2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

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I think I know how they felt.

You know, the guys reviewing the final cadre of muscle cars in the early 70s. They knew the show was almost over, the lights about to go out for good. Time for one final fling, a last dance. For within a year or two, they’d all be gone. No more really big V-8s; no more really high horsepower.

Power did make a comeback. But muscle cars never really did. (The current Camaro, Challenger and Mustang are certainly performance cars, but they are no more muscle cars than Freedom Tower will be the new World Trade Center; you can’t go back. The past is gone).

Anyhow, I felt what those guys in the ’70s must’ve felt during the week I had the new Jeep Grand Cherokee because its kind is already almost extinct and this one’s very likely one of the last of the line – even though it is brand-new.

$4 gas (probably $5 by summer) is going to see to that – and even if it doesn’t, federal fuel-economy laws (CAFE) that will require all new vehicles to average 35 MPG just a couple of years down the road from now will probably seal the deal.

So, enjoy it while you still can – for the odds are they shall not pass this way again.

WHAT IT IS

The Grand Cherokee is one of the few remaining “real deal” off-road-capable mass-market mid-sized SUVs. It’s built on a heavy-duty chassis and is available with rugged 4WD (not car-type and light duty AWD like the 2011 Ford Explorer) and still offers a big V-8 (unavailable in the otherwise similar Toyota 4Runner).

Prices start at $30,215 for the Laredo with 2WD and 3.6 liter V-6.

A top of the line Overland has a sticker price of $38,410.

With the Ford Explorer now basically an AWD minivan in SUV drag, the Grand Cherokee has only a small handful of direct competitors left.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2011

The Grand Cherokee is completely redesigned for 2011. It is a showcase for several of Chrysler Corp’s post-bankruptcy great leaps forward (hopefully), including the very impressive 3.6 liter V-6 engine that’s so powerful (and fuel efficient) it may lead to the eventual retirement of the Hemi V-8 in this application – or at least, make it unnecessary for most buyers.

WHAT’S GOOD

It’s still a real-deal SUV; you can go off-road, do serious work and pull real loads (up to 7,400 pounds) with it. (With the new Explorer and other car-based, light-duty “crossovers,” you can’t.) 

Standard V-6 is V-8 powerful and doesn’t drink gas like an SR-71 on afterburners.

Almost-Land Rover refinement inside – and on the road, too.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

$4 gas is here – and $5 gas is probably on the way.

Optional Hemi V-8 does drink gas like an SR-71 on afterburners (13 MPG city).

It’s not a Land Rover – and the economically impaired working and middle class is increasingly unable to afford (or afraid to buy) $30,000 SUVs.

Hot rod (and super gas hog) SRT-8 version may sleep with the fishes.

Benz-sourced turbo-diesel engine that’s available in export markets not available here.

UNDER THE HOOD

The ’11 GC has a mighty new powerplant – and an even mightier old one.

Standard is a 3.6 liter, 290 hp V-6; it’s an all-new engine, made entirely of alloy and featuring variable valve timing, that’s designed to help resuscitate Jeep (and more so, parent company, Chrysler’s) fortunes. Though smaller than the GC’s previously standard 3.7 liter V-6, the new engine produces 80 more hp while also being a little bit easier on gas.

The 3.7 liter engine in the 2010 GC was rated 16 city, 21 highway – godawful numbers for a V-6 that produced a measly 210 hp.

The new 3.6 liter engine matches the 3.7 liter engine’s city mileage and beats it slightly on the highway (22 MPGs). It’s still not great on gas, but with 290 hp available (24 more hp than the Nissan Pathfinder’s standard V-6; 20 more hp than the Toyota 4Runner’s 270 hp V-6) it’s adequate, which the old V-6 wasn’t. You don’t have to upgrade to the even hungrier 5.7 liter Hemi V-8. The V-6 will definitely get the job done.

But if you do need more, then by all means go for the Hemi. It rates 360 hp for 2011 – making it (by far) the strongest V-8 available in a $30k-ish, mid-sized SUV (the Nissan Pathfinder’s available 5.6 liter, 310 hp V-8 comes in second; the 2011 Toyota 4Runner doesn’t offer a V-8 engine at all).

But the Hemi is thirsty: 13 city, 19 highway.

It does deliver very strong acceleration (0-60 in about 6.8-6.9 seconds ) but so does the 3.6 liter engine (0-60 in about 7.5-8 seconds flat).

Both engines come with five-speed automatics and either RWD or (optionally) one of three different 4WD systems, including a full-time system without Low range gearing (Quadra-Trac 1), plus a Land Rover-like driver-selectable terrain-adjusting system with positions for Snow, Sport, Mud/Gravel and Rock Climb – plus 4WD Low range gearing (Quadra-Trac II) and, lastly, a hard-core version with the terrain-adjusting system, 4WD Low range gearing and a pair of electrically controlled limited-slip axles (Quadra-Drive II). If you go with the top-of-the-line Overland version of the GC, you’ll also get the Quadra-Lift suspension that raises or lowers ride height either automatically to suit conditions or manually, by driver input.

Max tow capacity is a brawny 7,400 pounds – significantly higher than the 5,000 lb. maximum rating of the 2011 Ford Explorer and 2011 Toyota 4Runner.

It’s also 1,000 lbs. more than the Nissan Pathfinder can pull (6,000 lbs., max).

ON THE ROAD

It’s amazing that a vehicle this capable off-road is so nice to drive on-road.

I’ve been off-roading with Jeep and know for a fact that this thing can keep up with an old Bronco or International Scout off-road. But those old 4x4s are as punishing on-road as a week spent in Abu Ghraib. You pretty much had to have a “street” car for everyday use.

