One of our favorite four-wheel-drives of all time, the Grand Cherokee has always been a vehicle that does everything well. The new Grand Cherokee is like a student who earns an A- or B+ most of the time, and nothing lower than a B-, and maintains a high overall grade-point average.
For 2005, the Grand Cherokee is all new, from the halogen headlights to the rack-and-pinion steering to the addition of a 5.7L multi-displacement Hemi V-8. The 545RFE transmission has been refined, permitting a higher tow rating of 7,200 pounds. Both axles have electronic limited-slip functions; our test unit had the Quadra-Drive II 4x4 system, with the NV245 electronic transfer case.
The suspension is also new. Gone is the straight front Dana axle we used to bend so easily. Instead, at the front, a short/long-arm front independent setup uses L-shaped single-piece lower control arms, made from nodular iron. Upper control arms are forged pieces for strength. Jeep engineers were able to increase front travel with this arrangement more than an inch compared to the '04 Grand Cherokee. The rear suspension is multilink, as in the past.
The engine/transmission combination offers the most obvious improvement over previous generations. The 5.7L 90-degree V-8 produces ample torque (375 lb-ft at 4,000 rpm) and horsepower (330 at 5,000). It uses two plugs per cylinder to better ignite 89-octane fuel delivered by sequential multiport EFI. The Hemi can seamlessly deactivate four cylinders when less power is called for, saving fuel.
The five-speed automatic functions almost like a six-speed, with the capability of delivering two Second-gear ratios. Pin the throttle off the line and the NV545RFE selects a combination of gears that generates a 1.67:1 Second-gear surge. For ordinary part-throttle, around-town kickdowns, the ratio is a more gentle, fuel-efficient 1.50:1. The result is a transmission that reacts quickly, appropriately to throttle input, and enhances the engine's need to rev.
The suspension flexes well enough to deliver comfortable ride quality on the highway and a competent, relaxed feel on the trail. Suspension travel seems to be much more controlled. We noticed the tires did not get jammed into the sides of the wheelwells when the suspension bottomed, which we did see on the prior Grand Cherokee. Steering precision is noticeably improved at speed, but classic quick Cherokee steering-an asset on the trail or in a parking lot-is retained.
All of these things together allow the Grand to work well on a variety of unpaved roads. Traction is enhanced via two electronic lockers, and they practically eliminate wheelspin. It is the best of the Jeeps on washboard, allowing some noise and vibration to leak in when you hit a bad patch, but overall, the suspension permits more relaxed driving and travel at higher speeds. The Grand was also conspicuously good on sand dunes, where the engine's ability to rev and the transmission's quick kickdown allowed significantly better dune running than all but the Touareg.
A number of gripes centered around the interior. We liked the design of the controls, which operated smoothly and felt like high-end audio equipment. The wood grain and chrome trim are nice details, but some testers felt Jeep could have done a better job on the materials. During the day, some of the digital instrumentation was hard to read when the sun hit them. Finally, the NAV system-perfectly good most of the time-blanked out when we got onto the trail. Some other systems had topo maps written into their software.
Every tester commented on the low roofline, which compromised overhead visibility. "You're trying to enjoy the scenery and beauty, and it's like you're sitting in a tunnel," said one tester.
On the average National Forest trail-rocky, rutted, and dusty-the Grand remains a great crawler. But in low-range the throttle was notably sensitive, harder to control than either the LR3 or Touareg. Likewise, on really long, steep downhills, the tallish crawl ratio (30.43:1) did not help the transmission hold back strongly, so some use of the brakes was required to maintain control.
The new Grand is longer, but it is not bulky. There is still a workable angle of approach, although the angle of departure was sacrificed to make the new Grand bigger. Six of our test vehicles had better departure angles, including both of the other Jeeps.
Testers consistently gave high marks for the engine, ride and handling, steering, the ready availability of recovery hooks, and acknowledged overall competency in a wide variety of off-highway environments. But scores for the interior were mixed, and some testers thought the Grand was not as good a rockcrawler as several of the other contenders. It was fourth in ramp travel measurements, seventh in ground clearance, seventh in departure angle, and tied for sixth in crawl ratio, equal with the Liberty.
Overall, we can say there are some things we like better about the new Grand Cherokee than the last generation, and some things we don't. But the Grand is still all Jeep.
* "Must be really quiet. I just tried to start it, and it was already on."
* "Crawls nicely in low range"
* "At the dragstrip, definitely one of the fastest we've tested."