A decade ago, the midsize truck-based SUV was a dominant player in the automotive market. The Toyota 4Runner, Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee were all popular and profitable combinations of everyday comfort and practicality with heavy-duty image and ability.
Then all their sales plummeted. The mainstream market had moved on toward car-based models that maintain trucky styling cues but tend to allow for better on-road ride and handling, fuel economy and space efficiency.
Each automaker reacted differently as their mainstream SUVs’ sales shrank to niche levels. Toyota redesigned the 4Runner last year to be an unapologetic truck, directing its family-car customers toward the Camry-based Highlander. A redesigned Explorer will soon be on sale that re-applies the well-known name to a Taurus-based crossover, leaving the full-size Expedition as Ford’s only truck-based SUV.
In its 2011 redesign, which went on sale this summer, the Jeep Grand Cherokee went a different route: still a truck, but luxurious, in the vein of the Lexus GX460 and the Land Rover brand. It follows the feel of the short-lived Kia Borrego as a smooth, quiet, and very pleasant vehicle that also happens to be much sturdier than a tall station wagon. And its execution is strong enough that it’s the rare “true” SUV that can earn a recommendation without the caveat “if you need heavy-duty ability.”
As much as it’s changed in its recent redesign, however, the Grand Cherokee still looks about the same – especially from the front end. This SUV hasn’t seen a radical visual change since its 1993 introduction. And neither of its previous overhauls did its character change half as drastically as it did for 2011.
Many generally strong cars suffer from rough edges – both figuratively and, in the interiors, literally – that mar their overall design. Other generally lousy cars are given a nice coat of polish to cover up underlying shortcomings. Considering the many recent Chrysler products that have been sent to the market that have been irredeemably incompetent in both areas, it’s all the more impressive that the automaker was able to do such a good job throughout with the new Grand Cherokee.
See the slideshow below the article for more photos of the new Grand Cherokee inside and out
The first impression inside the Grand Cherokee is thoughtful, high-quality design. The dash is cleanly styled and tastefully accented with false wood and metal trim (top-end models get real wood), and the one-piece upper dash avoids unsightly and possibly uneven panel gaps. Attention to detail is evident in slick moving parts and bright accents on such rarely studied spots as the roof-mounted sunglasses holder. As on many other Chrysler products, most Grand Cherokee models feature a vibrant display screen on the instrument panel, though it inconveniently incorporates the radio tuning.
The tested Grand Cherokee had a number of assembly issues on the center console and lower dash, including a canyonlike panel gap near the driver’s right knee and plenty of misaligned trim elsewhere in the area. (A second Grand Cherokee at the same dealer was a little better.) Console plastics also felt cheap, standing out in an otherwise excellent interior and not interfering too much with the overall ambiance.
The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and offer plenty of adjustments. The driver has a very good forward view over the low dash, but doesn’t have as great of a view to the rear or sides. The rear seat is finally acceptably roomy for a midsize SUV – the outgoing Grand Cherokee had limited leg space – but the cushion is too low to the floor to be ideally comfortable. The seatback can recline but seems most comfortable in its upright position. Jeep elected not to wedge in a third-row, so seating capacity is limited to five.
Where the Grand Cherokee continues to lag behind car-based competitors, however, is its cargo room – which is also what prevented the third row. Many compact SUVs beat the midsize Grand Cherokee for volume, at just 36 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 68 when the seat is folded. The seat does fold flush, nearly flat, and very easily with the pull of a handle on the side of the seat cushion, accessed through the side door. The high cargo floor – pushed upward to make room for underpinnings that must deal with tougher conditions than a dirt road – adds an inconvenient dimension to loading heavy items.
At least those sturdier suspension components don’t make a mess of the Grand Cherokee’s on-road behavior. Though the ride can be slightly unsettled on the highway, it’s generally composed and anything but bouncy, on par with a decent car-based crossover. The 4,700 pounds of mass helps keep things feeling substantial.
The mass doesn’t hurt the Grand Cherokee’s cornering abilities, however, at least in routine driving. The 18.5-foot turning radius is manageable in tight quarters, the steering is responsive and offers appropriate heft and feel, and the vehicle doesn’t feel clumsy. It doesn’t do too much damage to gas mileage either, with the standard 3.6-liter V6 returning an acceptable-for-what-it-is 16 miles per gallon in the city and 22 on the highway with four-wheel-drive – up from 15 city / 20 highway on the 2010 model even with an additional 80 horsepower.
This engine is Chrysler’s new “Pentastar” V6, seeing its first application in the new Grand Cherokee. The 290-horsepower unit is mated to a seamless five-speed automatic and offers commendable smoothness and a rich, muted engine note. Acceleration is not zippy in such a heavy SUV – those seeking more grunt will need to step up to the carryover 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8’s 360 horsepower – but even if it doesn’t fly off the line, the Grand Cherokee never feels or sounds overwhelmed when the driver asks it to go.
A test drive at a dealer cannot evaluate the Grand Cherokee’s heralded off-road abilities, but this reviewer probably ventured about as far from pavement as the average buyer for this $38,000 SUV. The salesman at Ourisman Chrysler-Jeep-Dodge-Ram said a recent Chrysler-sponsored event for dealers offered back-to-back test drives of the Grand Cherokee and three competitors: the Chevrolet Equinox, Honda Pilot and Lexus RX350 – all car-based models. The Grand Cherokee is plusher but more expensive than the Equinox, plusher than but not as roomy as the Pilot, and less plush than but cheaper than the RX, which isn’t a bad spot to be in.
But like Toyota, Chrysler knows that any sort of midsize truck-based SUV is going to be a niche vehicle. The extra level of luxury was what it needed to win takers in a market segment that General Motors and Ford have or will have soon entirely abandoned.
It’s hard to look at the Grand Cherokee and not wonder where the automaker might be had it poured this level of effort into a compact or midsize sedan. Significant overhauls are in the works for Chrysler’s midsize and large sedans and its minivans, but this SUV is its only ground-up redesign in the near future.
But for someone who still does want a luxurious SUV, especially one that can go off road if it needs to, this Grand Cherokee is hitting the mark solidly. Give it a look if you’re shopping for a five-passenger sport-ute — even if you don’t need any more than a tall family car.
Vehicle tested: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $30,215
Version tested: Laredo 4X4
Version base price (MSRP): $32,215
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $37,815
Estimated transaction price: $36,901
Test vehicle provided by: Ourisman Jeep of Clarksville, Md.
Length: 189.8 inches
Width: 76.3 inches
Height: 69.4 inches
Wheelbase: 114.8 inches
Weight: 4,660 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 36.3 cubic feet
Cargo volume behind front seats: 68.3 cubic feet
Turning diameter: 36.7 feet
Engine (as tested): 3.6-liter V6 with 290 horsepower
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 16 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 22 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 18 miles per gallon
For more information: Jeep website
*Estimated transaction prices are based on online estimators and on quotes from dealers in the Washington, D.C., area.