Vastly improved ride and handling dynamics, especially on pavement; base V6 offers strong performance and good fuel economy; Quadra-Lift suspension allows multiple personalities.
Old -- albeit smooth -- five-speed transmission, exterior design works too hard to look like a crossover, optional navigation system not user-friendly.
Families looking for a functional midsize hauler have many choices today, especially with so many all-wheel-drive crossovers in the four-door utility marketplace. But if buyers want or need true multidimensional capability and performance, the choices are relatively few. And if they want it at a reasonable price, the choices are fewer still. This is where the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is hoping to make a stand.
As a brand, Jeep is quick to admit consumer tastes have shifted to carlike crossover family haulers of late, yet the company remains optimistic its newest vehicle, with a new high-tech engine, stiffer chassis, more versatile suspension and a completely new look inside and out, could be the SUV that brings people back to the best-of-both-worlds formula. And after what we've seen and driven, Jeep might be on to something.
The midsize SUV segment is not aging well. The thirst for traditional-looking SUVs has come and gone, leaving in its wake a number of soft-roading, all-wheel-drive people movers without much personality. It used to be the three top players were the Chevy TrailBlazer, Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee. Then came the Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner. Nowadays, the bull's-eye seems to be the Chevy Traverse, Ford Edge or Toyota Highlander.
To address this shift, Jeep invested in significant engineering upgrades by revamping the Grand Cherokee's chassis, interior and body designs, as well as pricing the vehicle aggressively. The base 4x2 Laredo trim starts at $30,995; the upscale Limited 4x2 starts at $37,495; and the Overland 4x2 starts at $39,495. And because Jeep wants the vehicle to have broader appeal, there are hundreds of options and packages to choose from, so everyone from base model buyers to luxury aficionados can order and configure the exact Grand Cherokee they want.
The new Grand Cherokee offers two powertrains -- one familiar, the other all-new. The standard engine is the much-anticipated all-aluminum 3.6-liter 24-valve Pentastar V6, rated at 290 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 pound-feet of torque at 4,800 rpm. We were impressed with the new engine, but we're a little puzzled by Jeep's choice to mate it with an off-the-shelf five-speed transmission. We like the tight gearing but there aren't enough gears to take full advantage of the new engine's wide power band. We look forward to the installation of the all-new eight-speed transmission we've heard is coming.
EPA fuel economy estimates are 16 city and 22 highway mpg for the all-wheel-drive versions, with 16/23 for rear-wheel-drive models. To serve its hard-core towing buyers, Jeep will still offer the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with MDS (multidisplacement system or cylinder shutoff) in both 4x2 and 4x4 configurations.
One of the most significant changes to the new Grand Cherokee is in the chassis and four-wheel-drive system, where it now shares some of its parts with the Mercedes-Benz ML SUV (Jeep was owned by DaimlerChrysler during the early development days of this vehicle). A more rigid chassis works in concert with the new front and rear independent suspension to bring the Grand Cherokee's ride and handling dynamics to stunning new levels on pavement (when compared to the previous model). Likewise, the same (optional) airbag suspension that helps make the Grand Cherokee such an athletic on-road performer is also the same suspension that helps give it (as many might expect) strong off-road capabilities as well.
Jeep allows for a wide variety of drivetrain options for the Grand Cherokee with two-wheel drive, all-wheel drive (which, for some reason, Jeep identifies as a four-wheel drive) and two different four-wheel-drive options available. The new Quadra-Lift (air suspension) and Quadra-Drive II 4x4 system (now called Selec-Terrain) are likely to keep this new Grand Cherokee at the forefront of true 4x4 capability for quite a while. In this arena, think of the Grand Cherokee as a much less expensive Range Rover Sport.
Inside, all-new seats have been sculpted and designed to save space while providing solid side and lower back support. Front seats offer six-way adjustment as well as heating and cooling functions, depending on the option package. The rear seats are wider, offer more bottom cushioning and give passengers 4 more inches of knee room (thanks to the longer wheelbase).
Likewise, the rear seats will recline up to 18 degrees to allow for more comfort and easier viewing of the outdoors (when optioned with the oversize two-piece sunroof) or the DVD screen. Additionally, interior noise levels have been substantially improved thanks to added interior insulation, glass coatings and exterior aero engineering. However, we did notice some A-pillar wind noise intrusion from our early production test units.
We've noted the new suspension already, but it's worth mentioning again that the four-wheel independent suspension offers a significant ride comfort improvement over the dated previous setup. And we strongly suggest that more performance-oriented shoppers test-drive the airbag system while setting the Selec-Terrain controller to "Sport." Thusly configured, you'll get a number of powertrain, suspension and computer controls changing their parameters to give the usually sedate SUV much sportier and exciting response and handling dynamics.
Even though this new vehicle casts a slightly larger shadow, visibility from the driver seat is not obstructed in any unusual way. Rounded front corners on the hood make judging exact distances a learning process, but back-up sensors and a rearview camera (when equipped with the optional navigation system) ease parking and boat launches. We also like that the second-row seats fold practically flat and allow for more than 68 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity. The spare tire is now stored inside the vehicle (instead of under as before), beneath the cargo floor for easier, cleaner access and storage.
The navigation system, however, was less user-friendly. We found ourselves having trouble zooming in and out with the onscreen touch pad. It's a little disappointing to see no real improvements here or in screen size when Ford, GM and others are pushing cleaner, easier-to-use systems in competitive vehicles.
It's likely the quality of the interior will be where 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee designers recapture most of their lost customers. Layout changes to the center stack and storage areas are huge improvements that offer big visual and functional impact. Driver and front passenger areas are more sculpted and inviting, with radio, navigation and climate controls easily seen and operated.
The new center stack and instrument panel are closer to the driver and passenger, so all controls are now within arm's reach. Likewise, the newly formed dual-barrel tach and speedometer readouts have large and readable fonts, and the information center is easily accessible with steering wheel controls, providing plenty of engine, trip and 4x4 system data. Likewise, materials choices and textures work well together with the new layout, and seams and mating surfaces are much tighter than we've ever seen on any Grand Cherokee, or other Jeep product for that matter. Overall fit and finish quality shows a big improvement.
Potential 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee shoppers should understand this new generation is more than just a better four-wheeler. On-road and off-road capabilities have been extended, and even if a potential buyer isn't much interested in pushing those new and improved capabilities to their fullest extent, there is value in knowing the extra buffer is there. For those who find the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee appealing but require more passenger or cargo abilities, this platform will likely yield a seven-passenger variant in the future.