Jeep Grand Cherokee - A true Jeep with a bit of Benz

Way back in the 1940s, a legend was born when the U.S. Army accepted one design for its new motorized mule, and the first Jeep hit the battlefield.

It spawned a civilian version after the war, then the company range expanded in 1963 with a family version called the Wagoneer, followed by a boxier more utilitarian Cherokee, and ultimately the more luxurious family wagon – the Grand Cherokee of 1993.

Eighteen years and more than 4 million versions later, the fourth generation of the Jeep Grand Cherokee has burst forth on the highway and sand dunes of the world, based now upon the very car-like steel uniframe roots of the current Mercedes-Benz ML-Class SUV. We had the Grand Cherokee Laredo, the base 4-by-4 with a nicely rounded option package.

So has a dose of German engineering from the days when Daimler owned Jeep, and not Fiat, given Jeep faithful some tasty schnitzel, or is there a bit of sauerbraten in there?

· Grand gander – One look at the new Grand Cherokee and two things are apparent – it’s a Jeep, and it’s a smooth operator, with serious streamlining of the traditionally chunky look of its predecessor, and some serious presence. The seven-slot grill that is part of Jeep’s trademark heritage is there, but its more rounded, a sculpted shape the company says delivers 8.5 percent les drag compared with the previous model’s flatter face. The angular headlights hide more traditional round Jeep units inside over a less blocky bumper than before. The removable lower front fascia smoothes out air flow when on, or off-road approach angles when off. You still have traditional Grand Cherokee-style squared-off wheel arches with black trim that flow off the under-nose brush guard, door sills and rear fascia. Five-spoke alloy wheels wear P265/60R18-inch Michelins.

The flanks are a bit more sculpted, with a rising beltline accented in chrome and a chrome spear down the side. The aft end gets a bit of a BMW X5 look, tighter and more rounded in design with more horizontal taillights connected by a chrome bar, bigger rear glass and a more tucked step bumper over the V-6’s single exhaust. In fact, despite a 5.3-inch increase in wheelbase (114.8-inch) and a 1.8-inch increase in length, the whole shape looks a bit more compact, with tighter overhangs. It still carries the Grand Cherokee feel, but it is definitely more upscale and elegant in shape without losing its muscle. It looks very wide and planted, with a raked shape and tapered styling to its greenhouse.

· Grand accommodations – The wheelbase stretch means more interior room, and it shows from the well-placed driver’s seat that isn’t a climb to get in once the front door opens wide. Once there, it’s a much smoother design with a one-piece padded, molded dash top in brown over tan with inset 140-mph speedometer and gas gauge on the right, 7,000-rpm tach and temperature gauge on the left, and an LCD trip computer display in the center with compass and outside temperature. A three-spoke steering wheel with thick leather-clad rim tilts and telescopes, with big trip computer, Bluetooth and phone/audio voice control buttons on the left, and cruise control on the right. It wouldn’t be a Chrysler product if the stereo controls weren’t on the wheel’s backside, a fingertip away. A smoother center stack gets silver-framed air vents flanking a bigger LCD touch screen for the 500-watt, 9-speaker AM-FM-Sirius Satellite audio system with a CD slot under the pop-up screen. There’s an MP3 audio input jack on the stereo faceplate, and a USB hookup for thumbdrives and iPods for music in the upper center armrest storage area. It can even upload photos for display on the LCD touch screen, which unfortunately has no “auto” setting for its brightness – you have to select “day” or “night” yourself. Sound quality was good, satellite navigation optional here. The dual-zone climate control system is easier to use than the last generation Grand Cherokee, and looks better, adding heated seats as well on our test vehicle. The driver’s seat had 8-way power adjustment, even height-adjustable power lumbar. There’s hidden cargo storage and a 12-volt outlet under a lower center dash door, light green-lit rings around the center console cup holders, and another 12-volt outlet in the center armrest’s larger storage area.

The glovebox was big, with a shelf for the owner’s manual. Light touches of chrome and brushed silver plastic added a touch of class inside, and the fit and finish and switchgear feel was good, except for a poorly-fitted overhead sunglass holder that buzzed on certain road surfaces. The hard plastic cap on the back of the driver’s seat was also ill-fitting. With a longer wheelbase and back doors that open very wide, getting into the rear seat, then enjoying its four more inches of leg room was appreciated. There’s a 110-volt outlet for the passengers as well as rear air vents and a center arm rest, although the rear power windows don’t go all the way down. The rear seat backs recline up to 12 degrees.. Cargo volume behind the second row provides an additional 5.6 cubic feet of room (35.1 cubic feet total) compared to the previous model, with a side storage pocket with removable/rechargeable flashlight. The seat backs split 60/40 and fold flat, expanding a wide carpeted cargo area with cargo and grocery bag hooks. The spare tire resides under that floor, but there are removable cargo bins around it for stuff. The rear window also opens separately. And over all front and rear was Jeep’s new CommandView dual-pane sunroof that extends from the windshield to over the rear passenger’s heads. The front section is a pop-up/slide-back glass moonroof, while the rear section is fixed. A power sunshade covers some or all as needed. And if you doubt the Mercedes-Benz connection, the key fob even looks like a Benz’s.

