by David Zatz • Revised version based on a seven-day road test
When it first came out, we took the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee on a ten mile cruise involving sharp turns and hills, and had the good fortune of a heavy thunderstorm on the way back. At the time, we were impressed; after more time with the Grand Cherokee, we are just as impressed. It's no surprise the Grand Cherokee has been winning award after award; it balances refinement and luxury with responsiveness and a good connection to the road.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee has always been unit-body, its stiff body improving better cornering without harming ride quality; indeed, the pre-Daimler Grand Cherokees were often slammed by journalists for its "antiquated" coil-link rear suspension, and then praised for best-in-class ride and handling. The current versions use a Mercedes-influenced independent rear suspension, but critics continue to put the Grand Cherokee at the top of its class.
The Grand Cherokee has a complete new shell and a new chassis, with a new independent rear suspension, that can maintain 60° approach and 70° departure angles, and boasts (when Trail Rated) a 20-inch water-fording capability, with an air intake above the headlights.
Especially given the size of the Jeep, cornering was quite good; for a fairly hefty four wheel drive vehicle, the Grand Cherokee was remarkably rewarding on-road. While a good deal of the original's down to earth feel has been drummed out in the name of refinement and luxury, the big Jeep is still more enjoyable than most luxury SUVs, which tend to have so much sound and vibration reduction installed that they have a "dead" feel. What's more, thanks to a retuning and the end of Daimler's input, the Grand Cherokee feels lighter than it is — while the most recent generation before it felt heavier than it was. The light feel makes the Grand Cherokee far more enjoyable to drive.
Adding to the enjoyment is a Sport mode on the optional adaptive air suspension; it lowers the Jeep and puts the stability control into emergency-only mode (lighting the "ESC off" light). We would have preferred to make stability control optional (there is an easy shutoff button on the dash). In sport mode, bumps are more noticeable (though not overly harsh or annoying), road feel increases somewhat, and corners are even easier to tackle; in automatic mode, the Grand Cherokee is already capable enough, on-road, that very few drivers will approach its limits.
The traction system also has settings for snow, rock, and sand/mud. The snow mode's improvement is noticeable, with the throttle made less sensitive and traction seemingly reaching the infinite. There was also a park-down mode, presumably for times when you pick up very short or inflexible passengers; getting in and out at normal ride height was not difficult at all, but Down settles the car by several inches (just as Rock raises it to a maximum height, but requires very low speeds.) The system works a little slowly, but it's impressive that it's available at all in this price range; and it helps highway mileage by automatically settling the suspension down at high speed, increasing stability but mainly cutting drag.
The Grand Cherokee does not transmit as much road feel as the 1999-2004 generation, but it has a new balance which may satisfy more people. 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, and there were no "subsonic booms" when going over bumps. The ride was not floaty or overly cushioned; and the steering was tight and fast. Some of the gains in comfort and cornering may be due to the lowered overhang: the wheelbase was expanded more than the overall length, and there is barely any front overhang.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee seemed to be the kind of car you could drive for long distances without feeling tired, and without feeling as though you were battling a car that was either too responsive, or too wrapped up in insulation (dare we call it "Lexus/Buick fatigue"?). The original Grand Cherokees, culminating in the 1999-2005 version, went farther — driving them for long distances left one feeling quite refreshed — but the 2011 has greater comfort and more luxury, with less noise.
Purists are still complaining about the new Grand Cherokee's off-road deficiencies, but it is still far better than most competitors. For all of Ford's boasting, reports from the Ford comparison tests suggest that Ford hid away the Jeep when the off-road segment started; and for good reason. The Grand Cherokee may not be everything enthusiasts want, but it is still quite capable of being Trail Rated — which involves passing a number of tests administered by an outside agency.
Our test vehicle was a 4x4, with the noiseless interior of a Lexus; but it did not have the vagueness and dullness usually seen when automakers strive for luxury.
Jeep is emphasizing the V6 version, with its best in class highway mileage and (292) horsepower. Around town, gas mileage is what you would expect from a luxury SUV; those expecting economy will have to wait for a diesel or hybrid (either of which is an "if" rather than a "when.") If gas prices shoot up, customers may find a smaller direct-injected V6 or some other engine under the hood.
