First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee redefines the Tipping Point

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee – click above for high-res image gallery

In the span of three years, Chrysler has been bought and sold more times than Duke Cunningham. Its warped "merger of equals" with Daimler ended in 2007 and the disastrous reign of incompetence extended into its relationship with Cerberus Capital Management – now a "bad word" within the hallowed halls of Chrysler, according to one exec.

After filing for bankruptcy in April of 2009, the reformed Chrysler Group partnered with the Italian automaking juggernauts at Fiat and have since rolled out a five-year business plan that's nothing if not ambitious.

But you didn't come here for an abbreviated history lesson on Chrysler and its failed suitors. You want to find out how your $6.6 billion in federal funding is being spent and if the company's products are finally up to snuff. Well, here's the short version: The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the first Chrysler product since the 300 that deserves your attention. Follow the jump to find out why.

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Unlike the scads of products being teased by the Big Three for the past few years, the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee has struck the perfect balance of exposure in the run-up to its on-sale date later this year. And if you're fond of the ZJ and WJ models of yore, then there's a lot to like about the new WK2's exterior.

The Grand Cherokee's design is the epitome of evolution, retaining the short overhangs, trapezoidal wheel openings, fast windshield and backlight, and of course, the iconic seven-slat front grille. Mark Allan, Jeep's head of design, was committed to retaining the overall shape of past GCs, saying, "You should be able to tell its a Jeep from far away, but we wanted it to be more serious; more stern."

Allan and his team have succeeded – not just with the overall design, but in the details. The deeply recessed creases in the doors, the blacked-out B- and C-pillars, furrowed brow, standard fog lamps, color-matched spoiler and the tasteful use of chrome – something most domestic automakers still haven't mastered – all blend into a cohesive whole that's at once masculine and refined. And they've even fitted a set of front tow-hooks, something the designers and engineers fought hard to include.

The whole package has grown by three inches in width, but only 1.8 inches in overall length, with a 114.8-inch wheelbase – over five inches longer than before. With the rear wheels shoved so far back, it pays dividends for rear-seat passengers, with an additional four inches of rear leg room. But that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wholesale changes inside.

The pitiful excuse for interiors that Chrysler, and by extension Jeep, have foisted on consumers for the past 20 years has finally been addressed, and if the GC's insides are any indication, journalists will need a new horse to flog if these kind of appointments disseminate throughout the Pentastar's offerings.

Behold: textured plastics that don't make you wretch. Faux aluminum trim that doesn't feel like it's been liberated from a Ukrainian toy factory. Switchgear – in particular, the window controls and climate knobs – that are (shocker!) pleasing to thumb and won't detach in your palm. Granted, it's not exactly Audi-grade stuff, but it's easily on par with some of the best from the domestic luxury set, and in many cases, even better. And it's not just limited to the high-end Overland model.

The Laredo and Limited variants get a soft-touch dash, chrome-trimmed instrument panel and LED lighting. The leather on the seats and console hasn't been sourced from a Burger King-grade bovine, and when you open up the hinged console to reveal the illuminated cup holders, they gracefully recess into the side with decidedly Germanic damping. It's all in the details. And the list is long.

In the Overland, real wood flanks the dash and doors, including the top of the leather-wrapped, tilt and telescope steering wheel. The cowhide goes up a grade and comes complete with contrast stitching that extends to the dash – close your eyes and run your hand over the top and you'd be convinced you're sitting in something from Cadillac. Or better.

A touchscreen sat-nav is optional, along with Jeep's massive "CommandView" dual-pane sunroof, but the niceties aren't just limited to the big-budget options. Heated and ventilated front seats, warmed rear thrones, four-way power lumbar controls, rain sensing wipers and "Keyless Enter-N-Go" are all for the taking, along with a rearview backup camera, memory seating and heated steering wheel. A FloTV system for rear seat passengers and Chrysler's UConnect WiFi setup are also options, and yes, a power liftgate complete with a "flipper" rear window is still available.

Underneath that highly revised interior is a platform based largely on the Mercedes-Benz M-Class, with a fully independent suspension equipped with variable rate springs in the rear. More importantly, Jeep has introduced a duo of new suspension technologies to blend on-road refinement with off-road capabilities.

