For die-hard driving aficionados, this is a wonderful time to be alive. While automotive historians often refer to the innovation of the 1930s, and the muscle of the late '60s when discussing the "golden age" of personal transportation, a strong argument could be made that we're living in the glory days of gasoline-powered bliss right now. Think about it for a second. At no other time in the history of mankind have we ever had as much freedom to travel and explore in unparalleled luxury and comfort as we do at this very moment. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the latest version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
What started out 60 years ago as a brutally basic and tough little four-wheeler designed for carting officers and supplies in WWII evolved over the years into a popular civilian mount that made up for its lack of comfort and refinement by offering the ability to go just about anywhere. The basic little truck that was originally known simply as a "Jeep" eventually evolved into a brand name known the world over for building incredibly rugged off-road machines. As fans of the original Jeep design (now known as the Wrangler) grew to expect more comfort and luxury to go along with stellar off-road ability, the company introduced what would later be recognized as a landmark in the development of the SUV, the 1984 Cherokee. Offering two rows of seating, plenty of room for luggage and modern conveniences such as air conditioning and power windows, the Cherokee became an instant success.
Eight years later, the Jeep family expanded once again, this time with the addition of a larger and more luxurious version of the SUV called the Grand Cherokee, which was designed to combat Ford's popular Explorer sport-ute. Leather seats, a powerful V8 engine and advanced four-wheel drive made it an instant hit, but consumers and the automotive press took issue with the GC's rough ride and occasionally shoddy fit and finish.
Improvements came on the second-generation Grand Cherokee (1999-2004), but by then, family-oriented buyers had begun to expect carlike handling characteristics and spacious interiors — attributes that this rugged Jeep simply couldn't deliver as well as the current-generation Explorer. However, after an infusion of German DNA, courtesy of parent company DaimlerChrysler, Jeep engineers have redesigned their flagship SUV from the ground up, and after spending some time behind the wheel, we can safely say that the 2005 Grand Cherokee offers the perfect balance of luxury car comfort and unshakable off-road prowess. Imagine a mountain goat wearing silk pajamas and you'll start to get the picture.
The third-generation Grand Cherokee offers improved capability and fantastic on-road ride and handling characteristics in a well-appointed package. The all-new exterior design is unmistakably Jeep, and designers spent countless hours in a wind tunnel in an effort to reduce wind and road noise. The nicely fit-and-finished body panels are mounted on a new platform, and engine options have changed as well.
The line is once again split into two models, Laredo and Limited. The Laredo comes standard with V6 power, all-wheel drive, air conditioning, 17-inch alloy wheels, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, eight-way power cloth seats with lumbar support, full power accessories and a clever cargo storage compartment behind the rear seat with a reversible load floor and water-resistant storage compartment. Stepping up to the high-end Limited model includes the stellar 4.7-liter V8, power-adjustable pedals with memory, rain-sensing automatic wipers, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, an in-dash six-disc CD changer with MP3 capability and two-tone leather interior trim. Options include heated seats, side curtain airbags, rear-seat DVD entertainment, satellite radio and an off-road package with tow hooks and skid plates.
Like all the new products to come out of Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep in the past two years, the '05 Grand Cherokee features a higher beltline and a reduced glass-to-body proportion than the previous model, giving it a muscular, square-shouldered look. Standard Jeep trademarks like the seven-slot grille, round headlamps and trapezoidal wheel openings were retained, and a longer hood and laidback windshield were incorporated into the design for a more aggressive, powerful image. The lines of the big sport-ute are hard and taut, and the cheesy glued-on body-side moldings and wheel flairs have been ditched in favor of single-piece flared fenders. The overall look and vibe haven't changed, but the entire package appears much cleaner and more elegant than ever before.
Perhaps the largest improvements to the GC are inside the cabin, where the Daimler part of the DaimlerChrysler equation becomes most readily apparent. Firm and supportive bucket seats are much more comfortable than the big overstuffed buckets found in the previous-generation Grand Cherokee (and most other American SUVs). The dash and door panels are constructed of soft textured plastic and feature an attractive two-tone light/dark color layout that looks very upscale. Panel breaks have been minimized for a smoother, more seamless look.
A new chronograph-style four-gauge instrument cluster with LED illumination keeps the driver informed, and the console and door panel armrests are now thickly padded for improved comfort and durability. An all-new stereo design with twin knobs for volume and radio tuning is easy to operate and sounds quite good, especially when equipped with the Sirius Satellite Radio option. A new climate control interface makes finding the appropriate temperature a breeze. The standard setup relies upon three basic dials, controlling temperature, fan speed and mode, respectively. The high-end Limited model includes standard dual-zone climate control, which is similarly simple and effective. The console-mounted gated shifter is one of our favorite features, and it appears to have been yanked straight out of the Mercedes parts bin, which isn't a bad place to shop for parts if you're looking to improve a vehicle's interior.
