Grand Cherokee keeps the Jeep name proud
summit daily auto writer
Let’s chat about what are clearly the best of Jeeps and the worst of Jeeps, two members of the same automotive family that share little but a common manufacturer.
I was very impressed with my time in the wholly reinvented 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, a substantive and pleasant reinvention of Jeep’s upscale SUV. The design aesthetic alone is a bold change from the gently aging current model, with a taller, sharper look; it’s also heavily laden with tech and interior upgrades that truly redefine it as a vehicle.
At the absolute other end of the spectrum, the Jeep Compass remains a borderline embarrassment to the Jeep name, a wagon (essentially a Dodge Caliber) with only marginal off-road capability, provided you even purchase one with an on-demand 4WD system. Head to the online version of this story at http://www.SummitDaily.com to read all those gruesome details.
The higher-end variation of Grand Cherokee has incorporated both a new Range Rover-styled Selec-Terrain system (allowing on-the-fly changes in ride height, traction and braking control) and a considerably updated and classy inside aesthetic, glowing with chrome, leather and hardwood trim.
And while the Hemi named splashed all over Chrysler’s other machines is missing from the Grand Cherokee’s flanks, under the hood of the premium Overland model I drove, you’ll find an oddly anonymous but recognizable 5.7-liter V8 grinding out 360 horsepower. It’s juice that can be put to full use in GC’s “Sport” mode, which lowers the suspension and ramps up the throttle response.
It’s equipped with a cylinder displacement program that, when driving without the demands required in high-altitude motoring, actually deactivates part of the engine. I only got about 16.4 mpg-19 mpg is the EPA’s top guess on the highway. Those less hell-bent for leather can opt for the new 3.6-liter V6, rated to get about 23 mpg.
Grand Cherokee is now much more like its fellow domestic and import, high-end SUVs – the reinvented Ford Explorer, for instance. At nearly $47,000, it’s not cheap, but nothing in its category really is, and I felt that you got pretty good bang for the buck.
I gave the whole Selec-Terrain system a good try way up above Black Hawk on a mixture of muddy gravel roads, snow-covered trails and even a steep and icy chute, and found the knob-controlled system pretty intuitive.
Full off-road modes use the Quadra-Lift air system to raise the GC to allow 10.7 inches of clearance, with hill descent control to provide brake-free, low-speed downhill travel; you can also drop the chassis 1.5 inches for easy loading when parked or feel the Jeep drop a half an inch during performance driving mode.
The only change High Country residents might consider is an upgrade to better all-season tires, as the low-impact rubber on my tester couldn’t do the car’s systems justice in really slippery stuff.
The new Jeep is also chock-ablock with safety and convenience tech, ranging from effective blind spot and cross traffic monitors to an adaptive cruise control, good for lazy Interstate driving but necessitating a precariously placed radar bubble under the front bumper that looks like a magnet for off-road rock damage.
You can toggle endlessly between screens on a new digital trip computer on the instrument panel, plus the optional but well-executed touchscreen navigation and stereo controls on the center stack.
Throw in niceties including a heated steering wheel, heated and cooled front seating (heated rear seats, too), a power liftgate, remote start and it becomes even more appealing.
I also enjoyed the new wide-opening doors (you’re less likely to bean yourself on the window frame, as was the case in the older Grand Cherokees) and those wide, supportive seats.
And then, regrettably, there’s the Compass, a throwback to Chrysler’s pre-bailout days when it seemed necessary to craft Jeeps that weren’t even Jeeps. Compass’s cunning masochism seems to compel every writer who drives one to mine new depths of negative hyperbole, so I’ll be brief.
To say that Compass’s ride and steering is as balanced as that of an old, rear-engined drag racer is an overstatement. Its looks make it seem like a PT Cruiser that mated with a Caliber, on Skull Island. It’s equipped with a continuously variable transmission that’s so rudimentary that my travels up Georgetown hill left me feeling like I was seriously going to blow up the engine, which might have been a good thing.
And it’s not cheap, either … almost $31,000, tricked out in Limited guise. Good lord.
I must report that when absolutely necessary to traverse a muddy ditch, the optional (yes, optional) 4×4 system provided a bit of traction and was almost able to harness the full fury of the 172 horsepower, but … I wouldn’t subject it to anything rougher than that.
The 2.4-liter inline four-cylinder did generate 27 mpg in my drives, it did have leather seats, Sirius radio, a sunroof and even those plastic, flip-down tailgating speakers in the back.
But the steering and ride were abominable, with wobbly, light-footed careening, and a bouncy and unsteady feel.
If you end up with one as a rental car and you need to get back up and down the hills, my advice is to use the faux sequential transmission and try to run up a steeper highway grade in 3rd or 4th “gear,” otherwise the CVT will hit 6,000 RPM and you’ll swear you’re about to blow the head off the block, a great testament to the engineering involved in gasket tolerances. Oy vey. Avoid.
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