The V6 excels on the highway, where its broad torque curve can keep engine revolutions down while still providing good cruising power. Helping the powerful V6 (and for that matter the Hemi, which is rated at 14/20) to save fuel is a new routine that cuts fuel while decelerating ("iDFSO"); when active, and apparently when under light throttle as well, an "ECO" indicator lights up.
The V6 powertrain was tuned for comfort, but it has power too. You can extract a lot of power — more than the 4.7 liter V8 used to have — and the Grand Cherokee will react quickly, rapidly accelerating up to redline. Yet, the V6 engine was quiet and smooth at all speeds, from idle to near the redline, continuing to convey the image of a luxury car.
One area where the drivetrain was clearly superior to many newer vehicles, SUVs and cars alike, was its responsiveness. Far too often now, in their attempt to gain fuel economy while still deadening all sounds and vibration, manufacturers end up with heavy vehicles, transmissions that stay in the highest gear possible (and try for smooth shifts above all else), and engines that build little power until they are running at over 3,500 rpm; the result is a spongy pedal and long delays.
But in the Grand Cherokee, the transmission was decisive and quickly downshifted when we pushed the pedal down far enough; the transmission also reacted instantly but smoothly to the range selector. It's hard to believe this is the same Mercedes five-speed that detracted from the LX cars when they first arrived; Chrysler has apparently tamed it well. Which isn't to say we're not looking forward to its replacement; we have in the past preferred Chrysler's own 545RFE transmission, and expect the ZF 8-speed to be even better. But that could be years in the future, or an expensive option.
It helps that the Pentastar V6 has a good amount of torque at just about any speed. The V6 stays under 2,500 rpm in most normal driving, yet it responds well to light throttle; push the pedal down further, and the transmission will quickly downshift, letting the Pentastar rev. The engine has a fairly clear, though smooth, transition point where it goes from being a gentle luxury engine to a 292-horsepower muscle motor, and that gives the Grand Cherokee admirable acceleration on the road. Those who are really into acceleration, of course, will do better with the Hemi V8 option, but rated gas mileage drops to 13/19 (4x4; 14/20 with RWD).
All that said, there is a definite pause from idle, regardless of how far you push the pedal; with this much weight, instant-on response is delivered by the Hemi V8, not the advanced V6. In Sport mode it seemed to downshift faster, though that could be our imagination, an artifact of the tighter feel. The delay is not exceptional; we noticed it because we were looking, not because it's a nuisance. It does add to the overall smoothness, since it's starting off with a jerk is hard to do (depending on who's in the car), and is barely noticeable once at speed since the downshifts are so fast.
To summarize: the engine is smooth and easy to deal with normally, and provides rapid acceleration when needed, on demand, without a long pause for shifting; and it can spend a decent amount of time in its wide power band, unlike some engines that apparently need to be over 4,500 rpm to do anything. It's quiet, though not so silent that you can't tell when it's running (which is not a bad thing).
Drivers can manually override the shifting, through an odd, Mercedes-influenced system that has no separate manumatic mode, and to get back into Drive, one has to push multiple times to the right. On the lighter side, it reacts quickly, and is not often needed.
The Jeep's engine also seemed able to stay warm for an unnaturally long time, making us wonder whether there was an insulated reserve tank. As noted separately, 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.
Inside, the Grand Cherokee is remarkably well styled, seemingly with no expense spared. Engineers have publicly said that under Daimler and Cerberus, every penny was counted; Sergio Marchionne personally told engineers to do whatever needed to make sure their vehicles were best in class, and it shows. While Cerberus made numerous changes to the penny-pinching imposed by Daimler, it was the liberty provided by the new team from Fiat that made much of the difference.
Thus, all controls are backlit; all levels get the audio controls on the steering wheel; all compartments have anti-rattle, anti-skid rubber (except the door map pockets); and in most cases the rubber can be removed for cleaning. Any surface gripped by a normal person has a pleasant material, and chrome abounds, in rings around the gauges, rings around buttons and controls, and strips across the doors and dashboard.
Jim Z wrote: "I rented a 2011 Grand Cherokee Laredo. Home run. Even on the Laredo, the interior is fantastic, the seats are comfortable, the road noise is minimal. It feels solid. And the Pentastar is really pleasant, it never sounds overworked and is almost dead silent at idle and smooth as silk. The only complaint I have is that the W5A580 just feels sluggish."
