by David Zatz in August 2013 (4.5)
Grand Cherokee diesel test
The Jeep Grand Cherokee was redesigned for 2011, with a new body, interior, and V6 engine; it collected awards with surprising ease. For 2014, Jeep added a standard eight-speed automatic, put in a diesel option, updated the electronics, added a configurable dashboard, and gave the whole vehicle a quick going-over. Largely due to the new transmissions and diesel, but also because of other refinements and additions, it looks as though the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee will keep the winning streak going.
Cornering was surprisingly good, especially considering the size and heft of the four-wheel-drive Jeep. The down-to-earth feel of the old “ZJ” Grand Cherokees has been drummed out in the name of refinement, but the big Jeep is still more enjoyable than most luxury SUVs. The Grand Cherokee usually feels lighter than it is, adding to the enjoyment of sharp turns; it stays on course quite well. You can really whip it around turns without hearing tire squeal or feeling too top-heavy; it hides its height, heft, and weight well from behind the steering wheel. That said, if you really push it, you know you’re in an SUV, not a sports car.
Traction is fine around hard and fast turns, surprisingly so for a car that is really off-road capable (and not just a “tall wagon” with a fancy all-wheel traction system) — not that you’d drive it off-road much, without adding the optional skid plates (that’s the Off-Road Adventure package, with solid steel skid plates for the front suspension, fuel tank, transfer case, and underbody).
We didn't take our Summit off-road — it doesn't have skid plates — but we did take a Grand Cherokee Trailhawk on the trail.
The traction system has settings for snow, rock, sand, and mud. The snow mode’s improvement was noticeable when we tried the system in winter, with the throttle made less sensitive and traction seemingly reaching the infinite. There was also a park-down mode, for times when you pick up less-flexible passengers; though getting in and out at normal ride height was not difficult for most passengers. The system works a little slowly, but it increases ground clearance in 4x4 modes, and automatically drops at cruising speeds to stability and cut wind drag.
As we drove over ruts in the road, we felt them but were not disturbed by them; there seemed to be no loss in traction as we went over concrete breaks and asphalt ridges, though there were subsonic booms when going over some bumps. The ride was not floaty or overly cushioned; and the steering was tight and fast, but not so precise as to be busy or tiring. Over the course of a long road trip, we found the Grand Cherokee easy to drive, thanks to the reasonable throttle curve and steering response, coupled with the endless but well leashed power.
There are now three engines; the base is the gasoline V6, with 292 horsepower on tap, and the premium engine is the diesel, a $5,000 premium over the V6. Despite having 3-4 mpg better fuel economy than the base V6, the diesel has more torque than the V8 (and less horsepower, it must be noted, than the six).
All of the three engines come with an eight-speed automatic — not the same eight-speed, but similar ones, with identical gearing. The transmission shifts instantly and can skip gears if needed; more to the point, it has a remarkably wide gear range. Both acceleration and highway mileage are far better than with the old five-speed and six-speed transmissions; at 70 mph, the engine is loafing along at 1,600 rpm or so. The transmission is programmed for a delayed downshift, but power is still quite good and it is responsive enough, especially since any of the engines can still accelerate even at those low cruising revs.
Too often, manufacturers maximize EPA mileage figures by keeping their transmissions in the highest gear possible, with engines that build little power until they are running at high speed, resulting in a “spongy” feel. In the Grand Cherokee, the engines have a relatively flat torque curve, reacting quickly to even light throttle, and the transmission reacted instantly but smoothly to the paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
With the V8, there is plenty of power from any speed, and the engine is barely working most of the time. It has a smooth throttle curve that makes the car easy to drive on the highway or around town; you have lots of power, but it doesn't always have to be in your face. There’s a generous amount of pedal movement before neck-jerking acceleration comes.
Of the three engines, the most exciting is not the high-horsepower Hemi (360) hp, or even the high-revving V6 (290 hp) — it’s the diesel (240 hp), with the lowest horsepower of the three. The diesel has an advantage the others do not — a whopping 420 lb-ft of torque. While that’s not much more than the Hemi, the quiet, modern diesel has a flatter torque curve, so when you hit the gas, you always feel an instant push. The diesel also gives you its power “guilt free,” in that the mileage is pretty far above the V8 and V6, making it more tempting to cut loose and let it rip.
