Grand Cherokee takes giant step for 2011
The Wrangler may always be the Jeep company icon, because it has never changed from the basic and rugged all-terrain bulldog it was when supporting troops in World War II. But it will have to at least share the podium with the 2011 Grand Cherokee, which has become something of an icon on its own after serving for 20 years as a durable and tough family hauler, to say nothing of being primarily responsible for starting the whole SUV trend.
For 2011, the Grand Cherokee takes its historic capability to an unprecedented level of class and sophistication. It isn’t just an upgrade; the 2011 Grand Cherokee is a completely new vehicle that crosses “t’s” and dots “i’s” on words that were never before in the vehicle’s vocabulary.
As a reward for its surprising scale of its improvement, the Grand Cherokee was voted along with the Ford Explorer and the Dodge Durango as the three finalists for 2011 North American Truck of the Year. It’s an award that is greatly coveted, and the Grand Cherokee finished second to the Explorer this year, but just reaching the final three is a tremendous compliment to its improvement.
My biggest curiosity at the Grand Cherokee’s introduction was how much influence on its revision came from Fiat, the new corporate owner of Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep. Turns out, the vehicle was completed by the time of the takeover, and credit instead should go to Mercedes, the previous owner, which left behind some of the more sophisticated elements of its superb off-road vehicles to underpin the Grand Cherokee.It looks better on the outside and interior, boasts 146 percent improvement in torsional stiffness, bristles with high-tech refinements, and adds a new and impressive 3.6-liter V6 to the existing Hemi V8 for power. Inside, the Grand Cherokee has controls at your fingertips that might not be familiar to anyone who hasn’t driven a Range Rover — the high-ticket master of the luxury off-road segment.
As impressive as are the individual parts, they have been coordinated into a new Grand Cherokee that will still take its owners off-roading to almost all of the most severe corners of Wrangler-World, but will also look good enough to draw attention when you take the family to the country club.
“One hundred percemt of Grand Cherokee customers take them off-road — even if most only do it in their minds,” said marketing manager Jim Morrison, during the vehicle introduction in Sausalito, Calif., on the far end of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. “Consumers can dream about it as a mental escape, while sitting at their desks at work. The new Grand Cherokee will redefine the segment we invented.
“For people who don’t go off-road regularly, there is some security in knowing that no matter what the weather, the Grand Cherokee is a tool that can deal with it. We like to play, too, and this will be equally at home among the Porsches in Sausalito or at Moab.”
Capability is the buzzword for the new Grand Cherokee, which was declared as the most capable ever built by Jeep officials who then pointed out that they have the Wrangler for unequalled “extreme capability,” while the Grand Cherokee fits the opposite end of their realm with “sophisticated capability.” We had time to try the Grand Cherokee on some rugged terrain, as well as on the highways.The creature features might be most attractive to new customers, but the certainty that none of the ruggedness has been lost is also important. For enthusiasts, three different 4×4 systems are available, with the Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, and Quadra-Drive II, which vary in how much automatic control of the four-wheel-drive system you prefer. The new Selec-Terrain system has five terrain settings to match up with on- or off-roading challenges. Trailer towing limits range from 7,400 pounds with the 5.7-liter Hemi V8, to 5,000 pounds with the new Pentastar 3.6-liter V6.
At first appearance, the looks are quite striking. While retaining a distinct similarity to the previous model, the new Grand Cherokee has a thinner horizontal grille that blends in with aero efficiency to the headlight enclosures. Coefficient of drag is lowered from .404 to .37, and all the stylish and flowing sculptured lines were developed for aerodynamic efficiency.
This is a great winter for Grand Cherokee testing in snow-belt territory, but those in milder climates can obtain a base, but quite well-appointed Grand Cherokee Laredo 4×2 for $30,995, a Laredo 4×4 base is $32,995, the Limited 4×2 is $37,495, the Limited 4×4 starts at $39,995, with a new top-level Overland 4×2 at $39,495 and the Overland 4×4 at $42,995. Those prices, across the board, are decreases of several hundred from the same equipment in the 2010 models, even though the new ones have been substantially improved.
It was no surprise that the Hemi-powered Grand Cherokee would be impressive to drive, with 360 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of torque, and variable valve timing on the engine improves performance and fuel efficiency, and the “multi-displcement system” (MDS), which used to be self-explained as “cylinder deactivation” in its ability to cut out four of the eight cylinders for economical driving when power isn’t necessary, improves fuel economy as well.
The jewel inside the new vehicle, however, might be the new Pentastar V6. At 3.6 liters, its dual-overhead-camshaft design, high-pressure die-cast aluminum cylinder block, and variable valve-timing conspire to turn out 290 horsepower and a hearty 260 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800 RPMs, with a 6,500-RPM redline.
The statistics, however, are a superficial part of the story. In real-world driving, the sound and feeling of the Pentastar V6 revving up fully is exhilarating, and the power is constant and steady all the way up the tachometer. Both engines use a 5-speed automatic, but the transmission in the V6 has adaptive electronic control for manually overriding the automatic. I was so impressed with the V6 that I scarcely drove the familiar Hemi in favor of the high-revving Pentastar, which, incidentally, is built at the new Trenton, Mich., South engine plant.
