rear axles. Why does it come with all that? Why not?
If you need to tow a trailer and/or go off-road, the Grand Cherokee is a pretty good package; that diesel should really come in handy for towing, with its massive torque. If you need to carry seven people and go off-roading or need towing ability, the Jeep Commander is here, with that third row of seats - as long as nobody has really long legs. So don't go reaching for an Explorer or a Sequoia. We think you'll be happier joining the Jeep family. Then you, too, will be able to proclaim that the next generation will not be a true Jeep.
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