2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Review: First Drive

All-New Jeep Grand Cherokee improves every day drivability, retains off-road prowess

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Review: First Drive

Chrysler has encountered more than a few obstacles over the past two years, but the automaker’s biggest challenge remains its own survival. In order to survive—and thrive—the company is going to need to prove that its products can be class-competitive. If the products on hand can’t lure buyers into showrooms, then the Chrysler/Fiat alliance is doomed.

FAST FACTS

1. Unlike an increasing number of competitors, the Grand Cherokee retains its SUV platform delivering three off-road 4×4 systems, a “Quadra-Lift” air suspension and a total of 10.7-inches of ground clearance.

2. A new Selec-Terrain system allows drivers to choose their off-road mode with settings for auto, snow, sand/mud, sport, and rocks.

3. The max tow rating is set at 7,400 lbs.

4. An all-new 3.6L V6 makes 290-hp and 260 ft-lbs of torque, with fuel economy rated as high as 16/23-mpg (city/hwy) for front-drive models an 16/22 for 4WD.

5. Pricing for the 2011 Grand Cherokee starts at $30,995.

Thanks to the bankruptcy and a federal government bailout, plus the aforementioned alliance with Fiat, Chrysler has a clean slate with which to start from. However, the very public nature of the company’s fall into and climb out of bankruptcy means that all eyes are watching as it brings new product to market.

ALL EYES ON JEEP

Imagine then, the pressure on Chrysler’s Jeep division. It has the distinction of launching the company’s first post-bankruptcy product: The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. While it’s important to note that a redesigned Grand Cherokee was in development long before Chrysler entered bankruptcy—the 2011 Grand Cherokee was first previewed at the 2009 New York Auto Show, a month or so before Chrysler began bankruptcy proceedings—there’s no denying that both the automotive industry and the general public have been waiting to see what kind of job Jeep has done with the big SUV.

The pressure on Jeep isn’t just from those who want a return on the investment from the American taxpayers. Other interested parties include Chrysler’s dealer network, which is desperate for a new, strong mainstream product not named “Ram,” the ever-curious and ever-insatiable automotive press and, of course, the mid-size SUV buyer.

Beyond satisfying taxpayers, Chrysler needs to prove that it can build a product that is much, much better than the not-exactly-loved 2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It needs to show that the new Grand Cherokee belongs in a competitive class of SUVs. It needs to prove that tacky interiors and unrefined engines are a thing of the not-too-distant past. And finally, it needs to show that it can produce reliable products that will hold re-sale value.

It will take a few years to settle that last point. But in the meantime, Chrysler invited journalists to San Francisco to sample pre-production 2011 Grand Cherokees, giving us media types the chance to find some answers to those other questions.

ALL-NEW V6 ADDS POWER, REFINEMENT AND FUEL ECONOMY

Jeep PR and engineer types are quick to point out that very little of the previous generation—save the four-wheel drive systems, the V8 engine, and some minor parts here and there—carryover. Perhaps the biggest piece of news is that the Grand Cherokee marks the first production appearance of the company’s new Pentastar V6. Previously codenamed “Phoenix,” this new engine will eventually find its way into other Chrysler products.

Here, it appears in 3.6-liter form, making 290 horsepower and 260 ft-lbs of torque. It’s the base engine, augmented by an optional 5.7-liter V8 with cylinder-deactivation that makes 360 horsepower and 390 ft-lbs of torque. Both mate to a 5-speed automatic transmission.

The Pentastar V6 has variable-valve timing and is flex-fuel capable, and Jeep is promising an 11-percent gain in fuel economy. Jeep says the V6 is capable of 23 mpg and will have a highway range of 500 miles.

LEGENDARY OFF-ROAD CAPABILITY INTACT

Jeep is known for producing vehicles with plenty of rock-crawling prowess, and while most Grand Cherokees sold will face obstacles no more serious than the occasional snowstorm, that hasn’t stop Jeep from equipping four-wheel drive models (4×2 models are available) with a full-time system that can be adjusted based on road and weather conditions. The system, called Selec-Terrain, offers auto, snow, sand/mud, sport, and rock modes.

