The lusty burble of the 6.4-liter Hemi V8 in our 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT echoes off the pit wall as we wait to be released onto the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), the newest home of the United States Grand Prix. Before we get waved out, an orange-gloved marshal leans in to make sure the SRT's forward collision warning system is switched off.
This isn't because we'll be bump-drafting others around this impressive 3.4-mile, 20-turn Formula 1 circuit. The pit-out marshal is spacing cars 30 seconds apart so that won't happen. No, this precaution is necessary because of the monster hill that pitches up abruptly near the end of the front straightaway.
Maybe you've seen it on TV. There aren't many 14 percent upgrades in the paved part of the real world, and it's safe to assume that no such hills are regularly approached at speeds north of 100 mph. Here the low-mounted collision warning sensor on the SRT's front bumper could be fooled into thinking we're hurtling toward a stalled semi at ludicrous speed. The computer it converses with might freak out in a chorus of buzzers and brakes.
We don't need that. We stab the "Off" button.
Besides, we're faster than the guy ahead. We can run him down. The chrome horn isn't totally out of the question.
Up to Speed
The steep uphill braking area and leveled-off turn-in point for Turn One isn't as tricky as it looks. On exit, the SRT's newly recalibrated Selec-Track variable-split four-wheel-drive system now sends 70 percent of the torque to the rear wheels in Track mode to help us put this beast's power down without inducing excess understeer on the way out.
Moments later our 5,150-pound brick-red SUV slithers through the high-speed esses faster than masonry objects ought, and the transmission rev-matches seamlessly (new for 2014) as we change down to 3rd for the trickier, tighter low-speed esses that follow.
The last of them is Turn Nine, a late apex where we eventually unwind the 17.5:1 rack-and-pinion steering and pin the throttle, unleashing all 470 Hemi horsepower as we upshift to 4th, then 5th, skimming the apex curb at Turn 10 somewhere in between. Physics, apparently, is on holiday.
We don't get to enjoy it for long. The left-hand hairpin that is Turn 11 looms quickly, requiring three rapid-fire rev-matched downshifts and very hard braking through the same six-piston Brembo front brakes and P295/45ZR20 Pirelli P Zero run-flat tires that adorn our long-term 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 back home.
SRT Eight Times Two
Last year this hyper-SUV variant was called the SRT8. This year it's just Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT, in honor of the new SRT brand. But eight applies now more than ever because for 2014 the 6.4-liter Hemi V8 engine has been joined to a new eight-speed transmission. Unique among 2014 Grand Cherokees, the SRT is the sole recipient of ZF's high-torque version, code-named 8HP70.
And so we do something we never could with last year's five-speed automatic as we roar down the long back straightaway: We shift into 6th gear. The huge digital speedometer on the new configurable 7-inch TFT instrument panel flickers past 130 mph as we approach the number three shutdown marker, stand on the Brembos and flick the downshift paddle a few more times for another tight left-hander.
This place is severe. This Jeep is ridiculous. Both in a good way.
And so it goes through several more tricky corners before we round the last bend and roar up the front straight toward the hill once more.
Through it all the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT feels more at home on this full-scale F1 track than any SUV should. The SRT's 2.5-ton mass never quite disappears, but the SRT-specific steering nevertheless responds willingly, the Bilstein adaptive dampers and huge stabilizer bars maintain a mostly flat posture, and there's just the right whiff of understeer to keep it all in line while we keep the big Hemi on the boil.
After two laps we're waved in. The Brembos are getting worked and they're visibly off-gassing. They stink a bit. The pit marshals ask us to select Park and take our foot off the pedal.
Have we discovered a weak link? Inconclusive. If so, it took a challenging high-speed F1 track with 20 turns and four or five heavy braking zones per lap to do it. Still, the optional StopTech two-piece rotors on the new SRT Viper Track Pack make us wonder if a similar option is justified here.
Our Grand Cherokee isn't done, though. They rotate another driver in, giving the brakes a brief rest in the process, and keep this pattern going for a full three hours. We climb in several more times throughout the morning and the pedal never falters.
