Our 2005 4x4 of the Year winner was the Jeep Grand Cherokee (Feb. '05), and after a year of abuse and 24,000 miles piled on it, it's time to say goodbye. Yes, we'll miss it for the most part, as it has been a fine vehicle in many respects. However, a few quirks have driven us crazy over the course of the year, but not enough to make us second-guess our choosing it as 4x4 of the Year.
The Grand Cherokee departed from standard Jeep styling for the 2005 model year, and came with the high-beltline look la H2, and a funky front end with headlight nacelles reminiscent of a C-class Mercedes car. Aren't Jeep hoods supposed to be a bit flatter? The roundish headlights and trapezoidal wheel arches harken back to real Jeep styling, but those German-looking nacelles just bug the heck out of us. The interior remake is far better, with dead cow and hardwood abounding. The refined and upscaled seats and dash seem well laid out, until you realize that most of the controls are two-push style, as is the nav system which takes far too many handstrokes to master. On the other hand, the gated non-specific tranny shifter is nearly as offensive as the transfer-case control featuring an electronic lever. Refining the controls and features from a previous model is a nice idea; out-tricking yourself in a quest for design over function is simply wrong. Simplifying controls and computers would make this cockpit space much more intuitive and friendly. Still, with the exception of the uncomfortable seat cushions, the inside of the Grand is pleasant to ride in
The finest attribute of the Grand isn't even the wonderful Hemi 5.7 V-8, but the top-of-the-line 4x4 system it's hooked to. By far, the Quadradrive setup delivers the best factory traction system short of real selectable lockers, and it's a full-time system as well. Near-instantaneous traction control without the chattering and banging of ABS-based systems ensures that the Grand keeps going, even when it probably should have turned back. Adding a suspension upgrade for height and to stop the bobbing, plus offering some real tires, could make this a killer rig. The Hemi engine has tons of power when you stomp on the electronic throttle (which explains the throttle lag and other strange characteristics), but it would be nicer to tow with if DaimlerChrysler would change the cam in these mega-produced engines with a specific truck and Jeep application.
For 90 percent of the buying public the Grand is a potent entry in the SUV wars and will outshoot all the others and perform with aplomb in most respects. However, if the road gets much more difficult than a large cobblestone path, the undercarriage will drag itself to death, as our $500 muffler bill showed us. While the Quadradrive system will drag you through rough terrain, you'll be leaving pieces behind that could be expensive. Driven carefully as some staffers do, this rig could do the Rubicon trail, albeit with rock stacking and careful spotting, but we don't have a week to travel seven miles of trail.
Mud is another area where the Grand excels, as we've had it down trails that no regular SUV should be allowed. The Grand simply takes it in stride and powers its way through, once the stability control system is turned off so the tires can actually spin. We've clearanced trails with the underbelly, but the Hemi power and great traction controls always kept us going. But a word of warning: Hose off the mud on the IFS components as well as on the inside of the wheels before hitting the road. We found that the design of the front-not-axle digs and plows all the mud up underneath, which eventually cakes all the components. As for the wheels, the design makes it near impossible to clean out the imbalance-creating clods on the backside; we even had to pull the wheel off and clean it to make it roadable.
All in all, we're still pleased with the Grand Cherokee as our 4x4 of the Year pick, and overall it has served us well through the year. It will be interesting to see what new features the future versions bring us, and how well the off-road influence will keep Jeep on track. We've beat these buggies beyond what the average owner would do, and they still keep on working, which in itself makes the Grand Cherokee a winner.