If the success of the Porsche Cayenne and the BMW X5 has taught us anything, it's that most SUV buyers aren't one bit interested in going near a blade of grass, let alone bouncing down the Rubicon Trail. They like the elevated driving position, the ease at which they can load and unload their junk, and the misplaced sense of safety that SUVs offer.

For most buyers, 4WD is useful to have when the roads get icy and it makes for a nice badge on the back, but most of these so-called "off-road" vehicles are traded in three years down the line with pristine low-ratio gears and an unmolested underbelly. They've been someone's two-ton commuter and little else, which is why Porsche and BMW simply dropped the pretense, fitted proper performance tires and tuned the suspension for on-road performance. Let the off-road nonsense to the likes of Land Rover and Jeep. Porsche and BMW make driving machines.

Except that Land Rover and Jeep weren't about to let these upstarts make them look like chumps. For six decades both companies have been successfully honing the on-road/off-road balance to bring us some of the most useful and versatile vehicles in the world, so it would stand to reason that when asked to eliminate any element of off-road ability and focusing on pure dynamics, Land Rover and Jeep engineers should be able to produce some truly epic SUVs, right?

Actually, that IS right. The 400-hp Range Rover SC is an astonishingly fast and agile vehicle for its size and weight but with active roll-bars, air suspension and a $70,000 price tag that's not so surprising. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, however, stomps even the blown Range Rover in terms of performance and it's little more than half the price of the Range Rover. You'd better be sitting down for this. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is about to rock your SUV world.

Ugly business afoot

Let's get the ugly business of numbers out of the way first, shall we? Under the hood lies Chrysler's versatile new SRT V-8, which is based on a reinforced version of the pushrod, iron-block, HEMI V-8 that powers everything Chrysler does these days, including their coffee machines and elevators, I suspect. The engine is bored out to 6.1 liters and uses a fully revised induction and exhaust system to help it rev to 6000 rpm, a whole thousand more than the regular HEMI. It does without the HEMI's displacement-on-demand technology, however, so it is a bit thirstier than the 5.7-liter car if you go by the official figures. In reality, it's a whole lot thirstier because you don't buy a vehicle like this to trickle around in D. You want to feel all that power, and that sends gas consumption into the low teens.

Power is pegged at 420 hp at 6200 rpm and torque is an equally impressive 425 lb-ft at 4800 rpm, though you don't need much more than tickover in any gear to turn the approaching horizon into a streaky blur. Behold the 0-60 mph time of less than five seconds, the 0-100-0 time of less that 19 seconds, and a top speed around 155 mph. The Grand Cherokee SRT8 is fast, people; faster than the Cayenne Turbo and X5 4.0iS that used to look down their premium noses at the Jeep. In fact, it's almost as quick to 60 mph as a Porsche 911. You may gasp when ready.

The only transmission available is a five-speed Autostick unit that is reasonably responsive when left to its own devices but considerably more entertaining when used as a manual. The shifts are quicker than you usually find in the Grand Cherokee but the odd left-right motion of the gearlever's manual shifts is (as it is in all Chrysler products) very counterintuitive and the display telling you which gear you're in is no bigger than the odometer digits, so it's about as useful as a second set of earlobes. The addition of steering wheel-mounted paddles and a bigger gear display would take a lot of the guesswork out of using the transmission but even if you do happen to miss a down-change as you enter a corner, it's never really a disaster. The Grand Cherokee's got enough grunt and grip to force its way through any corner unless you're really, really spanking on and the road does something very, very unexpected.

All-wheel awe

Yes, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is 4WD but it's the first ever Jeep to boast permanent all-wheel drive and we're only sorry Jeep never developed such a system before. Though it ambles along in RWD mode most of the time, the electronically controlled, clutch-pack center differential can channel all the torque to the front or rear as is needed, making the Grand Cherokee SRT8 extraordinarily forgiving when you throw it around. The suspension is full revised with new Bilstein dampers, thicker sway bars, and firmer springs and bushings, while the four-piston Brembo calipers fitted to each corner each clamp hard on 14-inch front and 13.8-inch rear rotors to haul it all down from big speeds. It'll grind to a halt from 60 mph in just 125 feet, in fact, which is amazing from something this big. To complete the dynamic package, the SRT8 rides about an inch lower than a regular Grand Cherokee HEMI, the ESP has been recalibrated to allow the SRT8 to slither around a little more, and 20-inch SRT wheels with Z-rated, Goodyear run-flat tires are also fitted.

On the track, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is hopeless, really, because the ESP (which can't be turned off) is too intrusive and the sluggishness of the transmission combined with the sheer size and 4788-lb heft of the thing makes it very difficult to enjoy in such an extreme environment. On the mountain roads that brought us to the track, however, the SRT8 was a riot! You just don't expect a big SUV to go and stop with this kind of ferocity, and with abundant grip from those enormous 255/45ZR-20 front and ten-inch-wide, 285/40ZR-20 rear tires you can really whip it into corners without fear of coming unstuck.

The work that Jeep has done on the suspension is just remarkable because it combines the sporty firmness you need to feed the SRT8 through corners with a reasonably compliant ride that is more than acceptable for daily commutes and family use. (Honestly, darling!) Indeed, thanks to its steadfast refusal to lean over, pitch, or dive, I would argue that the upscale leather and fake-suede interior stands a better chance of NOT having to endure the contents of little stomachs than a regular Grand Cherokee. (Really, honey!)

But what really sets the SRT8 apart is its steering, which is not only sharp and direct (even by big-car standards) but also full of feel. When you push close to the limits of grip it starts to jump around in your hands quite significantly, relating the behavior of the front tires directly to your hands and letting you know it's time you backed off, buddy. It could almost be described as kickback, but because it only happens at the absolute limit and is caused by the movement of the tires over bumps in the road rather than any slop in the steering mechanism, I'm more inclined to call it "extreme feedback" than "kickback." It's good that it's there - too often such intimate road feel is engineered out in the name of refinement.

Lest anyone be in doubt as to the potential of your Grand Cherokee, Jeep has toughened up the exterior in a simple but meaningful way. There's a new front fascia, new rocker panels, a new rear bumper, dual, centrally mounted two-inch tail pipes, as well as the aforementioned 20-inch wheels and lowered ride height. Inside, there are front bucket seats, aluminum and carbon-fiber effect trim (here comes little Johnny's lunch again), sports dials, and some SRT8 monikers splashed about here and there. The overall effect isn't very subtle, perhaps, but I, for one, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8's muscular aggression.

Were the vehicle itself not so impressive I might be less enamored with the brash styling enhancements, but because it goes so fast, corners so well, and is so much fun to drive, I think it has earned the right to brag a little bit. Factor in a ridiculously low $39,995 price tag, folks, and you have yourself the best performance SUV around.

Lightheadedness and shallow breathing is normal at this point, by the way. It's been a big shock to us all.

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