The V6 engine has enough power for the vehicle, though it often needs a downshift for acceleration or hill climbing, while the V8 seems to do pretty well “in gear.” The SRT V8, of course, is the most thrilling of all, with 470 horsepower — that’s 110 more than the V8, which is 70 hp above the V6.
The SRT Grand Cherokee is amazingly fast. Without any special effort, I did zero to sixty in 5.2 seconds, according to the built-in accelerometer; Launch Control gave me slightly less favorable times on the concrete surface. (The company rates the SRT Grand Cherokee at 4.8 seconds, 0-60, presumably on smooth blacktop.) Regardless, hitting the gas always shoves you back in your seat, accompanied by a great “race car” noise. As one observer said when I was putting it through its paces, “It’s shocking what it'll do the first time you turn and accelerate hard. It blows a lot of people’s minds. It’s pretty fun stuff.”
Drivers can shift manually, using steering-wheel-mounted paddles; they react instantly and keep the car under manual control until the driver uses the central shifter or holds down the + paddle. Just using the paddle switches to manumatic mode, making it easier to use than a separate trip to the center shifter. If you can see the dark-gray-on-black indication, the dashboard tells you what gear you’re in — and, in a new and welcome move, this is true even if you’re in Drive. If lighting conditions are right, that is, for you to actually see the gear display; with sunglasses on, it can be practically invisible.
The automatic’s economy mode tries to stay in higher gears longer — easy enough with the Hemi, which has a surfeit of power. Eco mode worked well, still downshifting when needed; Eco is the sensible way to go most of the time, switching to normal or Sport mode when seeking more excitement. Other cars’ Eco modes are often self-defeating, robbing responsiveness unless the driver slams down the gas pedals; but Jeep’s is a viable option for everyday driving.
Sport mode instantly converts the Grand Cherokee from a relatively economical vehicle that keeps its engine barely ticking over, to an oversized muscle car. With Sport Mode on, you can feel more the 360 horsepower from the big V8 — or, the 290 horsepower of the V6.
Sport mode drops the air suspension to the “aero” height when possible, raises the target engine speed from 1,400 rpm or so to 2,400 rpm or so, downshifts faster and further, and holds off on upshifts when you stop accelerating. Most people won’t want to use Sport Mode too often — it drinks fuel much faster than standard or Eco — but it’s a good option to have when you want to let it all out; slapping the shifter gets you in or out of Sport, and while you’re in, the Grand Cherokee responds instantly to the throttle. It’s a thrilling ride for now-and-then, while the base programming is a good mix of responsiveness and thrift.
That brings up the shifter. You can read about how much I dislike this shifter in our 300C review; it’s the same transmission and the same shifter. It’s vague, too clearly electronic-and-not-mechanical, and moves relative to itself rather than to fixed points (that is, gears are not in the same place each time). Ram trucks now have a far superior rotary shifter, but that wouldn't allow for the easy entry into Sport mode, so perhaps it’s just as well. One does get used to it eventually, though every now and then I still miss Reverse and end up in Park or Neutral.
The Pentastar V6 also has a special “case free” oil filter which not only reduces landfill use (the filter can be incinerated), but also avoids some problems of increasingly cheaply and poorly made aftermarket filters.
While Jeep has long had fine traction systems, pioneering numerous four wheel drive advances, that is only part of the story. To survive as a Jeep, the body has to be strong enough to endure numerous tests, including one where the front right and left rear wheels are dropped while the other wheels are raised; it’s a test that can severely damage some cars, but Jeeps must be able to deal with this and quite a bit of other rough treatment. In short, while other vehicles have similar traction systems, and may even have tough bodies, one can be confident that a Jeep, even a rear wheel drive one, is built to unusual standards.
Inside, the Grand Cherokee is well styled and well equipped. Controls are backlit; all levels get the audio controls on the steering wheel; and compartments have anti-rattle, anti-skid rubber. Any surface gripped by a normal person has a pleasant material. Fit and fitment is precise, with tight tolerances. It is hard to find fault with anything except, perhaps, the firm seats, which seem to be designed for larger occupants (the long front seat travel range reinforces this idea).
