Never mind its distinguished military service or distant relatives that set the stage for today’s throng of SUVs; this is a Jeep like none you’ve ever known. With 420 hp under the hood, 20-inch-diameter hooves and every muscle drawn tight, this is the Jeep that kicks Mustangs and spanks BMWs.

Wearing an SRT8 badge, the S in its name could stand for superlative. This is not only the fastest, best handling, most expensive Jeep ever, but it’s also the one with sufficient traction to yank the clinically depressed out of the deepest middle-age crisis. Just try to resist smiling when you floor the gas.

Like Chevrolet's Corvette -- a performance-car bargain that humiliates far pricier European and Japanese sport coupes -- the Grand Cherokee SRT8 can keep pace with and, in some cases, outrun competing super-sporty SUVs from BMW, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, all of which cost much more than the Jeep.

The downside, as with all high-powered and heavy vehicles, is that you won't top 16 mpg on the highway and those addicted to intense acceleration will see mileage drop to between 10 mpg and 11 mpg in town. (Premium fuel is recommended but not required.) Also, the factory tow rating is only 3,500 pounds, so this is the wrong truck for moving your cabin cruiser.

Exterior

As square-shouldered as a Marine officer in dress blues, the Grand Cherokee tuned up by DaimlerChrysler’s rambunctious Street and Racing Technology (SRT) department is arguably the most handsome midsize SUV on the road.

Lowered by one inch compared to civilian-grade Grand Cherokees and rolling on rubber wide enough to race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the SRT8 edition looks tough enough to wage war. The front fascia designed just for this model jams extra air to the front-brake hardware.

Chunky fender flares stand watch over 20-inch, five-spoke wheels. But the best visuals are saved for last. To salute those swept into this truck’s wake, there are two fat exhaust pipes nestled together like oversize shotgun barrels. On the whole, this truck's outward appearance declares its intent to speed.

Interior

The Grand Cherokee SRT8 is all business inside. You’ll find no faux wood paneling, French seams or etched metal to sugarcoat the heavy-throttle driving experience. Most of the molded plastic is hard to the touch, accented by very few traces of chrome and brushed aluminum. It fits together nicely and the color and grain are well executed -- but the prevailing mood is racy, not indulgent.

Outward visibility is excellent, thanks to upright roof pillars and a generous glass area. The one exception is toward the right rear (where state police cruisers inevitably hide), which is blocked by very wide roof pillars.

The front and rear seats are almost as unforgiving as park benches. Thankfully, the buckets are well shaped and fine grades of leather and suede are used for upholstery. SRT8 labels embroidered into the front seat backs announce the obvious.

Instruments are well organized and highly legible. Blue accent rings help enliven the dials during the day and at night. Even with a Hemi V8 huffing under the hood, you’ll never crack 150 mph in this square rigger, even though the speedometer is ludicrously marked to 180 mph.

Rear seats are adequate for two but will carry three with modest scrunching. Next in line is a 34.5-cubic-foot cargo hold with a flip-over floor surface. One side is carpeted to look nice; the other is molded plastic with high sides to carry muddy boots, greasy engine parts, wet beach gear and other paraphernalia. It’s a clever, handy feature.

To tote bulkier gear, you can fold the split rear seat back down to create up to 67.4 cubic feet of hauling volume. The rectilinear proportions of the Grand Cherokee yield a back half that rivals the space efficiency of a UPS truck.

Performance

bring your Porsche Cayenne Turbos, your supercharged Land Rover Range Rover Sports, your mighty Mercedes ML 500s -- this Jeep will eat them alive. It hustles to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds, blasts through 100 mph in 12.4 seconds and clears a quarter-mile sprint in 13.5 seconds. The combination of the 420-hp 6.1-liter Hemi V8 engine, Goodyear Eagle RSA tires with enough traction to spin the earth and a transfer case that puts all four wheels to work when you need them delivers a 0.78g yank off the line that feels capable of tweaking neck vertebra. Did we mention this is the fastest SUV money can buy?

Nail the throttle and the sound is not a childish boy-racer rumble but rather heavy breathing through large, low-restriction exhaust pipes. Cooperation between Chrysler's SRT crew and their Mercedes-Benz counterparts at AMG in Germany has done wonders.

Thanks to ample grip and excellent body control, the SRT8 delivers the roller-coaster ride of your dreams along twisty mountain roads. The Eagle radials not only run flat, eliminating the need for a spare, they also grip surprisingly well on wet and snowy roads. Nail the brakes and the SRT8 stops from 70 mph in a head-tilting 169 feet.

All that rubber on the road does demand extra minding when the assignment is straight-line cruising. The front of the SRT8 tends to wander when you ease your grip on the wheel, and this truck is not as sure of itself at felonious speeds as the high-dollar imported super trucks.

Except for those flaws, the SRT8 is a capable, comfortable cruiser. The hard seats support your spine well over long distances and the cabin is reasonably quiet at light throttle settings. The standard premium audio system includes a six-channel, 276-watt amplifier, six Boston Acoustics speakers and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. A $1,200 DVD entertainment system is available to muzzle minors in back.

Is the Grand Cherokee SRT8 for You?

Buy this Vehicle if: You have an insatiable need for speed and you’ve outgrown classic muscle cars, sports cars and premium imported sedans.

Keep Looking if: Gas mileage is a concern; you haul or tow heavy loads; you drive on rough terrain; you'd prefer the superior handling of a sport sedan or wagon and don't need the extra cargo space of an SUV.

Who Fits?: Four fit comfortably and a fifth can fit in the rear seat for shorter trips; ample seat and steering-wheel adjustments accommodate a wide range of drivers; the suspension is lower than on a standard Grand Cherokee, which makes getting in and out easier.

Options Worth Splurging on: The list is short. For $3,195 you can buy a package containing dual-zone automatic climate control, memory settings for mirror and seat positions, Sirius satellite radio compatibility, head-curtain airbags, heated front seats, a power sunroof, parking sensors and rain-sensing wipers. A $1,200 rear-seat DVD player is also offered. The head-curtain airbags and sunroof are also stand-alone options.

Closest Competitors: BMW X5 4.8is, Land Rover Range Rover Sport, 2007 Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG and Porsche Cayenne Turbo


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