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.
How Well It Works So much for gut instincts. We spent a full day wheeling the 3.6L-powered Grand over the slickrock fins and rock slabs of Moab's Hell's Revenge and Fins 'N Things trails, and we are happy to report that the new Grand Cherokee has lost none of its previous off-pavement capability. Quite the opposite-the new adjustable Quadra-Lift suspension and Selec-Terrain drive system give the driver the ability to adjust suspension height on the fly in low-range. In all but its maximum (stiffest) settings, the airbags provide a great deal of absorption against washboard irregularities, and our time spent on dirt at medium speeds was much smoother and vibration-free than we'd expected. The rear limited-slip is remarkably well dialed-in, engaging almost immediately whenever the slightest degree of wheel slippage is detected. (If only the new GC's tires were so adept-more later.) As a caveat, we should note that we removed the front air dam for our excursion, which improves the Grand Cherokee's approach angle to a quite-respectable 35 degrees. And yes, some of you might think that's cheating, but then again, it's designed for quick removal and re-attachment via four easily accessible plastic twist clips. And if you feel like you need a little more off-road armor, Mopar already offers heavy-gauge steel rock rails as an accessory, as well as wheel locks, side steps, and splash guards.
If we had any gripes at all, they would boil down to tires and gearing: The Grand Cherokee's two OE tire offerings (which shall remain nameless, until you read the specs) offer acceptable traction and extremely low levels of noise on pavement, but are next to useless in loose dirt, and iffy on low-tractive stretches of slickrock; we found ourselves often leaning on the throttle more aggressively than we'd have liked to ascend not-so-steep rock faces that a more square-shouldered tire would have gripped with ease. We'd also like to see a six-speed transmission with the smaller engine, or at least a deeper First gear for the five-speed in the 4:1 range. (A Rock-Trac transfer case in place of the Magna box? Better yet.) With a street-biased 3.06:1 axle ratio (3.47:1 with the Hemi), the Grand's 29.29:1 compound gearing is nothing to write home about. On the other hand, the V-6 generates up to 90 percent of its usable torque below 2,000 rpm (so power was seldom lacking at trail speeds) and the Hill Descent control does such a terrific (and rattle-free) job of mimicking engine compression braking, we found ourselves, in First gear low-range, wanting to actually go faster on some of Moab's steepest downhill fins-and unlike some other Hill Descent systems we know of, the Jeep system allows you to modulate throttle to your liking without disabling Hill Descent altogether. Still, you may find yourself wishing (as we did) for a little extra torque multiplication on steep hills.
Nitpicks aside, we came away impressed with Jeep engineers' ability to enhance the Grand Cherokee's levels of interior refinement (yes, it has all the digital BluePod goodies) and overall build integrity without compromising its still-considerable trail prowess. Oh, and as you might expect, the Grand Cherokee rides like a dream on the street, with the kind of steering feel and lateral stability at higher speeds that one would expect from-well, an X5. Of course, a fully kitted Overland model may end up costing as much as an X5, but that's to be determined later. Chrysler folks assured us that entry-level pricing for the 2011 Grand Cherokee would be some $200 less than the base 2010 model. We'll have a lot more to say about the new Grand when we give it some more severe-duty wheeling chores at our 2011 Four Wheeler of the Year test, a few months hence. But for now, rest assured-the new Grand has definitely not gone the way of the soccer pitch.
Selec-Terrain, adjustable suspension, Hill Descent is the best we've ever tested, Overland models get standard Quadra-Lift
Needs real all-terrains and some lower gears, Overland models get 20-inch wheels
More refined and car-like than ever on pavement, the new Grand still worthy of the Jeep name in the dirt
Vehicle/model: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Base price: N/A
Engine (tested): 3.6L DOHC V-6
Max hp & torque (lb-ft): 290/260
Transmission (tested): 5W5A580 5-spd automatic
Transfer case (tested): MP 3022 full-time 2-spd
Low-range ratio: 2.72:1
Frame type: Steel unitbody
Suspension, f/r: Independent short/long-arm, coilover shocks, airbag assist/independent multilink, coil springs, airbag assist
Ring and pinion: 3.06:1
Max crawl ratio: 29.29:1
Steering: Power rack and pinion
Brakes, f/r: 12.9-in vented disc/12.6-in solid disc
Wheels (tested): 18x8 cast aluminum
Tires (tested): 265/60R18 Michelin Latitude OWL
Wheelbase (in.): 114.8
Length (in): 189.8
Height (in): 69.4
Base curb weight (lb): 4,600
Max approach/departure angles (deg.): 35 (air dam removed/28)
Max ground clearance (in): 10.7
GVWR (lb): 6,500
Max cargo volume (cu ft): 54.7
Max towing capacity (lb): 5,000 (7,000 w/Hemi)
EPA mileage figures, city/hwy (mpg): 16/22
Fuel capacity (gal): 24.6