We're finally beginning to get a glimpse of exactly what Chrysler has been up to since snagging a whopping $6.6 billion in federal funding during the automotive implosion of 2009. While General Motors has been busily chugging along like nothing happened, the Pentastar hasn't exactly rolled out a wave of new and refreshed models. There's been an obvious hitch in the Chrysler giddy up, and those loyal to the company's three brands (okay, four) have been forced to settle for little more than slightly reworked option packages... until now. As 2010 comes to a close, the company is pulling the covers off a range of new models, each as important to its future success as the last.
At the front of the pack is the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, a vehicle that's become synonymous with Chrysler's righting of itself in the public eye thanks to some of the most well-crafted advertisements in the industry. If you don't know what we're on about, we highly suggest pointing your browser toward YouTube and spending a few minutes watching the company's "The Things We Make, Make Us" spot. Be prepared for an overwhelming sense of patriotic duty, as well as a burning desire to pick up a hammer and bang some nails.
You've been warned.
Even before Chrysler's run-in with Chapter 11, there were flickers of hope within the company's fleet. The Dodge Ram packed one of the best interiors in the segment, and the previous-generation Grand Cherokee wasn't a horrible place to spend a few hours. The 2011 Grand Cherokee picks up those cues and runs with them in all directions, resulting in a vehicle that's as capable off road as it is jousting with mid-town traffic. If this is the new face of Chrysler, we like what we see.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL
This is a handsome vehicle. Jeep has a long and storied history of brutish designs to pull from, and the 2011 Grand Cherokee picks from the best. The familial squared-off fender arches and seven-slot grille join new, glowering headlamps for a look that's all around more determined than its predecessor. The narrow lights and upright fascia give the Grand Cherokee an aggressive nose that looks all but determined to pull the new Chrysler from the ashes of the old single-handedly. Short overhangs front and rear are plenty functional for taking on your favorite trails, but they also give the SUV the sort of ready-for-anything stance that made buyers fall in love with high-riders to begin with. In a world populated by bubble crossovers, the Grand Cherokee clearly stands apart.
That look continues down the side of the vehicle. With blacked-out B- and C-pillars backed up by angular rear bodywork, the design is beautifully modern. For once, the designers at Chrysler don't seem to be completely beholden to retro styling, and that fact pays huge dividends for the Grand Cherokee. Light splashes of chrome on the door handles, mirrors and roof rack are more fine jewelry than bling, and demonstrate a level of restrained taste that we don't see too often from domestic manufacturers. In short, it's a vehicle that you're proud to drive, and that draws attentive stares no matter where you go.
Chrysler was one of the first domestic companies in recent times to underscore the fact that a vehicle doesn't have to wear a luxury badge just to have an excellent interior, and the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee takes that knowledge to heart. While our tester came equipped with the feature-heavy Overland package and all of the leather niceties that entails, we're told that lower rung models are no less gorgeous. Deep, real-wood accents are traced with chrome along the door panels and dash, and the excellent leather seats wear stylish contrasting piping. The cabin is lined with a host of small details that simply make it obvious that Chrysler's team put in the hours stressing over fit and finish. Five years ago, we simply wouldn't have thought this level of refinement was possible from any Chrysler branch, let alone Jeep.
To us, the icing on the cake is the steering wheel in the Grand Cherokee. Chrysler finally seems to have realized that the chunky, one-size-fits-all unit of yore wasn't doing anyone any favors, and chucked it in favor of piece that does considerably more for the overall cohesiveness of the interior. We can't underscore enough how important a steering wheel is to a vehicle's cabin, and Chrysler has absolutely nailed it with the Grand Cherokee's new tiller.
Our Jeep came packing the much-celebrated new Phoenix 3.6-liter V6 under the hood. With 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, the new engine is a few millennia ahead of the engine it replaces. During our First Drive, we felt like the six-pot didn't have quite enough gusto to shuffle around the 5,000 pound Grand Cherokee in a dignified fashion, but after a full week with the new engine, we're changing our tune. A little. The V6 handles day-to-day driving duties without any real issues, and will even summon up enough courage for interstate passes on command. It's smooth, though if you're expecting to dart out into the left lane, brace for plenty of revs from the wee sixer.
Chrysler mated the Phoenix with a five-speed automatic transmission that, while plenty smooth, seems to be the weak spot in the driveline. The EPA hasn't been kind to the Grand Cherokee V6, slotting our tester at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. During mixed driving, we saw around 19, so the feds figures are spot on. Throwing an extra cog into the transmission would go a long way toward squeezing an extra mpg or two out of the SUV. Of course, losing a pound or hundred wouldn't hurt things, either.
Nestled behind that transmission is what Jeep calls its Quadra-Trac II four-wheel-drive system. With a bevy of settings (including ride-height adjustments) for nearly every type of off-road or slippery driving condition, the system is supposed to be to trails what a stand mixer is to baking – necessary.
Unfortunately, our time with the Grand Cherokee was abbreviated by a last-minute trip, so we weren't able to put the Grand Cherokee through its paces in the red clay of East Tennessee. Not that it's going to be asked to conquer the Sahara on a regular basis by average owners.
We can say with some authority that the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is as mild mannered while soft roading as one could possibly expect from of a vehicle that's still more an SUV than it's actual body-on-frame competitors. Chrysler has done a fantastic job with the suspension, providing a ride that soaks up breaks in pavement without succumbing to wallow or excessive body roll. Don't get us wrong, this isn't your momma's crossover, and as such, you can't expect to hustle it through a series of twists without appropriate amounts of understeer, but for a vehicle that we're told can keep pace with a Wrangler once the tarmac evaporates, it's an excellent driver.
Most domestic manufacturers seem to have finally gotten the memo that quiet means quality to the vast majority of buyers out there, and as such, the Grand Cherokee's cabin insulates you and yours from agitations like wind, road and engine noise. Really wind that 3.6-liter V6 up, though, and you will hear it sweating from the engine bay.
Jeep is asking around $30,215 for the base, two-wheel-drive version of the 2011 Grand Cherokee, though our nearly top-of-the-line tester hits the wallet for a more heady $43,695 with destination. Of course, that's with nearly every option the company could possibly cram into the truck with the exception of the mighty 5.7-liter V8. Speaking of that eight-pot, we've got to wonder if we'd opt for the more potent powerplant were it our name on the dotted line. At around two mpg less in both city and highway driving with an additional 70 horsepower, we'd certainly consider it. The sad fact is that the new V6 – or more accurately, the transmission – just doesn't offer enough in the way of fuel economy to warrant the hit in horsepower. There's some word that Chrysler will be bolting the Fiat Multiair system onto the Phoenix with significant increases in horsepower sometime soon. If that's the case, sign us up. Otherwise, we'll take the 5.7-liter, please.
Chrysler really has done something impressive with the 2011 Grand Cherokee. The company is plainly operating with a dearth of resources compared to both Ford and General Motors, but has managed to turn out a product capable of keeping pace, if not besting comparable metal, from those two at the same time. Here's hoping the Pentastar can pull off similar feats of engineering and accounting wizardry with the rest of its fleet.
Photos copyright ©2010 Zach Bowman / AOL