Fit and fitment appears to be precise and accurate, with tighter tolerances than in the past. It is hard to find fault with anything except, perhaps, the firmness of the seats. While more comfortable than in the previous generation, they could certainly have more padding; the vertically adjustable (4-way) lumbar support helps.
It's hard to argue with the quality of the leather or the heat/ventilation features, easily activated from buttons on the climate control panel. The steering wheel heater is in the row of "miscellaneous" buttons, next to the hazard flashers and AC outlet shutoff, but is easy enough to find.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee gives the impression of luxury, even in the base (Laredo) model we originally tested; our Limited went a little further (the perforated leather seats are one example of that) but Laredo is strictly upscale as well. The wood was pleasant, real, and used appropriately; and while we're not fond of black interiors (we know many readers won't buy a car without a black interior, but we're not in agreement there), the darkness is tempered with the aforementioned chrome and wood, and with large swaths of pearly silver in the center console/center stack area, huge amounts of glass, and light colored front pillars and headliner. The door sills are relatively low, affording excellent visibility, brightening the cabin, and increasing the sense of space; the windshield is likewise mounted for a large field of view.
The rear seating area seemed larger than in the past, as was certainly better decorated, with more amenities; the cargo area was nicely set up with chrome runners over the carpet. Even back seats had the perforated leather for greater comfort, though they did not have ventilation; the map pockets were the long-lasting elastic type, attached to the back of the rear seats. (The misalignment shown in the photo above may be attributed to the pre-production status of our test car — it was the only flaw we could find.) The rear vents could be adjusted side-to-side or up-and-down. Note the continuation of the wood and chrome onto the rear seats, a detail all too often overlooked by automakers seeking a dollar here, a dollar there.
Every Grand Cherokee is fully outfitted with chrome trim and numerous features that are usually optional, so that Chrysler claims the Laredo starts at $3,000 less than a comparably equipped 2010 model. All have fog lights, dual temperature air conditioning with filter, trip computer with personalization features, LED interior lights, the iPhone app, and even leather-wrapped steering wheels — whether or not you get leather seats. They also have a convenient overhead console with the soft-touch, slow-drop, sunglass holder which Chrysler started using back in the 1980s in minivans (lined with a more durable antiscratch material).
The optional power rear hatch option was controlled from the key, the overhead console, or simply by lifting up the handle; while one could shut it manually, opening it required the motor and a little patience. We normally recommend sticking with the manual version but if you want the Luxury Group II, you get the power version.
Our test car had a remote starter and the keyless system; it was a better implementation of the keyless system than we've seen in some models, since both driver and passenger doors had sensors (touching the handle unlocks the doors if the person has the keys in their pocket or handbag), 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 an actual 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 stereo on our vehicle was not the base unit; that said, sound quality was superb when playing CDs or hard drive stored music, and somewhat mediocre when using satellite radio, with truncated highs; the difference may not be noticed with all types of music, and is largely irrelevant with talk radio. The stereo is able to record quickly and easily from CDs and supposedly can transfer music libraries from iPods; organization is not ideal, our test vehicle having had several libraries apparently recorded, in modern iPod fashion with numerous artists each featuring one or two song (the Beatles got six songs).
The iPod connectivity was interesting; the USB port actually on the head unit itself did not recognize our 'Pods, but the USB port in the center console, cleverly situated in the separate shallow, cushioned upper part, instantly recognized an iPod Nano. It sort of recognized our current-model (120 GB) iPod Classic, and the Classic showed the UConnect Jeep logo, but neither would transfer music to the hard drive (despite some MP3 tracks), and only the Nano could actually be controlled by the radio; the Classic got stuck on "reading." That said, control over the Nano was very well done — we could easily select artist, album, playlist, etc. from the stereo or wheel-mounted audio controls, and sound fidelity was fine.
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. Light blueish-white backlighting was uniformly used across the dashboard; 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 driver's heated seat and heat; 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.
Jeep has been doing very well with the new Grand Cherokee, and fortunately many buyers are willing to risk what they see as inferior quality — which is good, since quality standards have been raised dramatically throughout Chrysler. The Pentastar V6 is trickling out of its factory, with production frequently stopping to avoid having any problems get to customers; and both internal people and suppliers are being held to high, and clear, standards. This may be the best made Jeep ever to leave a factory.