There are three four-wheel drive systems available: Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, and Quadra-Drive II. That last system offers an electronic limited-slip differential. Quadra-Trac I is a single-speed transfer-case system, while Quadra-Trac II has two speeds and torque distribution. Additionally, the Quadra-Lift air suspension can alter the Grand Cherokee’s ride height, lowering it for parking or raising it for off-roading, to a maximum of 10.7 inches of ground clearance.

Since most Grand Cherokees will be used as boulevard bashers instead of rock crawlers, Jeep is making sure to offer features like a rearview camera, Chrysler’s Uconnect multimedia suite, satellite radio, a navigation system, rear-seat entertainment, heated seats, a heated steering wheel, storage bins in the rear cargo area, a park assist system, and a blind-spot monitoring system. Uconnect will be available with FLO TV, which offers up to 20 channels of live TV that can be watched (presumably only in the back seat) while the Grand Cherokee is mobile. One neat feature is the iPhone app for the owner’s manual—Jeep says Droid and Blackberry versions are on the way.

There are three trim levels: Laredo, Limited, and Overland.

Whew. Enough with the cold, hard facts. How does the new platform work in the real world?

FIRST IMPRESSIONS POINT TO MUCH-IMPROVED JEEP IN ALL AREAS

In short, pretty well. Acceleration is smooth and brisk with the V6 and downright hairy with the V8. Chrysler demurred when asked about an SRT8 version, saying only that it’s a possibility given the independent coil-over-spring front suspension (the rear uses a multilink setup), but quite frankly, in terms of straight-line power, it may not be needed.

Ride quality is impressive, even over broken pavement, but handling is a chore. Push the Grand Cherokee into a tight corner on a mountain road at speed and it protests with lots of body roll. Quick transitions, especially, throw it off. Drive it more sedately, though, and it complies much better. The lighter V6 fares better than the V8 in terms of overall handling.

The interior is handsome and well-appointed, surfaces are generally pleasing to the eye and the touch, and most controls are easy to use, with the exception of the audio controls on the steering wheel. They are fine for around-town driving, but too easy to accidentally disturb with your hand in hard driving or off-roading. Our biggest beef with the interior was the gauges—while the speedo and tach are handsome and easy to read from the driver’s perspective, they look at little overdone and out of place from the passenger seat, providing an unfortunate contrast with the handsome HVAC controls in the center stack.

Speaking of off-roading, Jeep set up a course in California’s hills, and the Grand Cherokee acquitted itself quite well, thanks to the hill-descent control and the four-wheel drive system.

Of course, most folks aren’t going to want their newly sculpted Grand Cherokee dented by a wayward tree branch, and with good reason. The new look is generally handsome, with styling lines that retain the standard Jeep look while modernizing it. The D-pillars even drew a flattering comparison to the BMW X5.

There are some other flaws with this new Jeep. The front seats that are slightly flat, the transmission lacks a sixth cog, and the V6 is growly and harsh at higher rpms.

Jeep is projecting 16-mpg city and 22-mpg highway for V6 four-wheel drive models (23 mpg for two-wheel drive V6s) and 14/20-mpg for V8 two-wheelers to go along with 13/19-mpg for four-wheel drive V8s.

Cargo space and rear-seat room both appear to be plentiful, and the rear storage bins are a nice feature. Jeep claims that cargo capacity is up by 19 percent. For those who tow, the maximum towing capability is 7,400 lbs.

When the Grand Cherokee goes on sale in July, the base price for a 4×2 Laredo will be $30,995, with the 4×4 Laredo starting at $32,995.

THE VERDICT

Chrysler and Jeep need this vehicle to succeed, and given how much better it is than the previous generation, there’s a chance. The good news for Jeep is that the new Grand Cherokee is at least class-competitive. The interior quality has caught up to the competition, the on-road ride is smooth, the new V6 is a big improvement over previous Chrysler 6-cylinder powertrains (the V6 Laredo would be our pick), and the features per dollar ratio are about right. If the company can prove that this redesigned SUV is reliable over the long term, it should do quite well.

Is the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee perfect? No. But fortunately for Chrysler, it’s more than close enough.

RELATED READING

2010 Ford Explorer Review 2010 Nissan Pathfinder SE 4×4 Review 2009 Jeep Commander 2009 Kia Borrego Review 2009 Honda Pilot 2010 Toyota Highlander Review

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