While even the base (Laredo) model gives an aura of luxury, our Summit went quite a bit further, with leather and contrasting stitching everywhere. The wood is stained to perfectly match the black plastic pieces above and below, so it generally blends into the background; but its matte finish made it look about as real as the wood in our 1974 Plymouth Valiant. It’s ironic that the plastic in our 300M looked real, while the real wood in the Summit doesn't. We know everyone has a different opinion about wood finishes, though, — we do wish you could choose to special-order the standard wood (or woody plastic or whatever).
The interior of our Summit was uniformly dark brown, from the suedelike headliners and pillar covers to the plastic fittings and rough-surfaces floor mats; it was relieved only by chrome separators and light copper colored matte bezels. The lighter chrome touch helped in full sunlight, when there were fewer opportunities for blinding reflections, other than the Jeep logo on the steering wheel.
The door sills are relatively low, for visibility, which increases the sense of space; the windshield is likewise mounted for a large field of view. The massive dual sunroof, with an electrically operated shade that pauses at the halfway mark (in case you just want to open up the shade for the front passengers), adds to the openness, and includes a smart flexible air dam up front to reduce buffeting and wind drag.
The rear seating area was large and well decorated; the cargo area was nicely set up with chrome runners over the carpet. Even back seats had the perforated leather for greater comfort, and were similar in depth and construction to the front seats, other than nonadjustable headrests. They also had their own woofers and tweeters, with high fidelity sound, even when the DSP was turned on. Map pockets were long-lasting elastic, attached to the back of the rear seats; rear air vents could be adjusted; and rear passengers had two USB ports for recharging electronics, along with and a conventional AC outlet.
When flipping the seats down (with a 2/3 setup so one or two seats could be put down independently), a single pull of the lever was all it took; the headrests automatically flipped down and the seats folded flat for easier loading of large items. The angle of the rear seat backs could be easily adjusted for comfort, with the same handle. A removable tonneau cover provided some form of security for cargo.
Underneath the flat load floor of the cargo bay was room with the spare tire for various tools and emergency items, such as a first aid kit. The load floor is higher than it used to be in the ZJ days, but not too high.
Every Grand Cherokee is fully outfitted with chrome trim and a boatload of standard features, including a convenient overhead console with the soft-touch, slow-drop, sunglass holder which Chrysler started using back in the 1980s.
The power rear hatch was controlled from the key, the overhead console, or by lifting up the handle; while one could shut it manually, opening it required the motor.
Our test car had a remote starter and the keyless system; both driver and passenger doors had sensors (touching the handle unlocks the doors if the person has the keys), and they worked when the person had gloves on. Likewise, both sides had physical chrome buttons inset on the handles for locking the doors, and the driver’s side had a physical key in case the system failed or the battery died. The physical key is hidden within the fob, easily removed on purpose, nearly impossible to remove by accident.
The fan had numerous positions, with pleasantly light detents; windows were full express, up and down; and the wiper’ “fast” speed was very fast indeed, as one would hope. Soft lighting was used in numerous positions, including the door pulls, pockets, cupholders, and the gearshift lever (projected from the ceiling).
The remote starter had a convenient option to turn on the heat and driver’s heated seat and steering wheel (in winter, to turn on air conditioning and the vented seat); it worked as expected, and was a pleasant convenience. The voice control worked fairly well from the start, and allows for voice training to make it more effective.
There is no separate gas cap; the filler door has a cap integrated into it, saving valuable seconds and preventing drivers from leaving their cap behind.
Often overlooked by reviewers are driver visibility aids — in this case, the rear view mirrors, which are both extra-large and provided with an auto-dimming feature to cut back on the glare from cars with poorly aimed or poorly designed headlights. Rear view mirrors are also heated to cut through fog, include puddle lights and turn signals (facing oncoming traffic, rather than the driver or oncoming traffic — which is unfortunate), the blind-spot car detectors, and a single button which moves both mirrors in towards the car. The latter is handy for tight parking spaces and narrow streets (though not while the car is moving); one can also see it being used for off-roading, eventually, when the Grand Cherokee has lost enough value to be risked on the trails... with appropriate skid plates added.
The stereo (an absurdly powerful system in our Summit) had fine sound quality when playing iPod or memory-card music, though its clarity highlighted imperfections in satellite radio. As usual in a car with a ten-inch subwoofer, we wanted to be able to cut off the subwoofer or at least limit the lower bass. Most of the time, music was well balanced.