The headlights on our test model were excellent — as one expects from expensive high-energy discharge lamps. The self-levelling feature should help prevent blinding other drivers, and while the blue color is not good for night vision, as long as blue shows "I have this expensive feature," they will remain blue (we are hoping yellow tinting will be used someday to preserve night vision and reduce the blinding effect.) Standard daytime running lights shut off when the turn signals are on — that is, the DRL on for the side has a blinking signal — presumably to avoid having the DRLs drown out the turn signals.
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, presumably to show how far off objects were. The beeping noise of the reverse alert system corresponded with the colors; there was no separate display for the reverse alert, but the audible beeps were enough, increasing in frequency as we got close to objects.
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 feature was presumably developed for manual transmissions, but it's a minor convenience with automatics, too.
The rain-sensitive wipers worked as expected — well. They were a good addition to the fine visibility already provided by intelligently designed sun visors, HID headlights, large areas of glass, large rearview mirrors. The auto-dimming rearview mirror may be seen as a convenience or as a nuisance — auto-dimming mirrors are not as effective as manual day/night mirrors.
While the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee starts at $32,995, well equipped [Jeep Grand Cherokee pricing details], the Limited 4x4 starts at $39,600 — not much for a luxury SUV, but quite a bit by normal standards. The price includes leather seats with perforated inserts, V6-automatic, Quadra-Trac II with Selec-Terrain control, hill descent control, front and rear side curtain airbags and front side seat-mounted airbags, active head restraints, backup camera with rear parking assist, keyless driving, hill start assist, trailer sway damping, cruise, remote start, rain-sensitive wipers, heated front and rear seats, eight-way front seats, filtered dual-zone automatic temperature control, trip computer, 2 12V outlets and one AC outlet, satellite radio, voice controlled integrated phone system, USB port, 505-watt premium stereo, tilt/telescope steering column, front and rear floor mats, big aluminum wheels, dual-pane sunroof, and SmartBeam headlamps.
That is one fully loaded car, or so one may think. However, our Grand Cherokee ended up at $45,590. How'd that happen? First was the $1,300 adaptive cruise control system, which can detect the distance to the next car and reduce speed to match, even when cruise control is being used. The system lets you adjust the distance to your comfort level; and while it doesn't replace actual driving, it is handy on long highway trips, where speed can be constantly changing. The equipment needed for this is also used for the included forward collision warning; and it includes blind spot monitoring with rear cross path detection.
A pricey and one would hope unnecessary feature was the $1,500 rear DVD entertainment center, which includes switching from the panoramic sunroof to a single-pane version. The DVD is set up very well and includes satellite TV (with four channels), with a nice big screen, but we suspect in this day and age, buyers would be better served by getting a couple of iPads ($500 each, new) or generic tablets or dedicated media players instead, thus preserving their huge sunroof. In fairness, that would require advance planning and media downloads rather than just letting Disney or Nick stream their often-insidious stuff.
The Luxury Group II added around $1,500 more; that brought the vented front seats, power liftgate, heated steering wheel, and power tilt/telescope steering column (instead of the manual version). The heated steering wheel and vented seats are the best parts of this package.
Then there's the engine block heater, always a good accessory, especially at a mere $50. It can increase gas mileage and cut emissions, since a cold engine is not just one that wears out more quickly, but one which is far less efficient.
The Off-Road Adventure II package adds a further $1,655. That includes the Quadra-Lift air suspension, trailer towing group with wiring harnesses and hitch, full-sized steel spare, skid plates, tow hooks, and Trail Rated badging. Without this package, keep your Jeep off the rocks. And voila! that brings us to $45,590 (if you subtract $10 from our rounding-up of accessories).
The Jeep Grand Cherokee is assembled in Detroit, an American-made, American-designed engine (though a Mexican plant will also contribute engines later on, and Hemi V8s are built in Mexico as well) and an American transmission largely engineered in Germany. The basic platform was a joint effort of Jeep and Mercedes, and can be seen soon on the Mercedes ML, though the tuning and many components will be different. The Pentastar V6 is E85 compatible. 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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