When the guys at Jeep want to make a point, they're not subtle. Just like our trail guide, who directed us to make a sharp right turn while traversing a ridge, seemingly sending us to plunge over a cliff and down a mountainside. He even told us to take our foot off the brake.
What happened instead, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee's hill descent control (a feature of this SUV's optional Quadra-Drive 4x4 system) modulated each wheel's speed, applying the right amount of brake to each tire and allowing us to creep down a hillside steeper than any rollercoaster at Six Flags. It was an impressive orchestration of braking and gearing control that took this comprehensively reengineered Jeep Grand Cherokee down a hill nobody would dream of being able to even walk down.
Of course we did think we were about to die any second. Nevertheless, it occurred to us (in between deep breaths) that it makes sense for Jeep to put this type of hard-core 4x4 technology into its newest offering. There is so much at stake, and any screwup in this new Grand Cherokee might be catastrophic not only for Jeep but also for Chrysler and Fiat.
A New Design Language
Jeep will be the first to tell you it needs a new design language, and this fourth-generation Grand Cherokee is its opportunity to introduce a new look. The previous model's angular lines have been replaced by fuller shapes and softer corners, improving aerodynamics while communicating a more luxurious image. Even so, traditional Jeep design elements remain, like the seven-bar slotted grille, sleekly raked windshield and trapezoidal wheel arches.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is also now 2 inches longer and 3 inches wider than before. Each wheel is pushed closer to the outer corners to deliver better approach and departure angles for off-roading and also create a more stable footprint on the pavement.
The seats are comfortable, there's a bit more living area (notably 4 inches more legroom in the rear) and the interior trim is miles ahead of where the Grand Cherokee has been. More acoustic insulation from the improved headliner materials as well as thicker glass also make this the quietest Jeep ever built.
Add to these upgrades interior options like a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, a 20-channel TV option, a Garmin navigation setup and a premium audio choice and you can see the kind of premium environment that's being created here.
Stick Axles No More
As striking as the new Grand Cherokee's appearance might be, the real drama lies in the chassis. Since this vehicle was developed during the DaimlerChrysler era, it's not a surprise that much of the underbelly looks very similar to the Mercedes-Benz ML-Class SUV.
Independent suspension is the big news, with the front wishbone-type suspension being complemented by an independent multilink arrangement in the rear. The optional Quadra-Lift suspension features pneumatic springs instead of the conventional coils to deliver an array of different ride heights that can be tailored to off-road terrain.
A far more rigid body structure helps the independent suspension do its best, and the Jeep engineers in fact have aimed to surpass the BMW X5 in terms of torsional rigidity, overall durability and general levels of noise, vibration and harshness.
More Motor, Less Transmission
As before, you can have your choice of two engines in the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The familiar 360-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V8 meets the needs of those who tow, but more important is the long-awaited, all-aluminum DOHC 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. Jeep is reporting that the V6 delivers almost 40 percent more power than the former V6, yet does it with 11 percent better fuel economy as well. It's rated at 290 hp at 6,400 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm.
The only transmission available for the new V6 is a conventional five-speed automatic, but Chrysler has announced it will soon be building the ZF-engineered eight-speed automatic in the U.S. and this transmission should find its way to Jeep soon. Right now the V6-powered Grand Cherokee is rated at 16 city/23 highway mpg for two-wheel-drive models and 16 city/22 highway mpg for four-wheel-drive models.
Still a Jeep
As you'd expect, the four-wheel-drive system still defines what a Jeep is about. In addition to the entry-level 2WD models, there will be three 4WD systems. Quadra-Trac I is essentially full-time all-wheel drive that is meant to provide solid traction in all weather conditions. Quadra-Trac II offers a two-speed transfer case along with a more aggressive traction control system that provides advanced sensitivity at each wheel in both high and low range. Finally, Quadra-Drive II utilizes the same two-speed transfer case but has a smarter, rear electronic locking differential, which can be fully locked in low range and which acts as a limited-slip differential in both low and high range.