An unusual feature on Chrysler stereos, though used for many years by other automakers, is surround sound; unlike competing systems from a decade ago, the owner is presented with just two options, “on” and “off.” Other automakers provide for optimization with a single driver or just front passengers, etc.
The Grand Cherokee includes three auxiliary jacks for the stereo: standard audio, USB, and SecureDigital. There is no CD drive, even on our top-line Summit (some new Darts have CD players in the center console). All inputs are in a backlit little cubby with a door under the center stack. The SecureDigital (SD) system reliably takes cards up to 32GB; those with larger music libraries can use more cards, or use both SD and USB drives; oddly, unlike the system in our 2013 Chrysler, the system seems to need to index the SD card each time the car is started, resulting in a delay before it plays, during which time it tells us to insert an SD card. Oops.
That little quirk goes along with a nastier one. In the past, one shut off the stereo by pushing a button in the volume knob. Now, Jeep says you are not shutting off the stereo, just muting it (though the amplifier still shuts down); so when you turn your car back on, the stereo blasts back out again. It’s an obnoxious design choice, which one can only hope will be addressed soon.
Mac users using SD or USB cards need to use Terminal commands or a utility such as MacPilot to delete hidden files and folders before using cards in the Jeep, or have files that look like songs, but will take a moment to skip over. Chrysler could program UConnect to ignore these files, and Apple could add a system preference not to write them to FAT32 media, but they don’t.
Regardless of storage medium, the stereo organizes your music by artist or title (using Gracenote, backed up by your folders and titles), and lets you shuffle or browse; if you browse, you can either use the touch screen or the tuning knob. We found the latter to be faster, most of the time. iPod connectivity is generally good but there can be quirks; but with SD and USB card compatibility, it seems unnecessary for anything but listening to audiobooks anyway. The system can read most AAC and MP3 files but not audible.com books, unless an iPod is hooked up.
The stereo has knobs for volume and tune/scroll, and steering wheel buttons for volume, tune, and mode. There is no easy way to change the bass/treble and balance without looking at the touch screen (we don’t know why there’s still no “press to get audio controls” feature on the Tune/Select knob. You can use that knob and button to browse and select radio stations or stored songs, which is often far easier than using the touch screen; it should be “mode changed” to handle equalization, too, as it was 20 years ago in other manufacturers’ stereos.)
The cruise control is on the steering wheel, along with trip computer controls. The voice command button is on the left, and the adaptive (distance sensitive) cruise control is on the right. There are more buttons now than last year, which makes the adaptive cruise, gauge customization, and EVIC control easier. The cruise has an odd new layout: Cancel is inboard, where it’s harder to reach easily, while resume is inboard; on/off is in the center; and speed up/set and speed down/set are top and bottom. Most cruise controls have speed down coupled with set and speed up coupled with resume; this one has two speed-set controls and a separate resume.
The navigation system can provide turn by turn directions in the digital gauge, as well as on the big screen, but in another glitch, the turn by turn navigation often did not appear. The map could be set to show up in the center of the music screen, as well as taking up the full screen by itself. [This appears to have been fixed for 2015.]
The UConnect screen also allows drivers to set numerous preferences, turning on or tuning safety and convenience features including the blind spot and cross path detection, automatic locking and lights, and such. There are more preferences now than ever before, and they are sorted by category a bit more intelligently.
The center screen is handy for the rear camera, which provides a panoramic view of what's behind you, including a surprisingly clear color image at night. This is handy for backing into spaces, and you can also make sure you're not blocking a driveway when in tight spots. The screen includes the heated seat and steering-wheel controls, which show up by default when the system is booted, on the screen that asks you to agree not to be distracted while driving. There are no physical heated-seat buttons, except for the rear seats.
The navigation system has been reworked; well, it works about the same way, actually, but the graphics have been redone. It looks “cooler,” now, but makes more use of tiny fonts and low contrast, so it’s much harder to read than it was with the older version. The navigation system also, inexplicably, takes much longer to boot up than it did in the last version. One nice feature is the ability to tell the driver when they are going over the speed limit by a particular number of miles per hour, which you can type in; if you know the local police are okay with 15 over the limit, for example, you can program a limit for going over 14. One still cannot choose voices (e.g. male vs female, British vs American). Generally, features are about the same but look differently, and more features can be turned on or off via easier menus.
