The title of this piece, which is to be posted just short of halfway through year 2010, is "First Look." But, truth be told, we got our literal first look at the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee (JGC) back in late 2008 in a design dome at Chrysler's Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters. This was in preparation for the vehicle's public unveiling at the 2009 New York Auto Show. Let's just say our first peek at the new Jeep was long ago enough that the shirt we wore that day doesn't really us fit anymore (for reasons we needn't explore in this forum).
But if it seems to us and to you that Jeep's new range-topping model has had an absurdly long gestation period, just imagine how the bewildered and graying folks in Auburn Hills feel. The program was initiated during the DaimlerChrysler days, which explains the Mercedes ML pieces under this new Jeep, revealed last year under the short-but-horrifying reign of Cerberus Capital Management and will finally go on sale in about a month's time under the auspices of Fiat and the governments of the United States and Canada and some chick named VEBA.
The company has in the modern parlance dealt with some "issues," ranging from ill-considered product planning by its German "equal partner," an attack by a three-headed dog, a government task force that nearly turned the lights out forever, Bob Nardelli's forehead, a hangnail, a direct asteroid strike and, finally, Sergio's smoky black sweaters.
Through it all, the handsome and promising 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee waited to be revealed as the first new product of the new Chrysler that actually had nothing at all to do with Fiat or any of the other current major stakeholders. Let us, then, take a closer look at the Jeep of the future-past or past-future or whatever.
Rising From the Ashes and So Forth and So On
The single-most important aspect of the new Jeep Grand Cherokee has nothing at all to do with the off-road-capable luxury that has defined the nameplate from the beginning. No, the most significant element is the JGC's new base-level 3.6-liter V6 engine.
Called the Phoenix V6, presumably as a tacit admission that Chrysler or at least its V6 engines were a shambles, the 60-degree, all-aluminum engine will become the mainline bent six for the company. In its Jeep Grand Cherokee tune, the 3.6-liter provides 290 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. While it doesn't make that magical, marketing-friendly 300 figure, the Phoenix compares well to the similar-size V6s that GM and Ford put in their SUVs/crossovers, such as the GMC Envoy/Buick Enclave and 2011 Ford Edge.
And, any way you cut it, the new DOHC, 24-valve V6 stomps the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee's old iron-block V6, which leaked out 210 hp from its 3.7 liters of displacement.
With a curb weight (for a four-wheel-drive, mid-line Limited model) of around 4,800 pounds and backed by a five-speed automatic transmission, we reckon the new V6 should be able to scoot the JGC to 60 mph in the mid-8-second range. That 90 percent of peak torque that is available from 1,600-to-6,400 rpm bodes well for real-world, around-town driving. And Jeep says the V6, which is standard on all three trim lines (Laredo, Limited and Overland) should return 16 city/23 highway mpg in rear-drive form.
Add one of Jeep's four-wheel-drive systems and you'll lose 1 mpg on the highway. Despite gaining at least 200 pounds compared to the 2010 model Grand Cherokee (depending on equipment, of course), and using the same five-speed automatic, the JGC is more fuel-efficient than the outgoing model, too. And it still achieves those numbers on regular 87-octane fuel.
Yes, Of Course It Does
It just wouldn't be a Chrysler Corp. product if a big, ol' pushrod Hemi V8 weren't offered in the thing. And, naturally, it is. The 2011 edition is essentially identical to the one offered in the 2010 model, with only nominal increases in horsepower (360 hp vs. 357) and torque (390 pound-feet vs. 389). Nothing wrong with that. The 345-cubic-inch iron-block unit provides effortless thrust. Bolted to the same five-speed automatic, carrying the same gear ratios, the Hemi returns a 1-mpg improvement in both city and highway fuel consumption. Two-wheel-drive models now yield up to 14/20 mpg and are rated to tow up to 7,400 pounds. The V8 is a $1,495 option on any of the three Grand Cherokee trim levels.
