Jeep Grand Cherokee - confident, competent, capable

The Jeep Grand Cherokee might be taken as a sign that urban sprawl is consuming our wilderness. As the rugged spaces fall prey to the bulldozers, the vehicles designed to tackle uncharted terrain must evolve to fit the changing environment. Thus, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, redesigned for 2011, is more civilized and luxurious than ever.

With its new, smooth lines, the Grand Cherokee doesn't look "Trail Rated," but it's still a capable off-roader. Jeep has combined on-road stability and off-road ability into a single package, and improved the Grand Cherokee's safety, luxury and styling at the same time. New, more efficient engines, a terrain-management system similar to Land Rover's and an new air suspension round out the package.

The new Grand Cherokee is like a 'tooned version of the previous vehicle, thanks to an almost obsessive amount of attention paid to aerodynamics. It's visually smaller and smoother, with styling hallmarks like the seven-slot grille, round headlamps and trapezoidal fender openings exaggerated. It's all new, but instantly recognizable. The front bumper's lower fascia is removable for improved approach angles and can be replaced for freeway travel. The Grand Cherokee is also longer and wider than its predecessor, a fact that is largely disguised by the new design. Interior room has benefitted accordingly.

The Grand Cherokee Limited is clearly aware that its price tag puts it in Land Rover territory, and its new interior is trimmed accordingly. The interior is handsome and follows the recent multi-toned style established by the Ram pickups, with dark-colored upper dash sections separated from a lighter underside by chrome and wood trim. The materials have evolved toward the elegant end of the spectrum. The Command-View dual-pane sunroof is available, exposing the handsome interior to direct sunlight.

Combining utility and luxury, the 35.1 cubic-foot cargo area is chrome-lined and equipped with cargo hooks, a removable flashlight, storage bins for dirty gear and an available power tailgate.

The base Grand Cherokee gets an all-new engine. With fuel economy becoming one of the biggest concerns of SUV buyers, Jeep has taken steps to improve the Grand Cherokee's efficiency, with a new 3.6 liter V6 as standard equipment. This flex-fuel engine is a DOHC unit with a die-cast aluminum block for reduced weight and variable valve timing. The Grand Cherokee is a bit large for the 290 horses the V6 puts out, however; it gets up to speed decently enough but there's not much power to spare. The tradeoff is slightly improved fuel economy compared to the V8 version and very docile manners around town. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard, and the V6 Grand Cherokee will tow up to 5000 pounds. A V8-powered Grand Cherokee is still available as well, with a 360-horse 5.7 liter V8 and the fuel-saving Multi-Displacement System (MDS). With the big engine, towing ability goes up to 7400 pounds.

It's common for Jeep to offer a choice of four-wheel drive systems, and the new Grand Cherokee continues that tradition. A full-time four-wheel drive system with a single-speed transfer case is standard on the Quadra-Trac I system, while Quadra-Trac II provides instant torque transfer to mitigate tire slippage. The top-of-the-line Quadra-Drive system adds a rear limited-slip differential.

The Grand Cherokee has a fully independent suspension front and rear, with short and long arms up front, a multi-link rear and coil springs at all four corners. The big news for off-road applications is the new Quadra-Lift air suspension. This adjustable air suspension offers five ride-height modes that enable better aerodynamics on the freeway or the ability to step gently over tall obstacles off-road. Air springs at all four corners enable the Grand Cherokee to vary its ground clearance by just over four inches. Considering the cost of an aftermarket four-inch suspension lift, the Quadra-Lift system will answer the prayers of a few weekend off-roaders. Additionally, the Select Terrain system modulates engine, brake throttle and transfer case activity to cope with a variety of different road (and off-road) surfaces. Jeep even offers an "All-Weather" package for extreme weather conditions, which adds Select Terrain, a two-speed transfer case, engine block heater, remote starts and snow-resistant slush mats for the interior.

Back in the 'burbs, available driver aids like a blind-spot monitoring system and a forward collision warning make dealing with one's fellow commuters a bit less stressful. Great care has been taken in the construction of the Grand Cherokee's body to provide a solid and silent ride. Driving the Grand Cherokee on pavement involves a lot less head-tossing than it once did.

This is a competent, confident and capable vehicle, but is it lacking a personality? Grand Cherokees have many faithful and loyal owners, though I've always found the other members of the Jeep family--including the Commander--to be more lovable. The ovoid Grand Cherokee is perhaps too citified for my taste. I'd rather a Jeep was a Jeep, and not quite housebroken. That said, there's nothing wrong with knowing your manners. Refinement is never a bad thing. Pricing for the Grand Cherokee starts at $30,995 for two-wheel drive and $32,995 with four-wheel drive. To roll with the Range Rovers, opt for the $38,820 Grand Cherokee Limited. My test vehicle was a V6-powered Grand Cherokee Limited with a leather interior, power tailgate, Quadra-Lift suspension, navigation system and Sirius satellite radio, and stickered for $43,500.

All specifications are for the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Length: 189.8 in.

Width: 84.8 in.

Height: 69.4 in.

Wheelbase: 114.8 in.

Curb weight: 4850 lb.

Cargo space: 35.1 cu.ft. (seats up); 68.7 cu.ft. (seats folded)

Towing capacity: 5000 lb.

Engine: 3.6 liter DOHC V6

Drivetrain: five-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive

Horsepower: 290 @ 6400

Torque: 260 @ 4800

Fuel capacity: 24.6 gal.

Est. mileage: 16/22

By Chris Jackson - MyCarData