There is also a UConnect Via Mobile feature, which we could not explore fully because our system had not been registered and set up.
Every new and refreshed Chrysler vehicle gets a seven-inch high-resolution gauge display between the tachometer and fuel/temperature gauges, where, thanks to matching graphics, it blends in surprisingly well. This started with the C200 concept car, moved to the production Dodge Dart, and is rolling with every new launch.
Both the “cool factor” and usability are tremendous, except for some annoying issues that would be easy for Chrysler to address. The font sizes are quite small, and drivers with less than perfect vision may not be able to read the smaller items. In our experience, the gear number was completely invisible during daylight hours, printed in a tiny gray-on-black font next to the large “D” or “S.” (Just having the gear number show up, though, is a major improvement over just about any car we've ever been in — generally cars don’t show what gear they’re in, when you’re in Drive and not a sequential-shift mode.)
Making matters worse, unless the headlights are on, you simply can’t adjust the brightness of the display — not at all — rather surprising in a car of this caliber. You get what you get. If the headlights are on, you can dim the display, but it will never get brighter than the single daylight setting.
That said, there are some rather fun aspects to the system, aside from being able to see your average gas mileage, compass heading, temperature, clock, and trip odometer all the time, along with whatever other information you want (if any). You can instantly change the speedometer from English to metric and back again, which is incredibly handy if you cross between Canada and the US regularly; our 300C allowed us to change the digital speedometer but not the main analog one, and switched it back every time we shut the car. (The photo below shows the metric view, while other gauge photos on this page are US view.)
The outline around the speedometer is red in Park and Neutral, white in Drive, and yellow in Reverse. Status messages appear in the center portion (unless you set preferences to stop that nonsense), telling you about the cruise control activity, four wheel drive and air suspension, and turn by turn navigation. A tiny indicator shows when the car has reached “aero mode,” with the suspension lowered for highway driving; another tells what speed the cruise control has locked in. Temporary status displays, unlike the gear number, cruise speed, and such, are quite large, and shown in white so they are easy to read. The overall look is quite good, other than the aforementioned brightness and small-fonts issues.
There are some odd areas where the Dart’s setup was superior to the Grand Cherokee’s. First, you have exactly two speedometer design choices: conventional (analog) and digital (numbers only). Dart provides different gauge looks; Grand Cherokee does not. Second, the information you can place in the top left and top right are limited to trip odometers, fuel economy and range, and compass, clock, and temperature (these three are shown all the time in the 8.4 inch center display as well). You can’t show, for example, oil temperature all the time in the top right. There is also no customization of the bottom of the display, nor of the gear indicator (other than shutting off the display of the current gear number). This is all rather surprising given the price difference between the vehicles; perhaps more is coming in a future release?
The headlights on our test model were bright and well-focused high-energy discharge lamps, self-leveling and with “steering swivel.” Standard LED daytime running lights present less glare than, say, GM’s favored “keep the brights on at nearly full intensity all the time” system; unlike those in the 300C, they stay on when the turn signals are operating.
Backing up was aided by the reverse camera, a color display, surprisingly bright at night, with a dashed line showing the center and two parallel red-yellow-and-green lines on the edges. The parking alert system, used in both front and back, sounded off with audible alerts and displayed rough distances in the gauge cluster; oddly, both front and rear warnings were active regardless of gear.
Rear cross path detection and blind-spot detection, both of which can be shut off or silenced, alert the driver with yellow lights in the mirrors and audible alerts. While you can twist and turn to see around the blind spots, it only takes one prevented collision for them to pay off. The rear cross path, at least, can spot cars before the driver does, when backing up. Rear cross path detection is activated when you shift into reverse; it is supplemented on Grand Cherokee with a rear-view camera and parking distance sensor. The system is very sensitive and can usually spot oncoming traffic before the driver, partly because its sensors are back out on the bumper.
Blind-spot detection works whenever you are moving, activating a yellow light in the mirror when a car is there, but it only sounds when you put on your turn signal.
Hill descent control is needed only in off-roading, but the Hill Start Assist is handy both on and off road; it simply keeps the brakes applied for a moment when the car is on a steep hill, so that the driver can move from brake to gas without slipping back.
