There's a lot of nostalgia for '60s-era big-engined muscle cars -- but if you want "the experience" in something that's new, don't look at cars. Look at trucks and SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.

Six-point-one-liter V-8 engine. Check.

Heavyweight chassis. Roger that.

Pulls like a Kenworth in the hammer lane. Without a doubt.

Handles ... well, alright.

There you have it -- the muscle car experience. That it happens to come in the shape of an SUV doesn't change the sensations you get in any way at all. The only thing that's missing, really, is an Air Grabber hood scoop to go with the oversize Hemi under the hood.

Bear in mind that most of the original-era muscle cars were more like trucks, too. They were built on heavy steel subframes -- not unibodies -- and tended to have truck-style solid rear axles suspended by leaf springs not far removed from your grampa's F100. And they rode and handled accordingly. The automakers tightened 'em down with harder bushings and spring rates, even throwing in a sway bar or two sometimes. But it didn't change the nature of the beast much. These were brass-knuckled spit-in-your-eye rides.

So is the Cherokee SRT8. And that's why it's so wonderful.

Sure, it is civilized (somewhat) in that it comes with modern amenities like dual-zone climate control air conditioning, comfy seats, even an available rear-seat DVD entertainment system. Fine.

But at the heart of things you'll find pure caged fury -- a 415-hp Hemi barely held in check by the rest of the driveline. Despite weighing about 500 pounds more than a new Mustang GT -- and shouldering the inertial load of a permanent 4-wheel-drive system -- the thing still bum-rushes you to 60 mph in under 5 seconds flat. A '69 SS 396 with 4.11 gears and a Muncie rock crusher couldn't do it better. And the way the SRT8 snaps your neck back will bring back some very fond memories.

Keep your foot in it and more muscle car parallels will keep on rising up. Like the old bar fighters, the SRT8 is at its best ripping divots out of the the asphalt from a standing start up to about 100-something mph. Get into the triple digits, however, and you begin to experience the same things one encountered as the pilot of something like a 440 Magnum-equipped Plymouth GTX or SD-455 Trans-Am. The huge tires and lowered suspension help a lot, but there's only so much that can be done with what is, at its core, a vehicle built on truck-derived underpinnings and with as much (or more) unsprung mass to deal with than the entire audience of a Richard Simmons "Sweatin' to the Oldies" video. Both hands on the wheel, your grip ever tighter as the needle climbs. Things begin to get a little darty at 120. As the needle bears down on 130, the endlessly powerful Hemi is more than willing to push the envelope even further -- a lot further, actually -- but common sense tells you it's time to back off. A new Z06 'Vettte is rock solid at 130. It doesn't seem like that big a deal, really. But at 130 in the SRT8, you are increasingly aware of every MPH -- just like the good old days!

It's a risk and it's a challenge -- and that's what makes it so exciting to drive.

And (within reason) the SRT8 will handle better than you'd expect for such a tank. Like a tightly sprung muscle car, it feels heavy and grounded. There is no perceptible body lean when you dive hard into a corner, either -- courtesy of the lowering kit (one inch down from the standard Cherokee) high-rate springs, SRT dampers, revised suspension pieces (including unique-to-this-model knuckles with SRT-specific camber angles) and huge 20-inch rims with 255/45/20 W-rated Goodyears up front and even fatter 285/40/20 meats out back. Lift the hood and you'll see a tubular strut tower brace (to improve front end rigidity and limit flex).

When you approach the limits of all this stuff to keep that weight from sliding around like a punch-drunk palooka, the specially calibrated ESP traction/stability control system kicks in to keep you from harm. It will intervene if you forget what you're driving here -- even if you've hit the "off" button for the traction control. This is probably sound policy, because when a machine likes this gets pushed too far, there might be no pulling it back from the brink. Not unless the person behind the wheel has Dan Gurney's reflexes -- and the luck of Taylor Hicks.

Bottom line -- remember that it's not a Corvette and you'll be fine. Play with 'Vettes in straight line drags, sure. Just don't think for a minute that your muscle car (er, SUV) is a sports car. Or that it can be pushed as far without consequences. Again -- just like in the good old days!

The SRT8 does differ from the road goons of yore in several key respects, however. For one, it has brakes that can stand up to the drivetrain -- Brembo calipers at all four corners. Enough to stop the two-ton terror from 60 mph in just 125 feet. That is phenomenal performance for any kind of vehicle; for a mid-sized SUV, it is -- miraculous. No original muscle car had decent brakes; you were lucky if you even had discs up front. Let alone Brembos.

The Jeep's means of power delivery is also fully modern -- and pretty unique. While almost all new performance cars are rear-drive -- lotsa fun, but hard on the tires -- the SRT8 routes the juice through all four wheels, for hard launches that don't waste a drop abusing the tires but instead catapult you forward just like those afterburning F14s leaving the deck of the Abraham Lincoln on their way to pummel some unlucky bedouins. While the system is rear-biased (90-95 percent of engine power usually goes to the rear wheels), thrust can be modulated so that more power is routed to the front wheels as the rear wheels begin to approach their limit of grip. The SRT8 also gets the essentially indestructible and much-revered Dana 44 rear end -- along with a super duty driveshaft borrowed from the export market diesel version of the Grand Cherokee built to handle overkill torque output.

With a set-up like this, you're consistent as well as quick. Even drivers who know how to feather a clutch sometimes miss their cue; they bog it -- or they spin their tires. It looks impressive, yeah. But meanwhile, you are ... gone. And in much less than 60 seconds, too.

It's true there are other muscled-up SUVs out there -- models like the Porsche Cayenne, for example. But there is nothing with the blunderbuss power and old school animalism of this Jeep.

And the icing on the cake? It's only $39,300 -- for a bruiser that nut-kicks the Porsche Cayenne up and down the street -- and does it for almost $18k less than the 340-hp, $57,200 Cayenne S. And let's not even mention the Range Rover Sport. Ok, let's. $69,535 for the supercharged version -- and you're still only getting 390-hp.

Oh, I know -- those are "prestige" brand vehicles. But it's just as fun to slap them around in a new Cherokee SRT8 as it was back in the '60s to embarrass Ferraris in Fords.

It all brings back lots of fond memories. No matter what you want to call it.

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