The Quadra-Lift air suspension is standard for Grand Cherokees equipped with either Quadra-Trac II or Quadra-Drive II, and it incorporates a Selec-Terrain controller, which allows the driver to determine the parameters of the powertrain, suspension and four-wheel drive in five different modes: Automatic, Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud and Rock. When equipped with the airbag suspension, the ride height can be adjusted through a range of 4 inches.
As you might expect, the combination of a rigid body and independent suspension gives the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee a far smoother ride with much more body control. On a long trek through Northern California across narrow mountain roads and high-speed freeways, the Grand Cherokee proved impressive. A quicker steering ratio and a supple front suspension helps this SUV carve confidently through the corners.
Our only complaint is the lackluster five-speed transmission. When matched with the 360-hp V8, the automatic gives you the feeling that the power is available, yet not all of it seems able to come out and play. The 290-hp V6 feels like a much better match with the transmission, as the gear ratios are stacked closer together so you don't fall off the power curve when the transmission shifts up.
The variable-ratio rack-and-pinion steering feels good on the road, but an alignment setting meant to accommodate off-road driving means the front tires wander a tiny bit during freeway cruising.
We drove a couple Grand Cherokees with the coil-spring suspension that Jeep expects more than 75 percent of buyers to choose, and it proved very good. But once you experience the Quadra-Lift air suspension, you'll never be content with coil springs again.
The new Selec-Terrain system is quite similar to Land Rover's Terrain Response, and it not only does certain things automatically — like lowering the ride height at high speed and then raising the ride height to clear obstructions while off-roading — but also offers a Sport mode to improve highway handling. This is the best Grand Cherokee yet for driving fast on the highway, and that includes the Grand Cherokee SRT8. The Select-Trac lowers the vehicle's center of gravity, changes the torque split of the center differential, employs a more aggressive shift schedule for the transmission and quickens the throttle action. All this gives the Grand Cherokee a completely different personality.
If it sounds as if we're rambling on about the on-road performance of a Jeep, it's only because this is the new vehicle's biggest surprise. Sure, we had lots of fun with an assortment of Grand Cherokees at Hollister Hills off-road park just inland from Monterey Bay in California, climbing rutted trails across the hillsides, dropping over blind ridges and crawling over a logjam and rock garden, but you expect such things from a Jeep.
And we give the Jeep guys credit for their courage. They called their 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee an SUV during the entire exercise — no squeamishness about being politically incorrect here. Jeep is hoping there are still enough buyers around who understand that this new redesign offers Jeep buyers things they've never had before, namely sharp and precise on-road handling. But there is still plenty of what's always made a Jeep a Jeep.
We found the Selec-Terrain system pretty cool in the dirt, flipping the center dial around as the terrain changed. Switching the transmission to low range is a quick push of a button, while a click of another button raises or lowers the suspension. The Selec-Terrain 4WD system is offered with either the coil spring suspension or the air spring suspension, although its benefits are more fully realized with the air springs.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is priced pretty similarly to the 2010 model. The Laredo trim 2WD model starts at $30,215 while the Limited 2WD starts at $36,320 and the Overland 2WD starts at $38,715. The Laredo 4WD starts at $32,215, the Limited 4WD starts at $38,820 and the Overland 4WD starts at $41,120. According to the Jeep packaging gurus, this new model will have between $500 and $2,000 of added options when compared to the previous model and in some cases will actually cost less than a similarly equipped 2010 model.
Nevertheless, the SUV segment is clearly shrinking. Maybe this is bad news for Jeep. Or maybe this is good news for Jeep, as there will ultimately be fewer competitors for its unique mix of off-road and street-friendly skills. In any case, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee's newfound ride comfort and larger passenger package make its off-road ability more appealing to us. It redefines Jeep as a company that's further away from a hobby brand and closer to Land Rover, something Jeep has been trying to do ever since the unibody Cherokee was introduced in 1984. With new technology and new style for the Grand Cherokee, maybe people will begin to take notice.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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