All of this comfort and luxury wouldn't be worth much if it was bolted to the same tired, old platform, which is why the entire foundation has been redesigned from the ground up. The Grand Cherokee has always relied upon unibody construction rather than a body-on-frame-type setup, mostly due to the fact that basing a vehicle on a single integrated platform means it can be stiffer and lighter without sacrificing rugged durability. An independent front suspension is now standard on all four-wheel-drive models for the first time in Jeep history, and a new five-link articulating rear suspension design means this Grand Cherokee can cover rougher terrain than its predecessors while providing a smoother ride. Jeep engineers also wanted to instill refined road manners for a more pleasurable on-road driving experience, so a new coil-over suspension and rack and pinion steering were tapped to deliver a smooth, high-performance driving feel.
Advanced construction techniques that employ nodular iron and forged steel for most of the major suspension components mean this thing can take a serious licking and keep on ticking. Additionally, an optional Dynamic Handling System that uses a hydraulic active stabilizer bar to minimize the compromise between ride and handling will be available later this year.
Of course, the Jeep name isn't worth much without a stellar four-wheel-drive system to back it up, and the new Grand Cherokee actually has three. The base-level Laredo model comes equipped with a full-time all-wheel-drive system called Quadra-Trac I, which offers excellent grip on most paved and unpaved roads and utilizes standard brake traction control to maintain stability when things get slippery. The next step up is called Quadra-Trac II, which is optional on the Laredo and standard on the high-end Limited model. This system also offers a full-time all-wheel-drive mode but adds a locking, two-speed transfer case controlled by a switch on the dash. The third option is called Quadra-Drive II. It's likely the best off-road-oriented four-wheel-drive system available in an SUV today and is optional in the Limited model only. Essentially, the Quadra-Drive II system uses an electronically controlled clutch to lock each wheel independently, depending on which wheels have traction — meaning that it's possible for 100 percent of the power to be sent to any one of the four wheels if the need arises. Dual-range gearing and stability control both come standard with Quadra-Drive II.
One of the biggest changes for 2005 is under the hood, where the tired, old 4.0 inline-six has been ditched in favor of the highly refined 3.7-liter V6 borrowed from the Jeep Liberty. With 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque on tap, the smooth overhead cam six provides plenty of power in Laredo models for daily driving duty.
Buyers can also step up to the 4.7-liter V8 that was introduced in the Grand Cherokee back in 1999. Now common across the entire Chrysler line, the 4.7 has been upgraded for 2005 and is now capable of putting out a refined and manageable 230 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque.
The option that really stoked our inner horsepower demon, however, is the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that has already proven its mettle in everything from the Dodge Ram to the Chrysler 300C. The big V8 pounds out an impressive 330 hp and 375 lb-ft of torque. It uses the Multi Displacement System first seen in the 300C that seamlessly alternates between a smooth and efficient four-cylinder mode when less power is needed, and a full V8 mode when more power demands are greater. The result is a linear power curve that provides stunning acceleration and respectable mileage numbers similar to what one would expect from a small V8. All three engines come standard with a manually shiftable five-speed automatic transmission.
Sliding behind the wheel is an easy task, thanks to the eight-way power-adjustable driver seat and adjustable pedals. At 5-foot-11 in height, we have to slide the seat all the way back in most SUVs but were surprised to find that the new GC offers more legroom than we could use. The steering wheel is thickly padded and easy to grip, and the chronograph-style gauge cluster is easy to read at a glance.
The ride is incredibly smooth and quiet on the road, and the steering feel is solid with just the right amount of power assist. SUVs can get pretty scary on twisty canyon roads, but the Grand Cherokee felt quite nimble and the all-wheel drive was confidence-inspiring. While the Hemi engine provides incredible power and tire-shredding bottom-end torque, it didn't feel quite as smooth as the 4.7-liter and we'd probably be just as happy with that engine in most circumstances.
The leap in refinement and perceived quality over the previous model is astounding, from the ultratight and quiet ride to the layout and design of the interior. High-end goodies like two-tone leather and heated seats with lumbar are nice, but even the V6-powered Laredo model we took around the block was comfortable and easy to drive. DaimlerChrysler definitely did its homework when designing this vehicle and it's unquestionably the nicest Jeep product to date.
A few decades ago the prospect of buying a fully capable off-road vehicle equipped with satellite radio, a DVD entertainment center, two-tone leather seats and a 330-hp V8 that actually gets decent mileage was downright laughable. The combination of an ultracompetitive marketplace and impressive leaps in technology have helped transform the modern SUV into a rolling ticket to adventure, capable of going just about anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, the gnarliest action most of these vehicles will ever see is the back row of the Starbucks parking lot. Whether your idea of an action-packed weekend is a trip through the urban jungle or a dirt trail in the middle of the desert, rest assured the new Grand Cherokee can handle it. This is the golden age indeed.