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First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Headlights
Douglas McColloch | Writer
Posted August 1, 2010
Photographers: Courtesy of Jeep

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We tend to be a little leery whenever we test brand-new SUVs these days. It wasn't always thus, but over the past couple of decades, we've seen one 4x4 sport/utility after another lose its solid axles, leaf springs, ladder frames, or low-range gearing as manufacturers, seeking broader buyer demographics, enhanced performance parameters, greater levels of creature comforts, and improved fuel economy have transformed once-capable, no-frills utility rigs into soft-road rolling entertainment systems. Among the 4x4 luxury segment, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has been a notable exception to the rule up until now, so when the folks at Jeep invited us to be among the first journalists to testdrive the newest version, we hopped on a flight to Moab, Utah, to see if the fourth-generation Grand Cherokee would carry on the noble tradition of the Grand Wagoneer-or succumb like so many others to the focus-group caprices of soccer-mom mania.

What's New About It
Basically, almost everything. But we'll start with the engine, a brand-new flexfuel 3.6L Pentastar DOHC V-6 mated to the 5WA580 five-speed automatic (which carries over from the previous GC) and a new Magna-sourced transfer case, which comes available as a single-speed unit or as a two-speed box with a 2.72:1 low-range. Rated power for the aluminum-block V-6 (which is rumored to receive direct injection and/or turbocharging in future iterations) is 290 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 260 lb-ft of torque at 4,800. You can still order the 390hp 5.7L Hemi V-8 (89 octane recommended) and 545RFE automatic package, but the old 4.7L V-8 has been deleted from the Jeep powertrain lineup. Suspension for the unitbody Grand is independent at both ends, with 8.4-inch axles (nine inches, if your order the Hemi) located by an all-new short/long control-arm arrangement in front and multilinks out back; load-leveling shocks are also available if you order the optional Towing Package. Four-wheel drive systems carry over from the previous model, with the single-speed Quadra-Trac I, two-speed Quadra-Trac II, and two-speed Quadra-Drive II (with rear electronic limited-slip) all still available.

The biggest news for 2011 from a wheeler's perspective, though, is the new Quadra-Lift suspension assist, which utilizes compressor-driven airbags which work in tandem with a driver-actuated Selec-Terrain "drive mode" system to adjust suspension height, traction-control response, and/or throttle tuning to match a variety of driving conditions. The five-mode Selec-Terrain option which is activated by a rotary dial on the center console features "Sport," "Sand/Mud," "Snow," "Rock," and "Auto" settings to provide up to 4.1 inches of additional lift (or 1.7 inches of lowering, in "Sport" mode) and provide additional clearance and/or to minimize slippage on loose surfaces. At peak-height "Rock" mode, the Grand Cherokee boasts a maximum ground clearance of 10.7 inches. Throw in all the usual Jeep goodies such as tow hooks and full skidplating, and it all sounds pretty impressive for a vehicle lacking a solid axle, rear locker, etc.

Of course, there's a catch. At least, it sounded that way.

In order to improve the Grand Cherokee's structural integrity and torsional rigidity, the new model now sports some 5,400 welds (along with 30-plus yards of structural adhesive) throughout the body assembly. According to Jeep engineers, the unitbody's architecture is now 146 percent stiffer than the previous Grand-"stiffer than a BMW X5," as one engineer put it. To our minds, this figured to translate into a very firm and controlled ride on pavement-and with its unitbody platform and independent suspension lacking much in the way of any flex or travel, a smaller-displacement base engine, and a heavier (by 200 pounds) overall vehicle weight, our gut instincts told us that the new Jeep had all the potential makings of a Trail Rated slug with a punishing off-road ride.

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