A looming dome of slickrock juts up abruptly from the trail ahead. We gently kiss the front tires of our 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee up against the stone and squeeze the throttle to begin the 200-foot ascent.
The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 under the hood of our test vehicle is unfazed as it climbs the slab with a self-assured steadiness that comes in part from the ultra-low 1st gear in this Jeep's new eight-speed transmission. Here in low range, the crawl ratio is now a stupendous 44:1 instead of the 30:1 low-low creep available last year.
Hours later, back on the asphalt, the taller 8th gear has the engine turning 200 rpm less than last year's gearbox, which is good for slight reductions in noise and fuel consumption. And the more closely spaced ratios between these upper and lower limits do an impressive job of improving shift smoothness and overall responsiveness as we start to interact with traffic closer to home.
It's surprising how a couple of extra gears can simultaneously expand the performance envelope and knock the rough edges off the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. This is one nice rig.
New Where It Counts
Technically, the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee does not represent a distinctly new generation because the basic body structure and sheet metal are unchanged. As with the 2013 Ram 1500 last year, we'd excuse you for walking straight past a 2014 GC in a parking lot if you didn't know to look for the handsome new headlights, taillights, grille and bumper covers.
Under the hood, the base 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 still makes 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque and the optional 5.7-liter Hemi V8 still churns out 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque. But the new eight-speed ZF automatic transmission transforms them both, and there's more to it than mere gears. This new gearbox has a brain that can respond to conditions with more than 90 different shift schedules.
We liked the base V6 well enough last year, but with its five-speed automatic there was an occasional lurchiness to the proceedings and the old gearbox tended to dither when climbing long highway grades. The robust Hemi V8 and its six-speed exhibited less of this, but there's no denying that this new eight-speed, the standard offering, has brought a new level of refinement and clairvoyance to the way both motors go about their business.
And both are more efficient, picking up 1-2 mpg depending on the engine and drive combination. The 4x4 V6 gains 1 mpg across the board, rising to 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, but a 4x2 Hemi V8 gains 2 mpg on the highway (from 20 to 22 mpg) while its city rating holds steady at 14 mpg.
Now With Diesel Power
A 1 or 2 mpg gain is nice, but you need to opt for the new 3.0-liter turbocharged Ecodiesel V6 if you want real mpg gains — and a bucketload of torque, besides.
Bolted to the same eight-speed gearbox, the Ecodiesel is said to achieve the same or better mpg in the city (22 for the 4x2 and 21 for the 4x4) than the Hemi V8 does on the open road. On the highway the diesel 4x4 is good for 28 mpg and the 4x2 hits the magic 30 mpg-mark.
But the Ecodiesel gives up nothing to the Hemi V8 when it comes to towing, as they both share a rating of 7,400 pounds. The smaller diesel can do that thanks to its 420 lb-ft of torque, some 30 more than the Hemi can deliver. Sure, the diesel's horsepower is a modest 240, but anyone who spends time climbing grades, towing a trailer or maneuvering off-road will be satisfied with the ample torque.
In the backcountry, our Ecodiesel tester creeps over obstacles and yawns up the steep slickrock face with the barest encouragement from our right boot. There's enough diesel sound at idle and when accelerating from rest to remind us of what resides under the hood, but it disappears into the background at cruising speed.
Emissions are kept in check with a diesel particulate filter and a special SCR catalyst that receives intermittent squirts of diesel exhaust fluid, but the DEF tank is sufficiently large that it only needs to be refilled at the 10,000-mile service interval.
Jeep is asking a $4,500 premium for the diesel engine, which makes it $2,305 more expensive than the Hemi V8. A bit of quick math using national average fuel prices reveals that the Ecodiesel will pay for itself relative to the Hemi V8 in about 35,000 miles. Guess you really have to want the extra torque.
Quadra-(Fill in the Blank) Off-Road Equipment
Maximum fuel economy and minimum price comes with the dedicated rear-drive models that are available in each of the four trim levels: Laredo, Limited, Overland and the new top-dog Summit that has everything. But Jeeps are all about off-road, so no fewer than three different full-time four-wheel-drive systems are on the menu.
Quadra-Trac I, essentially an all-wheel-drive system that lacks a low-range transfer case, comes standard on Laredo. Quadra-Trac II adds the transfer case, braked-based slip control and a Selec-Terrain traction management system that can send up to 100 percent of the torque to the front or rear axle. QTII is optional on Laredo and standard on Limited and Overland.
