Republished: 01/28/2010 (Original Date: 11/23/2010)
Bill Visnic, Senior Editor
Maybe it wasn't coincidence that we spent a lot of our 1,500-odd miles in the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee cruising the highways of the South, including nearabout Elvis' former home in Memphis.
Jeep's all-new flagship shares some of the conflicting traits that make Elvis intriguing — lots of talent, to be sure, but a few quirks. Handsome, but a little too much midlife plump. A deep-seated need to appear tougher than it is. And, well, the new Grand Cherokee likes to consume.
Darn it all, though, if the 2011 Grand Cherokee isn't a pretty solid shot at an ever-narrowing slice of the market. It's a crossover with premium attributes and refinement, yet still oriented toward off-road capability. While most SUVs-cum-crossovers (such as the 2011 Ford Explorer and the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg) have all but abandoned even the pretense of off-road prowess, the new Grand Cherokee tries to convince us that it remains rooted in Jeep's go-anywhere-and-through-anything heritage even as it has become much improved as a road implement.
It's a fine line to walk, this trying to be two mostly different kinds of vehicle. A dwindling few — Land Rover comes to mind — pull off the "sophisticated SUV" thing, and if the Grand Cherokee can be compared with a Land Rover LR4, then it's advantage Jeep, because the most luxo version of the new Grand Cherokee tops out in price where the Land Rover is just starting.
One of the linchpins of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee's portfolio of all-new mechanicals is its DOHC 3.6-liter Pentastar V6, the first Chrysler Corp. V6 designed from a clean sheet of paper since Elvis passed to the other side. The GC is the first Chrysler vehicle to use the Pentastar, and it's a good thing this new V6 puts forth some healthy power numbers, because the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is disconcertingly heavier than its predecessor.
The most a previous-generation Grand Cherokee could weigh was 4,778 pounds with the Hemi 5.7-liter V8 (which carries over as an option for all three 2011 trim levels: Laredo, Limited and the new Overland). The new Grand has gained a grand total of 432 pounds to a total of 5,210 pounds for a four-wheel-drive Overland with the Hemi.
For V6 Grand Cherokees, the weight gain still is almost 200 pounds. This eats into the vastly improved power coming from the Pentastar, which, although slightly smaller in displacement than the 3.7-liter V6 it supersedes, churns out 80 horsepower more, not to mention another 25 pound-feet of torque.
With the standard traction and stability control engaged, the V6-equipped Grand Cherokee Overland saunters to 60 mph in a rather disappointing 9.1 seconds, and makes a pass through the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds at 85.6 mph.
Both the Pentastar V6 and the Hemi V8 must make do with a five-speed automatic (each engine uses a specific transmission), and that's a problem when even many non-premium competitors are running six-speed autoboxes and the big-money SUVs and crossovers are working seven- and eight-speed automatics. The Grand Cherokee's five-speed automatics do neither engine any particular favors in terms of power, and it doesn't exactly help fuel economy, either.
Meanwhile, Jeep also continues with its complex three-tiered hierarchy for its all-wheel-drive technology. There's Quadra-Trac I, which is all-wheel drive with a single-speed transfer case (think all-weather driving on pavement); Quadra-Trac II adds a two-speed transfer case (think on- and off-road capability); and Quadra-Drive II takes the two-speed transfer case for the AWD and adds an electronically controlled limited-slip differential for the rear axle and is available only for V8 models (think rocky trails in Moab, Utah).
There's another dimension of complexity with Selec-Terrain, a kind of traction and stability control tuned for different kinds of terrain. This technology works well and puts the Grand Cherokee on the same trail as the Land Rover LR4 and Lexus GX 460, which also have this trickery.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee's new platform borrows heavily from the Mercedes-Benz ML, a happy leftover for Chrysler from when Mercedes ran the Chrysler biz. The new underpinnings mean an independently suspended wheel at each corner (a big step for Jeep enthusiasts, who still long for rock-bashing solid axles), while the unibody itself is 146 percent stiffer than the old GC's.
The 2011 Grand Cherokee rides with a supple solidity in just about every situation, and it's particularly good in the way it avoids the clump and thump that typically comes from the optional 20-inch tires.
Of course, the Grand Cherokee still remains an off-road vehicle at heart, so it rolls more than you might expect from a conventional street-oriented SUV, so you pay for the Jeep's excellent wheel articulation in the dirt with more lean in the corners on the way to the store. At the same time, this is clearly a more refined package on the road than ever before.
The 2011 Grand Cherokee plays the role of quasi-luxury SUV much more convincingly than before. For starters, the 5.3 inches added to the wheelbase goes almost exclusively to address one of the prior Grand Cherokee's chief failures as a luxury ute. That is, nobody in the backseat had any legroom. There's now a meaningful 4 inches of newfound legroom back there, plus the front and rear doors now open 78 degrees (compared with 67 degrees before), so you don't have to enter and exit like you're slithering past other patrons in a crowded movie theater.
And there's plenty of noise-abatement work to make the new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee more credible as a premium purchase. There's a premium-car hush even when cruising at 80-mph plus.
Another strong point: You name your preferred electronic feature, the Grand Cherokee's got it. The upper trim levels offer standards such as Chrysler's UConnect hands-free, voice-driven phone connection, and satellite radio and navigation are givens once you step up to the Overland trim, although we found annoying delays and inconsistent operation with several of the navigation system's functions.
Design/Fit and Finish
The prior-generation Grand Cherokee earned criticism from non-Jeep enthusiasts for its traditional upright styling meant to recall the enormously popular Cherokees of 20 years ago, and they didn't like the subpar interior fittings, which brought to mind bad AMC-built Cherokees of the 1970s.
That's mostly fixed with the 2011 model. The Grand Cherokee's shape is an impressive blend of conventional SUV cues with enough of the brand's heritage details to keep it interesting. The sheet metal is interesting and discreet and helps make the argument for Jeep as a premium badge. Incidentally, the Inferno Red Crystal Pearl Coat paint of our Grand Cherokee tester was magnificent, with a deep luster usually found only in a luxury car.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is not quite a full-blown premium SUV, but the new Overland trim brings it close. At the same time, we were surprised to find that this Jeep still has the stuff to appeal to those who prize SUVs for their toughness and off-road ability.
Those looking for a pure premium play might find the new Grand Cherokee still a little out of the norm, yet it's no longer eccentric. And if you're looking for a utility vehicle that takes the "utility" moniker seriously and can play hard, yet still provide better-than-average comfort, then the Grand Cherokee is one of the few SUVs or crossovers that can measure up to such a demanding assignment.
Of course, if you're buying into Jeep's primary mission statement, you would do well to stick with the less costly trim levels that still give access to all the 2011 Grand Cherokee's formidable attributes as a genuine sport-utility vehicle. The not-inconsequential $43,695 bottom line for this Grand Cherokee Overland tester would buy many other luxury crossovers, notably ones that do the luxury thing better than the Grand Cherokee.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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