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2011 4x4 of the Year: Jeep Grand Cherokee

Front Three Quarter
Fred Williams
| Brand Manager, Petersen’s 4Wheel & Off Road
Posted February 1, 2011
Photographers: Frank Kaisler, 4 Wheel & Off-Road Staff

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

The new Grand Cherokee has some big shoes to fill. Almost every time a Grand Cherokee has been in our test it has taken home the crown. While other 4x4s were good here or there, Grand Cherokees have always been well-rounded wheelers.

The new Grand Cherokee WK is different inside and out. In fact, other than the engine and transmission, this is a brand-new Jeep. Based on a more rigid Unitbody chassis, this Grand is the product of a company that has been through much turmoil in recent years. Development began under multiple ownership, all while the price of fuel fluctuated rapidly. We only mention this to help you understand the final product and the major redirection it represents from previous Grands.

Underneath you'll notice the lack of any solid axles. Previous WKs had independent front suspension (IFS) but retained the much-loved solid rear axle. The new Grand has plenty of capable skidplates, tow points, and easily removable front air dams, giving it off-road attributes second only to the Raptor.

The exterior looks either impressed or depressed the judges. Some felt it looked cookie-cutter, while others recognized the squared-off wheelwells and seven-slot grille as part of the Grand's heritage. The air suspension offers multiple height settings, and the Grand looks best in its highest mode.

The interior is basic and beautiful. Our test model was a Laredo, not the most luxurious model but perfect for a 4x4 that will see dirt.

In the rocks, with the air suspension raised to the highest setting and the terrain controls turned to Rocks, we were hoping for the best, but the traction just wasn't there. Unlike previous Grands, which had both front and rear differentials that would automatically lock at the slightest sign of wheelspin, the current Jeep has a locker only in the rear; the front is a brake-based traction control. Brake-based traction control is not as good as a locking differential. We like the Mopar rock rails and the plastic bumpers that pop back into place after encountering boulders. We don't like the mad wheelspin and low ground clearance.

In the hillclimb the Jeep didn't fare much better. Again, tire spin was more common than traction, and torn treads were shared with the Rover.

Finally we headed to the desert washes, and out of nowhere our old Grand showed up. The full independent suspension soaked up the high-speed testing, surpassing even the Raptor. We quickly realized that when raised to its highest setting the Grand's suspension would top out and ride rough, but dropped to normal driving height it would soak up everything and run speeds that would make flat-billed prerunner drivers jealous.

In the sand we were having fun with the big 5.7L V-8 (no longer called a Hemi, though technically the same engine). We did run hot after the air dam flexed into the fan and stopped it from spinning, but this was easily fixed, and the fun continued.

The '11 Grand Cherokee was destined to be a luxo-ute designed for fuel economy, but luckily the engineers kept much of the off-road ability of the ZJ, WJ, and prior WK. Unfortunately we feel it didn't get the fine tuning it needed (or front locker) to sustain its good name. The air suspension rides good when low, but Jeep owners want to ride high, and this needs to be sorted out. Hopefully Jeep can overcome these issues, as we believe this WK could be really grand some day.

The Good
•High-speed fun
•Contemporary looks

The Bad
•Needs a front locker
•Needs better ride at full height
•Needs more traction

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