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2005 Hemi Jeep Grand Cherokee - Smiles Per Hour

Posted in Features on September 11, 2006 Comment (0)
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Have you ever been in the midst of a group of Jeep traditionalists? If not, just memorize the phrase "change is bad." Repeat as necessary until you can be heard saying it in your sleep. You're now ready for a proper dyed-in-the-flatfender Jeepin' conversation. To test your Jeepthenticity, keep an eye peeled for a half dozen traditionalists drooling over vintage Jeepin' iron at a trail event. Take a few mental notes, make a friendly comment or two, and slink away from the traditionalists. It's time to expand your horizons.

While the Jeep brand is strongly identified with the short-wheelbase, trail-crawlin' machine that sports the boxy, seven-slot grille, Jeep-branded vehicles have explored and conquered every continent at speeds both high and low. The "go anywhere" heritage means that for a Jeep to be a Jeep, it has to be good at a little of everything.

JeepSpeed founder Clive Skilton is a hand-in-glove fit for the "go anywhere" motto. His racing resume includes 500cc Superbikes, sports car road racing, and NHRA Top Fuel drag racing in addition to many an off-road rally in various corners of the globe. Specifically, those corners include the southern tip of South America in 1995 with a three-Jeep (two Wranglers and one Grand Cherokee) American Racing Wheels World Expedition racing team, and building and racing a Kia Sportage in the 2005 Barcelona to Dakar rally.

Jeep threw the traditionalists into cardiac arrest in 2005 when the company did away with the time-proven solid axle at the front of the Grand Cherokee in favor of A-arms and CV shafts. Clive, on the other hand, saw an opportunity to prove the adeptness of the new Grand platform. The phrase for this Jeep is "multipurpose." Multipurpose in this case means that this Grand Cherokee could begin a journey on the freeway, hit the Rubicon Trail, race in a rally, go prerunning in Baja, and generally tour and explore from the Tropic of Capricorn all the way to the Arctic Circle.

We caught up with Mr. Skilton one weekend in Baja while covering the SCORE San Felipe 250. This thing is a lot of fun. The first part of the fun starts with a turn of the key when the Hemi comes to life under the hood. We've driven the Hemi-powered Dodge Power Wagon and felt that the engine's soft low-end torque wasn't the best match for the 3/4-ton truck platform. The Hemi is a perfect match for the Grand Cherokee and smoothly propels the SUV to extra-legal speeds. The horsepower and torque estimates are 400 ponies and 400 lb-ft of torque, and when in the Grand chassis the Hemi feels every bit as powerful as the numbers claim. Clive thought that "Hemi Challenger" would be a fitting name for this Grand, and so do we.

A pair of Dirt Logic 2.25 smoothbody shocks bolted to the stock mounts smooths out things in the rear. A Borla cat-back system slithers its way between the coil springs, the Cherokee's rear impact struts, and the Dirt Logic damper.

As cool as snappy acceleration is, it's only so much fun if the rest of the vehicle can't handle the high velocity. The phrase "scary fast" was coined for a reason, after all. To us, a vehicle is more fun if it's stable at both high and low speeds. Stability encourages exploring the limits of personal driving skill and vehicular performance. This Grand gets its stability from Fabtech Dirt Logic dampers at each corner and a chrome-moly rollcage built by Brandon Briscoe of Twisted Tin. Traffic signals and wandering bovines present the only reasons to let off of the gas pedal in Baja.

Another big reason the Hemi Challenger feels so stable is its all-wheel-drive system. The phrase "all-wheel drive" seems synonymous with "four-wheel drive," but the distinction is that an all-wheel-drive vehicle has a center differential that enables full-time four-wheel drive without drivetrain damage on pavement. When it's time to really slow things down, the Challenger has a fully functional Low range in the Quadra-Trac II transfer case and has the ability to lock the center differential. In the deep sand of Old Puertocitos Road, we found that the Grand lets its pilot pick his or her preferred line through the dirt. Thanks to the all-wheel drive, the Hemi, and the Fabtech suspension, Skilton's Hemi Challenger responds to its pilot's every whim, delivering without protest or drama.

The rollcage tucks up high against the roof to maximize interior space and was painted Chrysler Blue to match the factory hue. Padding will reduce ingress- and egress-related headaches. Beard Ultra Pro seats hold driver and codriver comfortably in place, secured by Crow harnesses.

As the sun inched lower toward the Baja horizon, we headed back into town to prepare for the race the next day. We hadn't conquered the San Felipe whoops at 60-plus, and we hadn't crawled up a vertical waterfall the length of a landing strip. As Clive notes, "When a truck is multipurpose, it can never be perfect in all categories."

Instead, we'd sampled a vehicle fully capable of taking us from the driveway to the Baja to the Rubicon and back again, with our right foot lashed to the Hemi the whole time.

"In all my years Jeeping, I wanted a Jeep that could do 0 to 60 in under 6 seconds, handle like a sports car, and traverse the Rubicon Trail," Clive exults. "This is it!"

It's a lot of fun - fun that's best measured in smiles per hour.

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