Chrysler, in recent years, has created a herd of seven V6 engines — measuring 2.8, 3.0, 3.3, 3.5, 3.7, 3.8 and 4.0 liters of displacement. None could be termed any better than adequate, and none was the reason a customer chose the vehicle. The new 3.6 Pentastar, new from the ground up, is better than the combined assets of the seven engines it replaces. It takes a clean-sheet approach to incorporate all the latest high-tech features into one engine with potential to be exceptional. One of the few maintenance issues with any overhead-cam engine is the timing belt, but in the Pentastar, a chain operates the camshafts rather than a fabric belt. Maintenance free.
Jeep previously used the 3.7, while other Chrysler/Dodge vehicles used the 3.8, which was considered superior. The new 3.6 is 70 pounds lighter than the 3.8.
“Finally, we get a chance to show our wares,” said Phil Jansen, Chrysler chassis engineer in charge of technical innovations on the Grand Cherokee. “By far, this 3.6 is the best Chrysler V6 ever built. It’s been a while since Chrysler built an all-new V6. At the end of 2008, we had the Mercedes dies, and a 50-state U.S. plan, but the costs killed it. We started fresh, because we know how to do it, but the latest engine technology hadnt been applied to Chrysler engines. I think it’s at least as good as anything from Toyota, Honda, GM, Mercedes, Ford, or anyone.”Both engines are available in all Grand Cherokee models, but when he was asked why Chrysler isn’t spouting publicity about the new engine, which also will be used in every V6 application of Chrysler and Dodge cars, trucks and minivans, Jansen smiled with pride and said, “We’re humble.”
All Grand Cherokees share an elongated 114.8-inch wheelbase, 5.3 inches longer than its predecessor, but only 1.8 inches longer in overall length, plus 3 inches wider. The rearranged dimensions increase rear knee and leg room by 4 inches, and luggage capacity by 19 percent, to 35.1 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 68.7 cubic feet with rear seats folded flat. The more rigid build quality features the hardest boron steel in the “B” pillars (between front and rear doors), and liberal use in other vital safety spots.
For off-roaders, the shorter overhangs front and rear help angles of climb and descent, as do the transmission characteristics. A Selec-Terrain knob is on the console, allowing you to select sand/mud, which can take advantage of sometimes-useful wheelspin; sport, for enhanced on-road sportiness; auto, to automatically adapt to the need for transfering front-drive power to all wheels; snow, for traction that starts you in second gear and upshifts to reduce spinning; and rock, which uses Quadra-Lift to raise the vehicle ot its maximum 10.7 inche clearance, and coordinates for the best low-speed control.
New front and independent rear suspension systems give the on-road manners of a premium vehicle, but the variable-rate rear springs also work well off the road. The body, built with more high-strength steel for lighter weight and yet stronger and stiffer strength, achieves torsional stiffnes 146 percent stiffer than previous models, and measured stiffer and quieter and more vibration-free than the BMW X5 or Toyota Highlander.The precision handling and firm ride and stability were evident when test-driving the top of the line Overland, and the new interior layout was neat. But the most memorable feature is the steering wheel, which is wrapped in leather for the lower two-thirds, while the upper third is as impressive a chunk of wood as you can find in a vehicle interior. It is thicker than most steering wheels, and when you grab it, you feel as though you are clutching a special piece of furniture.
The rest of the interior is improved in fit and finish, and to the touch, where soft materials were put together before being installed. The seats also are improved in support and comfort. But the secret to successful interiors in a family vehicle these days means connectivity. Voice-commands of Bluetooth phone calls, or radio selection, or navigation destinations and music downloads are all there. You also can record memos. There is a 30 gig hard drive for music, photos and voice messages, with a USB interface, and Sirius satellite radio and backseat TV. Over 20 stations of live TV, from CBS Mobile, CNBC, Comedy Central, Fox News, MSNBC, Nickelodeon, and more, for varied backseat entertainment. The vehicle must be parked to view it on the main front seat screen.
But think about it. Your back seat occupants can hush their political wrangling so that one can see what is perceived to be real news on Fox, while the other can get the liberal views of MSNBC, while sitting side by side. For younger rear seat occupants, Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network will make trips shorter via satellite. If that’s not sufficient, Uconnect Web also offers Wi-Fi and 3G cellular connectivity that can transform the Grand Cherokee into a hot spot for the internet for emails and other web action.
Top safety components are complemented by such features as advanced forward collision warning, adaptive cruise and blindspot warning. The 8-way power driver’s seat has 4-way power lumbar settings, and a nice feature is that the Laredo X, Limited and Overland models offer the same comfort settings on the front passenger seat, and they can be either heated or cooled. A large sunroof is complemented by a very large fixed rear skylight, with a power shade if the sun gets to be too much.
Along with hill-descent control for slowly creeping down rocky trails, the Grand Cherokee has hill-start assist for helping start up on a steep grade without rolling backward. You could say the new Grand Cherokee has covered every circumstance, frontward and backward.