· Jeep jammin’ – The new Grand Cherokee offers a torquey diesel overseas, but not here yet – sigh. What we have is a fairly sophisticated new DOHC 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, flexible fuel-capable with 290-hp and 260 lb.-ft. of torque, able to tow up to 5,000 pounds. A 360 hp V-8 that can handle up to 7,400 pounds (4x2) is optional. Our 13,000-mile-old V-6 was potent enough to hit 60-mph in 8.3 seconds with decent shifts and a pleasant growl, yet return about 20-mpg on regular. Mid-range passing power was OK. The last Grand Cherokee we tested was a 2005 model with a 230-hp V-8 that averaged 11 mpg and hit 60-mph in 9 seconds. That longer wheelbase has short- and long-arm independent suspension up front, and a multi-link rear suspension with coil springs and twin tube shocks all-round that gave a very comfortable and controlled ride. Developed at the same time as the current Mercedes M-Class, it’s solid on the road. We hit a rough patch on the interstate at 70-mph and it just shrugged it off. Handling is just fine for a real SUV, with light understeer when pushed and just a bit of body roll. A Honda Pilot is more precise in ride and handling. The power steering had a direct feel and feedback with good boost, offering a tight turning radius was great in a parking lot, and handy off road too.

The brakes stopped us well from 60-mph in a respectable distance, with a bit of nose dive and decent fade resistance. And thanks to lots of sound insulation and a sound-sealing firewall, the new Grand Cherokee was elegantly quiet on the highway. A Jeep should go off-road, and our test vehicle came with the basic of three (Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II) full-time four-wheel drive systems. Quadra-Trac I has no switches or low range, using a single-speed case that uses input from sensors to determine tire slip and send up to 100 percent of torque to the axle with the most traction. With 8.6 inches of ground clearance, the Grand Cherokee easily tackled moderately hard sand and dirt trails, never bogging on a rutted uphill patch of sand. It nicely absorbed ruts and whoops with good suspension travel and buffered rebound. For comparison, a Kia Borrego, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner weigh less, while the latter pair offer just a tad less V-6 horsepower and hit 60-mph in just under 8 seconds. A Honda Pilot’s 250-hp V-6 hit 60 mph in 8 seconds with a tad less fuel mileage on average. Many of the competition, some more crossover than SUV, also have third-row seating.

· Cherokee change – The Grand Cherokee Laredo rear-wheel-drive version starts at $30,9995; our four-wheel-drive version started at $32,995, with standard electronic stability control, electronic roll mitigation, keyless entry and start, overhead console with sunglass holder and HomeLink, and front/front seat-mounted side and full-length side-curtain air bags, Quadra-Trac I, power driver’s seat and a six-speaker stereo. Our tester had the optional $225 blackberry pearl coat paint, $1,105 panoramic sunroof, $595 tow package and the $4,000 Laredo X package with leather seats, power passenger seat, dual-zone climate control, back-up camera and sensors, 115-volt outlet, cargo cover and HomeLink transmitter, for a final price of $39,010. A Pilot can cost more, a Dodge Durango or Chevrolet Traverse less.

· Bottom line – This is a highly-evolved Grand Cherokee with a smooth shape, well-crafted and sleek interior and the right touch of creature comforts for the price. It doesn’t fuss with an almost-worthless third row seat as some of this size class do. Plus it’s surefooted on- and off-road, with solid ability either way. A crossover it isn’t.


Vehicle type – 5-door sports utility vehicle

Base price - $27,795($30,275 as tested)

Engine type - DOHC 24-valve aluminum V-6

Displacement – 3.6-liter

Horsepower (net) - 290 @ 6,400 rpm

Torque (lb-ft) - 260 @ 4,80 rpm

Transmission - 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase – 114.8 inches

Overall length – 189.8 inches

Overall width – 76.5 inches

Height – 69.3 inches

Front headroom – 39.9 inches w/sunroof

Front legroom – 40.3 inches

Rear headroom – 39.2 inches

Rear legroom – 38.6 inches

Cargo capacity – 35.1 cu.ft./68.7 with rear seats folded

Towing capacity - up to 5,000 lbs.

Curb weight – 4,660 lbs.

Fuel capacity – 24.6 gallons

Mileage rating - 16-mpg city/22-mpg highway

Last word – A true Jeep with a bit of Benz

By Dan Scanlan - MyCarData