The rain-sensitive wipers worked well; we did not test the new “assist” and “911” buttons on the mirror, a long-delayed echo of General Motors’ OnStar system, which is also licensed by Toyota and Lexus.
The adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning both use radar to figure out the distance from cars or obstacles up front. The adaptive cruise provides three settings which we can call “metro highways,” “Midwestern highways,” and “long, mostly empty stretches between cities.” The shortest setting provided a safe distance but didn't invite people to cut in, at least not quite as much; the other settings were long for areas where drivers are rude or impatient. The system worked well, allowing some “fudge factor” when the car in front slowed down, and providing for brisk but not jarring acceleration when the obstacle in front was cleared (by either the Jeep or the other car changing lanes).
Forward Collision Warning and adaptive cruise are only allowed to apply the brakes up to 25%, so avoiding a crash is still the driver’s job. The Forward Collision Warning system can be set to near or far; we set it to near, as “far” tends to be too sensitive. and it still periodically rang out, but not so frequently as to be annoying or “crying wolf.” The setup uses a distinctive bong and bright red alert on the gauge, clearly different from other warnings.
While the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee starts at under $30,000, well equipped [Jeep Grand Cherokee pricing details], the top-of-the-line Summit 4x4 starts at $50,995 (in between are Limited and Overland; only SRT is above Summit). Even the base Laredo gets the paddle shifters, configurable gauge cluster, touch-screen stereo (a smaller one), eight-speed automatic, capless fuel filter, LED DRLs, projector fogs, panoply of airbags, and keyless entry/starter.
Limited mainly adds nicer seating options, the backup camera and park assist system, heated steering wheel, premium audio, power liftgate, dual exhaust, power heated mirrors, and minor cosmetic and convenience features... and $7,000 to the price. 4x4 buyers also get Quadra-Trac II with Selec-Terrain and hill descent control, standard.
Overland, for another $7,000 (or so), adds the HID headlamps, ventilated Nappa leather front seats, real wood and leather heated steering wheel, 8.4 inch touch screen, massive dual-pane sunroof, lighted power folding mirrors, rain sensitive wipers, power tilt/telescope steering wheel, chrome tow hooks, and numerous other cosmetic and convenience add-ons — and the air suspension on 4x4s.
For each bump in price and level, the 4x4 and suspension also get more sophisticated, adding such niceties as the air suspension.
What makes a Summit, then, other than yet another $4,800? A rear electronic slip differential (V8 and diesel), another upgrade to the leather, the “open pore wood accents,” an even more 825-watt premium stereo, headlights with adaptive forward lighting, headlamp washers, front park assist, blind spot monitor, forward collision warning with crash mitigation, and adaptive cruise control, all standard. Somewhere along the line, it also got heated second-row seats, a power six-way driver and passenger seat, both with four-way lumbar supports, two-zone automatic temperature control, and high-definition radio.
Our particular summit had a single option, the 27R package, which combines the V8 engine, QuadraDrive II four wheel drive system, limited slip rear differential, heavy duty brakes, and a 3.09:1 rear axle ratio. The total price, including destination, was $55,185. Missing from the package was the Off-Road Adventure Group, an inexpensive addition consisting primarily of solid steel skid plates for the front suspension, fuel tank, transfer case, and underbody. With this package and the 27R group, the Grand Cherokee Summit becomes “Trail Rated.”
The Jeep Grand Cherokee is assembled in Detroit proper — an American-made, American-designed engine (though V8s are built in Mexico and diesels are from Italy), with an American-made transmission largely engineered in Germany (some have German-made transmissions, but these are being phased out as domestic production rises). The warranty covers the powertrain for five years or 100,000 miles, and most everything else for three years or 36,000 miles.
To summarize: there are many good reasons why the Jeep Grand Cherokee has been sweeping awards left and right, especially in a year with some tough competition (including a completely new Ford Explorer and a new BMW). The Grand Cherokee may be slammed by purists — as every Jeep is — but it remains at the top of its class, and can still tackle off-road duties when properly equipped. Those who need more room and have no plans to do rock crawling may find the Dodge Durango to be more to their liking, but the Jeep Grand Cherokee is a fine vehicle in its own right.
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