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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Bill Jackson
February 10, 2009
The Jeep Grand Cherokee came to our offices in the middle of winter, and it did a very good job tackling the subzero temperatures and mounds of snow on the ground. Still, it left me wondering if I would enjoy it in the summer — or over the long term, as its reliability has been judged to be poor. That's enough to cross most vehicles off my list right there.
Also, I must point out that this is a 2008 Jeep Grand Cherokee, and we're well into the 2009 model year. It's OK: The switch to digital TV isn't messing up your internet, too. It's just that between the 2008 and 2009 model years, the only things that changed were a new leather interior package and a redesigned Hemi, which the Jeep I drove didn't have; my test car had the 215-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 diesel engine. So when we got a 2008 in the driveway, we thought, "We can make this work."
Think of it this way: If you want a 2009 model, all you need to do is remember those few things that have changed. If you're looking at a 2008 model, well, we're happy to help. Exterior The previous-generation Grand Cherokee always struck me as having a too-short body on a too-high chassis — sort of like someone who stands 6-foot-4 and has a 54-inch inseam. The body was just too short. The new look is much better because it's more proportionate.
Still, it is an SUV, so one would expect it not to stray beyond the standard two-boxes-stacked-on-top-of-each-other shape, and it doesn't. It does have the traditional Jeep grille and roundish headlights, so it looks like a real Jeep, not a Johnny-come-lately imitator (that would be you, Hummer).
Also, for urban-dwellers, while it has a nice, high 8-inch ground clearance, it only stands a little more than 5 feet, 6 inches, so you don't have to worry about it fitting into most garages. Interior As noted, one of the changes this got from 2008 to 2009 was what Jeep calls an optional Leather Appearance Group on Limited and Overland models.
We had an Overland model with the old leather interior, and I have to say I was satisfied with it. Make no mistake — it's not the interior I would choose. I don't like light-colored interiors and I don't like wood trim, and as you can see from the photos, this SUV had both. I'm sorry, but wood trim almost always looks like plastic to me, especially when it's got a high-gloss finish.
What made me like the interior was that it seemed to be good quality. The brushed-metal trim in particular looked very nice, and it also had a tasteful amount of chrome accents. Since we had the top-of-the-line model, we had three 12-volt power outlets (there are two in the base model), auto-dimming rearview and driver's side mirrors, and an audio system with more gewgaws than I care to go into.
The cargo area deserves mention because it was large with the rear seats up, and when they were flopped over I had plenty of room for my cross-country skis. There's also a handy "load to this line" marking, so you know just how much room you have — no gently closing the hatch and hoping/praying you don't crush something. Finally, neither the cargo floor nor the height to which the rear hatch opens is so high that shorter people should have issues.
Speaking of the height-challenged, they'll love the rear seat, as it's sized just for them. Adults or long-legged children will have a hard time sitting behind a taller driver or front-seat passenger. That's not a big deal in my blissfully unmarried state, but the married folk will want to check that out.
Overall, like the exterior, what you have with the Grand Cherokee is a car that doesn't really look like anything but what it is. There's no faux-Euro styling, no slick, uber-technical holographic display, just simple gauges. I think it fits with the rough, tough image that Jeep likes to present. Media There are things about the Grand Cherokee I didn't like, but the touch-screen that controls the navigation and radio was the only source of outright frustration and rage I felt. So it gets its own, brief section.
The executive summary is this: Make sure you get the optional steering-wheel audio controls and learn how to use them. Otherwise, carrying out mundane tasks, such as switching from AM to FM, requires you to take your eyes off the road and punch at least two buttons on the touch-screen. It doesn't get easier the more often you do it.
If you've got the navigation system going, more touches are required to move from navigation to audio to what you wanted to do in the first place.
The steering-wheel controls, on the other hand, were extremely intuitive — I never had to look at the owner's manual to figure them out — and I was clicking through the various audio menus quickly. I only touched the screen when I wanted to fiddle with the navigation. That was a much better way to handle things.
Still, fiddling with anything on the touch-screen can be difficult because of one of the other issues with the Jeep: Its ride. The ride is stiff, so if you hit a bump it's almost a given that your finger will slip from one tiny button on the touch-screen to some other button you don't want. Sigh. Going & Stopping As I say, the ride is an "issue," but I can't really fault the Grand Cherokee for it because it was only a pain when using the touch-screen. Even when driving over rough roads, it didn't present itself as an annoyance.
