Even though everyone keeps saying the SUV is on the decline, there are still plenty of us in need of large people, and other stuff, haulers. Two of the biggest vehicles to launch in this segment for 2005 are the all new Ford Freestyle and the completely redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Ford?s new Five Hundred sedan and Freestyle crossover are two big models for the company. Along with the all-new Mustang, Ford hopes to see sales pick back up and regain their former glory. With the Mustang they probably will. The Freestyle does a lot but also leaves a lot to be desired.

First off the Five Hundred is a big sucker. You look in the rear view mirror and see the back window over two sets of seats and then some. I felt I needed a new prescription for my glasses the rear window was so far away. The sitting position was very nice and I felt pretty high off the ground, about as high as in our own 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee. 

Handling was much better than expected and there wasn?t much body roll. But the engine felt completely overwhelmed even in moderate driving applications and this was an empty vehicle. I could only imagine how four or five kids and their soccer equipment could weigh the Freestyle down even more.

The interior was well laid out but the plastic was a bit overwhelming. Both the steering wheel and dash seemed a little cheap compared to the competition. And why is Ford still relying on the ugly green lighting? With the digital readouts it looks like an terminal from the early days of computing. A pleasant blue would be much more appealing.

I did dig the oval vents and their metal looking trim. I just couldn?t understand what the off-colored faux carbon fiber was doing around the center stack. It looked completely out of place. Ford should have stuck with an all black center stack or more of the metallic look. The shifter was a nice leather wrapped number though.

After the drive I felt like the Freestyle would do everything it was supposed to and any everyday driver would find it a reliable ride. But no one, and I mean no one, would be excited to drive it.

The 2005 Grand Cherokee is a completely different beast. Maybe by having such a good working knowledge of the predecessor I can say how much better the 2005 truly is. Outside, the lines are streamlined and brought up to date for the 21st century. I find the front and rear lights especially appealing.

Inside the gauges are an immediate eye-catcher. They bring a bit more of the upscale Mercedes feel to the Jeep brand that has already found it?s way to new Chrysler products. The entire center console is new and is more functional than before, but it lacks any real style. But this is an SUV and what do you really need from it as far as looks go? The Hemi engine provides terrific power but I think the new V6 is just as important to sales. Handling and braking are also much improved.

I?m looking forward to seeing what a stripped model offers for those that just want something to bang around in. The two-toned leather seats were a nice option, but like the wood trim, seem a bit overdone if you want the Jeep for off-road use. Of course Daimler-Chrysler is trying to change the Jeep?s image so those that buy an Explorer with leather now have a much nicer alternative.

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