The Morning Call and's view

I’m behind the wheel of Jeep’s new Grand Cherokee, sumptuously detailed in leather and wood, powered by Chrysler’s Hemi V-8 attached to a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system. There’s a DVD-entertainment system for the rear seat and an artfully-sculpted instrument panel.

Trail-rated? Who cares.

This new Grand Cherokee is way too nice to take into a mud-bog, even though it can handle it. It’s perfect for a night at the opera or a day in the dirt. OK, sure. The last Grand Cherokee could do the same. But it’s bulldog-tough stance was matched by bulldog manners.

The styling looks much like the previous generation, but integrates the Liberty/Wrangler’s round headlamps and seven-slot grille. It’s quite handsome, even sophisticated.

There are two trim levels, base Laredo and luxury-trimmed Limited.

While rear-wheel-drive models are available, about three-quarters of Grand Cherokee buyers will opt for one of three four-wheel-drive systems.

There’s Quadra-Trac I, which is an all-wheel-drive system with traction control. Next comes Quadra-Trac II, which adds a low-range gear for more serious mudslingers. Finally comes Quadra-Drive II, which has all-wheel-drive, a two-speed transfer case and electronic locking differentials. For the first time, electronic stability control is offered on a Jeep. It’s standard on the Limited, but a $500 option on Laredo. Side curtain air bags are optional on all models at $490.

There are three engines.

First choice is a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter single-overhead-cam V-6 used in the smaller Jeep Liberty, a 235-horsepower 4.7-liter single-overhead-cam V-8 and a 330-horsepower 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, which can tow 7,200 pounds yet returns 14 mpg city, 21 mpg highway. Anti-lock brakes and a five-speed automatic transmission are standard.

Jeep provided a Hemi-powered Limited with Quadra-Drive II for testing.

And was it quick.

It’s enough to make you drive around town mumbling, “So you’re feeling lucky, punk?” in your best Clint Eastwood accent. OK, maybe you wouldn’t, but I did.

Interestingly, the 5.7-liter V-8 returns mileage equal to or better than the smaller 4.7-liter V-8 due to its “Displacement on Demand” feature, which deactivates up to four cylinders to conserve fuel at highway cruising speeds. The upside is good fuel economy. The downside is that when more power is needed, there’s a momentary lag until the cylinders kick in.

Still, this rig outruns many sports sedans. With an independent front suspension, as well as a modern rack-and-pinion steering system, it makes this new Jeep feel positively “tossable,” even if it’s not as tossable as car-based crossover SUVs. But its cornering is much better than its truck-based competition.

Ride motions are very well-controlled, with only a hint of float. Its quiet cabin and good road manners only accentuate the refined interior.

The front seat grab handles are especially clever, molded into the front windshield pillars. The comfy front bucket seats could use better side bolstering. Leg and head room were good up front. Rear-seat passengers will find the seat cushion a little low, and leg room a little cramped. In this regard, it’s not much different from the old model.

The Grand Cherokee has only two rows of seats, a third row isn’t offered. As a result, cargo room is excellent. There’s even a clever panel that flips over to become a rubberized tray.

Electronically, this vehicle has all the mod cons. A GPS Navigation system, rear-seat DVD, Boston Acoustics audio, hands-free communication system, power adjustable pedals, rain-sensing automatic wipers, automatic dimming rearview mirror, Sirius satellite radio, and a rear park assistance system are available, but feel alien to this vehicle’s DNA.

It’s as if your uncle from the country suddenly showed up at a family reunion sporting an Armani suit.

Thankfully, there’s still an off-road package with tow hooks and skid plates as well as an engine block heater for the truly trail-afflicted.

After all, this is still a Jeep.

Prices start at $26,230 for a two-wheel-drive Laredo, $28,200 for 4×4 Laredo. The test vehicle started at $34,145, but topped out at an eye-popping $41,385.

Whether buyers will want a Jeep this fully loaded is questionable, though no one can question the Grand Cherokee’s refined off- and on-road capability, handsome looks and Hemi power.

And with an interior handsome enough to call home, you’ll be tempted to call in an interior decorator.


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