The Selec-Terrain knob features five traction settings: Sand, Mud, Snow, Rock and Auto. There's a very effective hill descent control, and for 2014 a Selec-Speed hill ascent control has been added that can also creep uphill in low range without constant driver input. Selec-Speed proves to be very effective on the march up the slickrock slab, but the new transmission creeps so well that we're not sure why we'd ever engage Selec-Speed.
Quadra-Drive II differs from Quadra-Trac II in that it has an electronic limited-slip rear differential that can shift power left or right up to 100 percent depending on available traction. QDII is optional on Overland and standard on the Summit, but only with the V8 or diesel engines.
And then there's the Quadra-Lift air suspension, which offers four drive heights and an ultra-low park mode. There's 8.7 inches of ground clearance in Normal mode, and two Off-Road modes that add 1.3 and 2.6 inches of lift. Aero mode self-engages and drops the Grand Cherokee 0.6 inch below standard height at highway speeds to improve fuel economy. Quadra-Lift is optional on Limited and comes standard on Overland and Summit.
But even Jeeps live mostly on asphalt, and to that end a dose of targeted attention has been focused on the interior. At first glance it looks like a direct carryover, and much of it is, including everything behind the front seats. But a closer look reveals a higher level of fit and finish and numerous functional changes.
A new leather-wrapped electronic shift lever controls the eight-speed gearbox, and all trim levels and engines get Sport and Manual modes with paddle shifters. We like the very intuitive three-knob climate and audio control layout that replaces the cumbersome one-knob system of yore.
The dash now houses a standard configurable 7-inch TFT screen that sits between a trio of real analog gauges. Too many display screens to list here can be easily conjured from an array of buttons on the left steering wheel spoke, but they include detailed fuel economy feedback, a variety of specialty information contained within the arc of a convincing virtual analog speedometer, special off-road status screens or, simply, a big fat digital speedometer.
An available 8.4-inch touchscreen dominates the center stack, with satellite radio, Bluetooth and a very smart iteration of Uconnect that frankly kicks the butt of MyFord Touch and CUE. It includes a Wi-Fi hotspot, voice-to-text message dictation to your paired smartphone and access to an array of media apps from Pandora to iHeartRadio to Slacker, all of which can be controlled by voice or steering controls.
Backlit USB ports abound, front and back, and there's a 115-volt power outlet behind the front console. An available dual-screen rear seat entertainment system ($1,995) with Blu-Ray playback and independent input jacks built right into each front seatback has replaced the single roof-mounted screen that made it impossible to simultaneously opt for a rear sunroof. This year you can order both.
The Price of Progress
With the addition of the intelligent eight-speed transmission, the 7-inch TFT dash and other advances, the price of the entry-level Laredo has risen $1,100 to $29,790 with destination charges included.
Meanwhile, the high-volume Limited's price has dropped $1,300 because HID headlights, sunroof and navigation have been moved to the options list. Get the $4,000 Luxury Group II to add them back in (also with Uconnect, ventilated seats and more) and the year-over year price increase reveals itself once more.
The Overland includes the Luxury Group II bits, Quadra-Lift air suspension and other goodies for $43,990. But this is no longer the top dog in the GC world. You now have the option of going for the new $48,990 Summit model that includes all the high-end tech, safety and luxury goods except for the optional rear seat entertainment.
The V6 is the only Laredo engine, but above that the V8 and Ecodiesel engines are sold strictly as stand-alone options all the way to the Summit level. The same is true of the 4x4, which adds $2,000 to Laredo and Limited and $3,000 to Overland and Summit.
Verdict: Worth It
In the end the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee comes off as a premium SUV that's worthy of its slightly higher 2014 price. The base Pentastar V6 does not feel as if it's in over its head, and the eight-speed has added a level of sophistication to the on-road driving experience. Much the same can be said of the changes to the interior display screens, telematics and controls.
Efficiency is up a bit across the board, and the new gearing has boosted off-road drivability, the essential Jeepiness of the thing. And though we won't tow test one until later, this new transmission can only mean good things for trailering.
Perhaps the biggest big surprise to us is how much we dig the new Ecodiesel V6 power plant. And we're frankly floored that our calculations suggest a 35,000-mile payback time relative to the Hemi V8. If you plan to keep yours longer, why wouldn't you?
While none of the engines are a bad choice, make ours an Ecodiesel. And then point us to the nearest patch of slickrock. This is the way to go in a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.