Those numbers aren't going to win a loaded-up 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee any "green car" awards or road races, but consider that the Volkswagen Touareg 2, in both six-cylinder and V8 forms, is less powerful, less fuel-efficient, more expensive and heavier. And the VW might just be the JGC's most direct competitor, considering engine choices, seating capacity, off-road capability and luxury pretentions.
You Give Plastic a Bad Name
Yes, we hear you. You're exclaiming, "Luxury?!" in that incredulous way you sometimes do. And we reply, "Yes!"
Inside, the 2011 model is much improved, and pending our drive of full production Grand Cherokees, actually lives up to the premium side of the premium/sport equation the model has always promised. Naturally, the thing is available with all the electronic niceties you'd expect these days: rearview camera, heated steering wheel, power lift gate, heated and ventilated front seats, rear-seat entertainment system, upgrade stereo with hard drive, panoramic two-piece sunroof and all that intense off-roading gear. Not enough for you? How about a blind-spot monitoring system, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning system and a remote-start feature?
The real measure of success for the interior is its apparent quality and this is the hard part. So far, we're very encouraged by what we see. No more big, hard sheets of dark-gray plastic. In this upside-down world in which we live, it is from the Ram pickup truck that the interior feel comes. The pickup, with which we've been very impressed, was the first of the Chrysler brood to be blessed with a nicer interior getup. The combination of wood, soft-touch plastics, a stitched dash cap, contrasting piping on the leather seats and the steering wheel is a sight far better than the old truck. Or at least they are on the well-equipped versions that Jeep has made available thus far. The leather instrument panel and door trim come with the top-of-the-line Overland package, a model that starts at $39,495 in two-wheel-drive guise.
Leon's Getting Larger
We anticipate that the rear-seat passengers, who will presumably not be able to caress these new dash materials, will find accommodations a bit more luxurious as well since they won't be eating their own knees. This is thanks to a wheelbase that's almost 5.5 inches longer than that of the outgoing model (114.8 vs. 109.5 inches). Rear-seat riders are given 3 inches of that as additional legroom and front-seaters have more optimum seat travel than before.
It might not be a coincidence that the Mercedes ML-Class rides on a wheelbase within a tenth of an inch of the new Cherokee's, and front and rear track widths that are essentially identical to the Mercedes. The new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is also wider than the model it replaces by more than 3 inches. This is in part responsible for the extra cubic foot or so of cargo space available for 2011 (now up to 36.3 cubic feet, 68.3 with the rear seat folded).
Jeep Said, "Sleek"
It is true that Jeep has never, ever produced anything "sleek." And despite the company's hyperbole, neither is the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. What it is, and this unfortunately doesn't show up in pictures very well, is sophisticated-looking. In the flesh, its body looks more sculpted (as Jeep is also fond of saying) than the gently weathered brick that it looks like in photographs. There's more depth to the sheet metal than there once was. This is particularly obvious on the sides which, because of the vehicle's relatively trim waist, give the illusion of great flared fenders at the four corners.
Put it this way: If the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the current Cadillac CTS, then the old Grand Cherokee is the first-generation CTS. The boxy and ultimately simplistic (as opposed to "simple") look of the previous-generation Grand Cherokee seems to have been the result of Daimler's belief that Jeeps shouldn't be attractive (see also: Jeep Commander). There's a hint of the current Chevrolet Tahoe in the blunt front end's short overhang and wind-eroded corners. This is a good thing. That the taillights and trim give the rear view a look similar to the GMC Terrain is a less-happy coincidence.
Overall, though, we like it.
The ML donates its dual control-arm front and multilink, independent rear suspension setups. That's right: That means a Jeep Cherokee no longer has a solid rear axle, but the Ford Mustang still does. And while the new independent rear is a promising development for the JGC's ride and handling, we hope Jeep has had better luck tuning it than have the boys at Mercedes. We've found the last couple of MLs we've tested to be disconcertingly floaty, wobbly and just generally undulating messes in the ride department. Although we note that the ML gets through our slalom surprisingly well.