First, we have Quadra-Lift, an air suspension system that can raise or lower the GC to five different heights depending on the task at hand. The Normal Ride Height offers 8.1 inches of ground clearance to boost fuel economy and aerodynamics. Hit the highway and the system automatically adjusts to Aero Mode by lowering the Jeep by 0.6 inches, further improving consumption and reducing drag from the GC's low .37 Cd. Those settings, along with the Park Mode, which drops the ride height by 1.5 inches to make entrance and exit slightly more graceful, is the staid stuff. Here's where it gets interesting and where Jeep's off-road heritage shines through: All the settings are controlled through Jeep's Selec-Terrain knob on the center console. The two that matter: Off-Road 1 and Off-Road 2. The first raises things 1.3-inches (for a total of 9.4 inches of ground clearance), while the latter boosts ride height to 10.7 inches. Partnered with the stability control and traction electronics, 12 different settings for power, throttle, braking and transmission adapt to the terrain by selecting one of the five settings, all of which are self-explanatory.

Sand/Mud, Snow and Auto are exactly what you'd expect, dialing in the proper amount of torque and wheelspin to suit the surrounds. Sport brings things down a notch and focuses on on-road performance, while Rock raises the ride height to its maximum setting and partnered with the transfer case, differentials and throttle, delivers maximum low-speed control. But when it comes to how that power gets to the wheels, things get slightly more complex.

Forget about the 4x2 versions of the Laredo, Limited and Overland. If you're buying a Jeep for more than kiddie schlepping, you're after the 4x4 variants. And with that selection comes choice. In Quadra-Trac 1 guise, you've got a full-time four-wheel-drive system that performs the majority of the duties for you, but swaps the sophistication and customization for a single-speed transfer case and boosted fuel economy. What you're really interested in comes in the form of the upgraded Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II systems, both of which come standard with the Selec-Terrain system.

With Quadra-Trac II, you've got a two-speed transfer case with highly adaptive electronics that can quickly shuffle as much as 100 percent of the torque to the axle with the most traction. Good, but it gets better. Select the Quadra-Drive II system and the rear diff is swapped out with an electronic limited-slip differential with higher sensitivity and the ability to immediately and seamlessly transfer power to the appropriate rear wheel. How good is it? Jeep set us out on a few trails at the Hollister Hills SVRA to find out.

Now, we've done these kind of staged off-road expeditions before. And generally, the courses have been carefully selected and perfectly prepped (and in some cases, explicitly designed) for the vehicle in question. So it speaks volumes that Jeep's team chose a section of the park largely unexplored by the PR team to let the new Grand Cherokee loose in the hands of hamfisted journos. One Jeep official confided in us that they hadn't scouted out the location until a few days before our arrival, so if the GC couldn't handle it, serious embarrassment would be the order du jour.

Not likely.

Jeep says this is the most capable off-road vehicle it's ever produced, and in the midst of a steep upward ascent followed by a treacherous trek down, we're keen to agree. With the transfer case set to 4WD Low, steady-state throttle and a few steering corrections allowed us to skirt up the side of a hill without a bead of sweat on our brow. At the top, we stood by for a few seconds as our Wrangler lead vehicle slowly made its way overtop a rock outcropping and down a severely steep bank. Easy for him. But in a leather-lined luxo-'ute? No problem, apparently.

We came up to the same crest, set the system into its fully automated mode and crawled over the uneven boulder at the top of the hill. Our Jeep exec co-driver hopped out for an impromptu photo-op just as the GC was doing its best downward-facing dog followed by a three-wheeled lifted leg. He hopped back in and with a touch of the throttle we were on our way down.

What impressed the most was the complete lack of skill necessary to navigate down the sandy, rock-strewn descent. We simply kept our foot off the pedals, turned the wheel a few degrees when necessary and then got back on the throttle when things evened out. This could've been a lazy Sunday drive if it weren't for the lower air dam being removed and the clunking and clattering of the transfer case as it shuffled power fore and aft.

So, the Grand Cherokee is obviously a capable off-roader. But we all know that most owners won't be tackling Moab, so its on-road demeanor is arguably more important – and here's where the real revelations comes in.