The GC, you can drive to the ravine – through the ravine – then back home again.

The reason? An all-new four-corner air suspension – and no more solid rear axle. The new set-up is similar to what you’d find in something much more expensive, such as the Land Rover LR4. It allows each wheel to articulate with the terrain – and absorb potholes – instead of transferring the shock and vibration to the occupants through the chassis like the ringing of a big brass bell. The track has been widened, too – another stability enhancer. The ’11 GC is 2.6 inches thicker through the hips. It might not squeeze through a few extreme tight spots off-road, but those are scenarios that probably 99.8 percent of owners will never have to deal with anyhow. Meanwhile, you’ve also got more elbow room, both front and back. 

But the biggest stability-enhancer and on-road ride improver is probably the new model’s much longer, almost limousine-like wheelbase – 114.8 inches vs. 109.5 inches previously. That’s a 5.3 inch stretch job. For some perspective, the ’11 GC’s wheelbase is now only three inches less than a Lincoln Town Car’s (117 inches) but the overall length of the ’11 GC is only about an inch more than before (189.8 inches for the ’11 vs. 188 for the old model) and two feet less than a Town Car!

The result is – in my opinion, after a week in the new GC – the best-riding real-deal 4×4 on the road that’s not also $50,000 or more.  

It still has the same tight turning circle as before, too – just over 37 feet.

It also has more ground clearance: 8.7 inches vs. 8.2 before. You can kneel it down 1.5 inches from the standard setting to clear low-hanging fruit (and ceilings) or jack it up 4.5 inches to avoid floorpan dents from big rocks in your path.

The other major mention is the new “Pentastar” V-6 engine.

In the previous GC, the base V-6 was a disaster. It was ancient, underpowered – and it sucked gas. You pretty much had to upgrade to the V-8 to get a decent performing vehicle. Sure, the V-8 ate gas like a ’66 Chrysler Imperial – but at least it moved.

The V-6 ate gas – and didn’t

Now, you don’t have to buy the Hemi. It’s nice that it’s there, for those who want the booster shot – or need the maximum tow capacity. But the standard 290 hp V-6 will likely prove adequate for most buyers, especially suburbanites who spend most of their driving time driving in stop-and-go traffic. The Hemi never gets out of the teens – even on the highway. But if you drive the V-6 reasonably – keep it under 70 and don’t floor it all the time – and low-mid 20s are doable. I did it. At $4 per gallon, that matters.

If gas gets to $5 a gallon, it may prove critical.

AT THE CURB

The new shape is swoopier and more crossover-like than before, which you may like or not, depending on your tastes. Some may prefer the boxier, more rugged-look of the old model – but there’s no argument about the improved aerodynamics (and reduced wind noise at highway speeds) that the slick new bodyshell provides.

Inside, you’ll find a cabin that’s now comparable to the best on the market in this price range (and then some) vs. noticeably below standard, as was the case with the previous GC. Top-of-the-line Overland models come swathed in leather, with individual sections stitched together just as you’d find in $50,000 lux models such as the LR4 or a Benz G-class. The door panels are sculpted out, with high-line-looking wood or graphite-style inserts that wrap-around the dash, continuing to the doors and tapering off toward the rear. The steering wheel’s finished in half wood (top section) and half leather. The creamy leather seats have contrast-color piping; sharp-looking pewter-aluminum covers and trim plates finish it all off.

Nice.

You can order a dual-section Panorama sunroof, heated front and rear seats and a Media Center package that bundles GPS navigation (with real-time traffic updates) and a premium audio system with 30GB music storage hard drive. Massive 20 inch wheels are also available.

But even the standard Laredo is handsomely fitted out with much-improved materials, fit and finish vs. the old GC. It also comes standard with dual-zone AC, keyless ignition, power driver’s seat, leather trim and a six-speaker stereo with Sirius-XM.

I could not find a single thing worth complaining about in this Jeep. It is much nicer in every respect than the competition – which now look and feel like the Cheapies, rather than the reverse.

THE REST

There is only one thing wrong with the new Grand Cherokee: It is a vehicle that may no longer fit the times. While there will likely always be a market niche for high-end SUVs (rich people don’t care about gas mileage and can afford to pay $40,000 and up for a vehicle that gets 16 MPGs) the market for mass-market SUVs is declining along with the middle and working classes’ ability to purchase such vehicles.

As I write this review in late winter 2011, gas prices have jumped more than 30 cents in two weeks and seem to be headed to $4 before the end of March. Gas prices will almost certainly continue to go up as warm weather arrives – very possible hitting $5 per gallon. Maybe more. If that happens, it will be the death knell of the GC and all others like it.

Who is going to buy a vehicle that costs $125 to fill-up?

I’d be sweating if I were Fiat – Chrysler-Jeep’s new management.

THE BOTTOM LINE

It really sucks that the best GC ever built got built at what may prove to be the worst possible time for a vehicle like the GC.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  2 comments for “2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

  1. March 30, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Curious about the diesal, while you can’t buy the prebuilt vehicle for import, can you buy the engine seperate and import it to install after the fact? A thought as to a way around the issue. In the military many GI’s bought overseas and then shipped the cars back as “personal property” to get around restrictions. While certain modifications were required to get street legal, particularly in certain states, it still worked out as a good deal. I just note we keep seeing the issue of great diesal alternatives that the cartel assholes running the machine keep blocking.

    • March 30, 2011 at 7:09 pm

      The individual owner can modify the vehicle; but it would likely be cost-prohibitive to do it. I think it’d be easier – and cheaper – to just buy an older model that originally came with the diesel.

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