Some 20,000 miles in our own 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 has taught us that such track prowess comes with a tiresome stiff-legged ride, even with the Bilsteins in Auto mode. SRT engineers tell us the tires and suspension tuning carry over unchanged, so daily drive ride comfort isn't likely to differ.
That said, the roads near Austin, Texas, don't get our dander up nearly as much as the embarrassingly under-maintained streets and freeways of Los Angeles we usually patrol.
As with the standard 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the eight-speed transmission is the star here. Shift smoothness and refinement are way up: everywhere. And the too-wide gear spacing we griped about when the 2012 SRT8 was introduced is utterly solved. The change is significant on the track, but it's even a bigger godsend on real roads.
For instance: The ever-present flatulent drone that our 2012 SRT8's cylinder deactivation system instigates when cruising has seemingly vanished. The 2014 edition still has a V4 mode, but with eight ratios, including an ultralow 0.67:1 top gear, its use is more restrained. There's no longer a need to fake gears that don't exist.
Four-cylinder mode comes into play more often in the new Eco mode, but that's a button, a choice. In the default start-up setting the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT's rated fuel economy has risen 1 mpg across the board to 13 city/19 highway mpg and 15 combined.
If you're not into that there's a new Launch mode, which is ridiculously easy to engage via a prominent button just behind the shifter. SRT head honcho Ralph Gilles admits that updated performance claims have not been released, but we figure the new gearbox, 70 percent rear torque bias and launch control should knock off two- or three-tenths and drop 0-60-mph time into the mid-4-second neighborhood. The quickest five-speed SRT8 we've tested hit 60 in 4.9 seconds.
Conversely, the 2014 tow rating is up 44 percent to 7,200 pounds thanks to a strengthened (but still 3.70:1) rear differential. The rear springs aren't any stiffer, answering the question posed in our recent 2012 SRT8 suspension walkaround, but at this heavier weight Jeep and SRT rightly recommend a load-equalizing hitch anyway.
All of the welcome 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee interior upgrades are here, too. In addition to the 7-inch TFT instrument panel, the 8.4-inch UConnect touchscreen with navigation is standard. Both contain numerous SRT-specific performance-oriented screens including, among other things, cornering g and lap time.
The same T-handle electronic shifter with Sport and Manual modes is on duty, and the SRT gets a more highly contoured version of the functional and attractive new paddle-shifter-equipped steering wheel. Last year's spoke-mounted menu and cruise control button arrays were a hot mess, but these are refreshingly logical and effective.
Behind the shifter, the five-position Selec-Track knob diverts an increasing percentage of torque to the front as we move through Track (30/70), Sport (35/65), Auto (40/60), Snow and Tow (both 50/50). The adaptive damper program changes to suit in lock step.
The SRT has the same kitchen-sink equipment strategy as the new top-dog Summit on the mainstream Jeep side of the showroom. For the base price of $63,990 you'll get adaptive cruise control, adaptive HID headlights and most every tech, convenience and safety item on the greater Grand Cherokee menu.
Last year's $61,290 base price didn't include adaptive cruise and other baubles, but you'd be level with this year's price if you'd sprung for either of two $2,495 packages that included it. Items that remain optional for 2014 include the Tow package ($995), panoramic sunroof ($1,595), 19-speaker, 825-watt Harman Kardon audio system ($1,995) and the Pirelli P Zero summer tires ($895) we drove here at COTA.
Irony on Wheels
Like the more utilitarian versions of the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Grand Cherokee SRT isn't an all-new machine. But it's not just a midcycle refresh with new headlights, grille and bumpers. It has those, but Jeep and SRT have brought targeted and well-considered attention to bear where it was needed, in some cases desperately.
The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT now feels finished. It's a player. If anyone needs a 2.5-ton SUV that can haul ass around a racetrack, or just in general, the SRT Grand Cherokee is poised and ready to boggle some minds.
As it happens, a longtime friend runs the safety department at the Circuit of the Americas and he likes what he sees. To him it's a potential quick-response track medical car, with ample room for a doctor in the shotgun seat and 68.7 cubic feet of cargo space for rescue equipment behind.
So, yeah, we actually know someone who can make a logical argument for the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT. But is that really necessary? Isn't the audacity, the ludicrous speed and the sheer irony of this nicely appointed ground-pounding SUV enough?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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