Oh, and the Mustang works pretty well with that horse-cart rear, too, so...Jeep promises that isolated suspension cradles front and rear and variable-rate rear springs will improve the new Jeep's ride comfort — at least compared to the old JGC. Like last year, the Grand Cherokee comes with 17-inch wheels wearing all-season tires on Laredo models. Step up to the Limited model, and you get 18s with all-season rubber. The Overland model comes standard with 20-inch all-seasons (optional on the Limited).
For off-road capability, Jeep throws a whole pile of Quadras, a couple of Tracs and a Selec at the 2011 Grand Cherokee. Sadly, none of these systems, impressive as they might be, are able to improve Jeep's spelling.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee can be had with three four-wheel-drive systems. Hang with us now. First, and simplest, is the Quadra-Trac I, a basic full-time four-wheel-drive system with a single-speed transfer case. Next up is Quadra-Trac II which adds a two-speed transfer case and the ability to send 100 percent of engine torque to either the front or rear axle. Finally, there's the Quadra-Drive II which uses the same basic setup as Quadra-Trac II (including its 2.72:1 low-range gearing) but adds electronic limited-slip differentials on both axles.
Still with us? Good. Now, when you order either of the two top four-wheel-drive systems, you get the new Selec-Terrain system. Think of this as essentially the same sort of thing Land Rover has used for a few years (and that Ford announced will be used on the upcoming Explorer). Basically, you tell the car what conditions you're driving in and it automatically coordinates 12 different powertrain, braking and suspension systems, including throttle control, transmission shifting, transfer case operation and hill descent control to best deal with the conditions. This assumes you're driving in Sand/Mud, Sport, Auto, Snow or Rock conditions.
Dial the console-mounted Selec-Terrain knob to "Rock," and another system comes automatically into play: the Quadra-Lift air suspension. In Rock mode, the Quadra-Lift system raises the vehicle to its highest setting (11.1 inches of ground clearance). The air-lift system works automatically or can be controlled by dash-mounted controls. The other settings are Normal, which provides 8.1 inches of ground clearance; Off-Road 1, which lifts the vehicle 1.5 inches (the above-mentioned maximum-lift setting); Park, which drops the body 1.5 inches lower than normal for easy cargo and people loading; and Aero, which lowers the body 0.6 inch lower than normal at high speed.
All of these systems are bundled into packages, confusing things beyond just the dunderheaded naming convention. But it breaks down like this: There are two Off-Road Adventure packages — I and II. Adventure I comes with the middle-level four-wheel-drive system and the Selec-Terrain system. It's available on all Grand Cherokees (except the high-end Overland). Adventure II brings the highest level of suspension trickery and is available on all Grand Cherokees.
Serious off-roaders probably wouldn't like the new Grand Cherokee's increased dimensions. Then again, serious off-roaders would just buy a Wrangler, wouldn't they?
If Not Them, Then Who?
OK, so if rock-crawlers aren't likely to pony up for a 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, then who is? Well, it's probably fair to say that whoever they are, there are fewer of them than in the model's heyday, when the decision for a large chunk of America was not whether to buy an SUV, but which SUV they should buy.
Since the vehicle goes on sale in about a month's time, Jeep already announced pricing on each version. The base prices range from a two-wheel-drive Laredo V6 at $30,995 (with destination) to a four-wheel-drive Overland at $42,995. The middle-spec Limited starts at $37,495 for a two-wheel-drive model. The base prices for Laredo and Limited models are between $205 and $765 less than 2010 models.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee might have been a past owner's vision of the future. But if Grand Cherokees come rolling off the Jefferson Avenue North plant in Detroit with the level of fit and finish the company is promising, the Grand Cherokee will also be a genuinely nice vehicle and one of the relatively few bright spots in Chrysler's still cloudy future.