Chrysler Corporation's Jeep division foresaw a role for a premium version of the traditional off-road vehicle some two decades ago. As a result, the first Grand Cherokee reached dealerships as a 1993 model. Redesigning for 1999 made the Grand Cherokee a bit larger, with a choice of six-cylinder engine or new, smaller 4.7-liter V-8.
Billed as "all-new" for 2011, the five-passenger Grand Cherokee promises improved fuel economy with a new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine: 16 mpg in city driving and 23 mpg on the highway with front-drive, or 16/22 mpg with four-wheel drive). Chrysler/Jeep claims more than 45 safety and security features, including six airbags, standard Electronic Stability Control, and active head restraints. Blind-spot Monitoring/Rear Cross Path detection, adaptive cruise control, and forward collision warning also are available.
A newly available Select-Terrain system has five settings, for optimum performance on various terrains. Selec-Terrain can be set to Sand/Mud traction, Sport, Auto, Snow, or Rock. A new Quadri-Lift air suspension also provides five settings: Normal Ride Height (8.1-inch ground clearance); two off-road settings; Park; and Aero.
Wheelbase has grown by 5.3 inches, now measuring 114.8 inches. Overall length is 1.8 inches greater (now 189.8 inches). That longer wheelbase translates to 4 inches of additional leg room in the rear. The 2011 Grand Cherokee also is 3 inches wider than before, with larger front door openings. Rear doors now open to 78 degrees to ease entry. The coefficient of drag (a measure of slipperiness through the air) has improved, going from 0.404 in the prior generation to 0.37 for 2011.
Three models are available: Laredo, Limited, and Overland. Laredo and Limited have a standard 3.6-liter V-6 that produces 290 horsepower at 6400 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4800 rpm. Optional on those two and standard in the Overland is the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with Multi-Displacement System, generating 360 horsepower at 5150 rpm and 390 pound-feet at 4250 rpm. Fuel economy with the V-8 is 14/20 mpg with front-drive, or 13/19 with 4WD - quite a difference from the V-6 estimates. The V-6 engine drives a five-speed automatic transmission, while the V-8 works with Chrysler's multi-speed automatic.
Styling features include Jeep's "classic" seven-slot grille, accompanied by round headlights and trapezoidal wheel arches. A removable lower front fascia can provide better fuel economy, according to Jeep. Black appliques decorate the B-pillars. Taillamps wrap around the rear quarter panels. Either 17- or 18-inch wheels may be installed, but 20-inch tires are standard on the Overland and optional for the Limited.
Depending on model, the Grand Cherokee can have one of three four-wheel-drive systems: Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, and Quadra-Drive III. New independent suspensions are installed, front and rear. A Grand Cherokee may be Trail Rated, but only if it contains the Off-road Adventure package.
Jeep has long stood above other Chrysler products in solidity and refinement; and Grand Cherokee has, to a large extent, stood above other Jeeps in such areas. Nevertheless, prior-generation models have fallen short when compared against SUV competitors - especially some import brands.
Not anymore. The new Grand Cherokee is refined and appears solidly built, emitting a sense of assurance and soundness. At first, the V-6 engine seems suitable for a 21st-century Jeep; but when pushing hard on the gas pedal, not much happens. What does is civilized and refined, to be sure; but actual motion falls rather short, whether from a standstill or to pass at low speeds.
The sensation of trying to push too much weight is undeniable, and the vehicle feels heavy overall. In this era of concern for fuel-efficiency, it's hard to recommend a big Hemi V-8 over the V-6; but buyers who contemplate some rough treks in mountainous terrains might prefer that extra expenditure - both at the dealership and at gas stations in the coming years. Then again, the Multi-Displacement System employed in the Hemi V-8 helps somewhat in moderating the Grand Cherokee's fuel-slurping inclinations.
Handling is on par for this class, or perhaps a tiny cut above the norm. Even though the suspension on the Overland is not especially compliant and less absorbent than some, the ride is satisfying on most surfaces. Drivers can make a lot of choices with Jeep's Selec-Terrain system and/or Quadri-Lift air suspension; or, they can just put each selector into the most pleasing position and leave it there most of the time.
Interior details are way better than in the past, reflecting the improvements that Chrysler claims to have made. Well-made, comfortable seas provide useful support for thighs, if not as much for one's back. Front-seat occupants get plenty of space all-around. Visibility is quite good, too. Passengers must step up to get into Grand Cherokee, but it's easier than some.
Back seats are reasonably comfortably and roomy, helped by the adjustable seatback. Because the floor tunnel isn't all that tall, the center rear position is better than in many vehicles.
Grand Cherokees aren't cheap: no surprise there. A two-wheel-drive Laredo with V-6, the least costly model, stickers for $30,995 (including destination charge). Topping the line, the four-wheel-drive Overland commands $42,690.
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