The GC's Benz architecture makes for a seriously pleasing ride on the open road, and with a triple-sealing strategy to separate engine and wind noise from the cabin, NVH levels are vastly improved. We're talking Lexus quiet. Thicker carpet lines the transmission tunnel, so much of the noise that emanated from the center of the last-gen GC has been completely removed, along with that vehicle's galling amount of tire roar thanks to acoustical wheel liners. Steering and brake feel is more direct and supple then we remember, albeit slightly detached, and outward visibility is particularly pleasant. You know where the corners are, and even without the backup cam, you've got a keen sense of what's going on in the rear.

On the powertrain front, it's a bit more of a mixed bag. We enjoyed a brief stint in the variable valve timing-equipped 5.7-liter V8, and with 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, it does a more than an adequate job of motivating this massive slab of SUV. The Multi-Displacement System, which shuts down four of the eight cylinders while cruising, was seamless in its activation, and if there's anything missing from the V8 model, it's a HEMI badge on the boot. Apparently, that's another four-letter word in this increasingly fuel-conscious climate.

So instead, the real focus is the first application of Chrysler's new "Phoenix" V6 – an engine that's set to proliferate through the automaker's lineup over the course of the next year. With 3.6-liters of displacement, an aluminum block, dual-overhead cams and variable valve timing, it makes the old 3.7-liter mill look positively archaic, particularly when scanning the stats. The laughably low 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque of the outgoing engine has been increased to 290 hp and 260 lb-ft, with peak twist arriving at 4,800 rpm. Fuel economy has improved as well, with a maximum of 23 mpg when cruising on the highway, 16 in the city and a claimed 500 miles of range on a single (24.6-gallon) tank. Naturally, you sacrifice a bit of towing capacity in the process – 5,000 pounds with the V6 or 7,400 pounds with the big boy V8.

But does it matter on the road? The new six is certainly more refined, spinning smoothly towards the far side of the tach, but failing to provide sufficient passing power on occasion. Blame the GC's nearly 5,000-pound curb weight if you must, but despite the V6's "all-new" designation, it still feels about a half-generation behind the competition. Thankfully, that's where Fiat's tech-infusion will come into play. The Italian automaker's much-hyped MultiAir valve-actuation system is netting significant increases when fitted to existing engines. A Chrysler engineer we spoke with expects a 10-to-15 percent boost in output when it's fitted to the Phoenix, so power is set to increase to compete with the newest sixes from Ford, GM and others. When it's finally going to arrive, though, remains to be seen.

By the same token, we'd be remiss not to point out that Jeep's decision to stick with a five-speed automatic seems decidedly boorish considering the plethora of transmission options available from the competition. It's not a bad 'box by any means, shifting smoothly and thrusting itself into the meat of the engine's powerband when mashing the throttle, but there's always an overarching sense that a few more MPGs could've be squeezed out with an additional gear up top and a bit more grunt could be delivered down low in second and third. The only reason it stands out is the level of detail that's gone into everything else, but considering Chrysler's recent financial situation, sacrifices had to be made and developing a new gearbox was likely among them. Not to mention its effect on the bottom line.

To that end, the 2011 Grand Cherokee's pricing is very competitive given the equipment levels and its overall capabilities. Jeep is keen to point out that not only has it reduced the price of nearly every trim (we're talking hundreds, not thousands here), but it's increased the amount of features on each model to net anywhere between $2,000 and $6,000 in additional kit.

You can scan the model mix and pricing in our previous post, but on the low end, the Laredo 4x2 comes in at just over $30k, while the top-spec Overland 4x4 with all the trimmings maxes out at $42,995. The bulk of Grand Cherokee sales are likely to be in the middle, but even then, you've got a range of options to choose from whether you're a serious off-roader with visions of rock-crawling or a mild-mannered mom with a gaggle of soon-to-be soccer stars.

No matter your destination or proclivities, there's a Grand Cherokee to suit your needs on road, and the competition doesn't even come close to matching its abilities off road. For that, you'd need to look at something hailing from Solihull, which makes the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee more of a budget-minded Range Rover than a Lexus RX or Ford Explorer competitor. If this is the shape of things to come from Chrysler, there might just be a little life yet in the halls of Auburn Hills.

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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