The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is fabulous.
I didn't know what I expected, but I didn't imagine such a refined, sharply dressed, and nicely appointed piece of Detroit iron as I drove last week. The Grand Cherokee unequivocally earns the grand part of its name.
In the past, this Jeep was a great off-road machine with bulldozer refinement. The shiny plastic dash looked like it was a byproduct of something washing up on a Mississippi shoreline.
Now, the Grand Cherokee is the complete package, better inside and outside, on the road and off.
It's been a long time in the making. The Grand Cherokee redesign -- this is the fourth generation -- has endured three companies and a handful of CEOs, all of whom wanted to leave their oily thumb prints on it.
When Fiat SpA took over after Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy, the company went nearly silent. Little news came from Auburn Hills -- except the Fiat manifesto revealed in November -- and no new vehicles appeared other than the Dodge Ram HD.
In Detroit, we wept quietly. New hoods on the Chrysler Sebring and some shiny plastic vents tossed around for "refreshed" vehicles were automotive Band-Aids to a blown oil pan; they weren't fooling anyone.
We prematurely mourned for the Grand Cherokee.
But maybe the death knell we thought we heard echoing from Auburn Hills was actually Jeep designers and engineers scurrying to finish a masterpiece. Man, they've been busy.
The 2011 Grand Cherokee, rolling off a Detroit assembly line and heading to dealerships right now, glides along the road like a luxury crossover and then chews up rocky trails like it has tracks. Jeep's flagship is one of the few remaining vehicles that can plant his majesty's banner atop any hill and still remain fit for a king.
It's the only one with a starting price of $30,000.
Pentastar V-6 adds horsepower
The all-new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission is pure heaven. The 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque give the Grand Cherokee plenty of power and gusto.
Along the highway, the Grand Cherokee can hit 80 mph easily and there's still something left in the tank if you need a little more. (Compared to the outgoing V-6, the Pentastar provides 38 percent more horsepower.) The engine manages a respectable 23 mpg on the highway and 16 mpg in the city; in mixed driving, I averaged 22 mpg, according to the computer readout.
Then there's the 5.7-liter V-8. Jeep plays down the fact this engine is so similar to the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that it actually is the Hemi V-8. There's not a badge on the SUV's exterior extolling that it's got a Hemi. My, how times change. You can still have a big V-8; just don't tell your neighbors.
But it rumbles like a Hemi, providing 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque, while also offering the ability to shut off four cylinders to improve the vehicle's overall gas mileage. (If you open the hood, Hemi is proudly recognized, but that's it.) This is the engine for people who need to tow something big -- though the smaller V-6 can still manage to pull 5,000 pounds.
Both vehicles provide extremely smooth and quiet rides thanks to suspension and chassis improvements, aerodynamic enhancements as well as sound-deadening done to the Grand Cherokee.
For performance, Jeep added an optional air suspension that can adjust the vehicle's ride height from 8.1 inches of ground clearance to 11.2 inches.
Finally, it will drop the Grand Cherokee 1.5 inches when you park it, just to make it a little easier to get in and out -- kind of like those city buses, but better.
Jeep also has added a Selec-Terrain system, similar to the one found in Land Rover. This allows you to tell the Grand Cherokee what terrain is under its tires. It will make a series of adjustments to match the conditions by adjusting up to the 12 different powertrain, braking and suspension systems.
Designers softened up the Grand Cherokee's exterior while adding to its abilities. The lines are classic Grand Cherokee, only refined for the next decade.
By extending the wheelbase 5 inches, the ride was smoothed out and a lot more interior space was created. (There is an additional 4 inches of legroom in the second row).
Jeep avoided the mistake of simply building a bigger SUV. Overall, the new Grand Cherokee is only 1.5 inches longer and 2 inches wider.
But what a great use of space.
Instrument panel has an LCD screen
The Grand Cherokee interior is beautiful not only for a Jeep, but for any vehicle.
The are more soft touch points on the Jeep Grand Cherokee than on a newborn's head.
The instrument panel was redesigned with easy-to-read gauges and a small LCD screen between the speedometer and tachometer scrolls through a variety of information.
The center stack is smartly organized and easy to use. At its base is a well-placed opening that can easily hold an iPod and cell phone.
Of course, with the Bluetooth connectivity, there's no reason to pick up your phone because you can just touch a button on the three-spoke steering wheel to answer the phone.
And the steering wheel is thick and heavy in your hands. It feels good.
There were only the most minor of complaints inside the cabin, as if Jeep ran out of time finishing the littlest of details, such as the Selec-Terrain switches, which felt flat and hard.
But those are easily overlooked when you see how well this vehicle is crafted.
There are LED lights in the doors, a nicely backlit gauge, a roomy second row and lots of storage throughout the cabin.
This is the grand touring vehicle that can bring along a boat for outdoor excursions or just people for a night on the town.
In a single day, I took the Grand Cherokee from San Francisco Bay to a narrow mountain pass to a scenic trek along the Pacific Coast Highway. Every moment, the Grand Cherokee outperformed my expectations.
Rugged, refined and fun, the 2011 Grand Cherokee marks the rebirth of a vehicle that many, myself included, thought had disappeared for good.
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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Type: Five-passenger rear or four-wheel drive premium SUV.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
3.6-liter: 290 horsepower; 260 pound-feet torque
5.7-liter: 360 horsepower; 390 pound-feet torque
EPA gas mileage
3.6-liter (2WD): 16 mpg city / 23 mpg highway
5.7-liter (4WD): 13 mpg city / 19 mpg highway
Exterior: Good. Smooth, elegant lines. Keeps its truck looks but much more refined.
Interior: Excellent. Well laid out with high grade materials and nice soft touch points.
Performance: Excellent. On road it's quiet and powerful. Off road it can do more than you'll ever ask.
Pros: The complete package for hitting the trails or going to the opera. It fits almost every occasion.
Cons: The low gas mileage may discourage some consumers.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair *
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