Also, I think it's fair to say that the ride is stiff because the Grand Cherokee is a fully offroad-capable SUV. So, yeah, it ain't supple, but it is the way it is for a reason. If one wants a cushy ride, there are many, many other vehicles to try for that, but they won't carry you through much more than a gravel driveway.
The Grand Cherokee also feels heavy, but in a good way — like it's firmly planted on the road. That's a welcome sensation when you're driving through the snow, but it was the No. 1 thing whose potential annoyance I wondered about if I were to drive the Grand Cherokee when it was sunny and dry. I kept wondering if I'd want something lighter and more nimble on a nice day, or if I'd just tell myself, "Wait until winter. Things are always better with snow on the ground." There's just no way to answer that.
Another thing that made driving in snow easier was the fact that when you lifted off the accelerator, the Jeep slowed down. That may sound obvious, but trust me, most of the vehicles I drive these days don't; you lift off the pedal and the car doesn't slow, forcing you to brush the brakes. Is that the end of the world? Obviously not, but not having to touch the brakes on a snow-covered road is nice.
It should also be noted that it's common for diesels to provide more of this so-called engine braking than gasoline versions do, so this characteristic might not be present on gas-powered Grand Cherokees.
The enhanced engine braking was one of the few ways you'd notice this SUV was a diesel. Well, yes, you'd better notice when you go to fill up at a gas station, and, yes, if you're stopped at, say, a drive-thru or a tollbooth you will notice that the engine sounds a bit different. But it's nowhere near as loud or annoying as most heavy-duty truck diesel engines are, and nobody is going to mistake you for an 18-wheeler. There was a bit more noise in the extreme cold, but that died down once the engine warmed up. Either way, it wasn't a big deal.
There was a wonderful amount of torque both pulling away from lights and passing on the highway. Unlike vehicles that have to downshift, wind out the engine and scream to pass, this thing just pulls. I loved that. The diesel engine is available on all trims except the SRT8 for 2008.
A final word about diesel that, if you're experienced, you may skip: When your fuel gauge indicates you need to fill up, it's not like you have to look for a needle in a haystack in order to find diesel fuel. I found that the farther away I got from a major metropolitan area, the more likely I was to find it. What it boils down to is this: If you're down to a quarter tank and you see a sign that indicates the next station has diesel, pull in. Don't push on and hope the next station will have it, too. Pick the correct pump. Now fill up. Simple as that. Safety The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Jeep Grand Cherokee a Good rating in frontal-offset crash tests and a Marginal one in side-impact tests. (IIHS ratings are Good, Acceptable, Marginal and Poor.)
Side-impact airbags that protect the torso are not present for the front seats. The Grand Cherokee does comes with side curtain airbags for both the front and rear seats, as well as a standard electronic stability system and adjustable pedals. Grand Cherokee in the Market Because we had the top-of-the-line trim with all the gadgets, our Grand Cherokee was priced at $44,545, which is getting way up there in the midsize-SUV price range. That included the diesel engine option, which adds anywhere from $1,010 to $3,235 to the price, depending on what trim level you choose.
I think comparing this Grand Cherokee to crossovers such as the less expensive Lexus RX 350 or Mazda CX-7 misses the boat, because neither of them is offroad capable. Compared to more offroad-capable SUVs such as the Volkswagen Touareg 2 and Nissan Xterra, however, the Jeep feels like what a Jeep should be — a bit more rugged, a bit more, well, American. It's hard to describe, but basically you could strip away the branding, sit in this and say, "I bet this is a Jeep." I think that kind of distinct flavor is a good thing in the market. It's up to you if that "distinct flavor" is worth the $44,545 sticker price, especially when you consider the Xterra tops out at around $30,000.
Also — and this is a huge stumbling block for me — reliability for this model has been poor and is predicted to remain poor, according to Consumer Reports. With that in mind, the price looks much, much worse, especially given the fact that many of its cheaper competitors are more reliable. For instance, the Xterra is predicted by Consumer Reports to have better than average reliability. (Interestingly, the Touareg 2 tops out at nearly $49,000 and is also predicted to have much worse than average reliability.)
I guess what it comes down to is this: Are you willing to chance the poor reliability to get the offroad capability and personality? I'm pretty sure I'm not, especially in light of the Jeep's $44,000-plus price. A car that goes well in winter is only good if it actually goes.