By on November 30, 2004

Kindler gentler grill, more aerodynamic to boot.Jeep's latest ads ask SUV buyers to believe that the new Grand Cherokee is a pleasure to drive on-road. It's a stunning example of "the big lie" (people are more likely to believe a massive deception than a little one). If there's one thing that the heavily revised Grand Cherokee does badly– like any two-ton SUV– it's handle on-road. The SUV floats alarmingly over dips and crests, shudders disturbingly over bumps and holes, and leans precipitously through the twisties. I'd no sooner blast a Grand Cherokee around a sharp corner than I'd drive an Enzo on the Rubicon.

Ah, the Rubicon. Also known as the McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road, the unpaved trail runs 12 miles through California's rugged High Sierra Mountains. On the official off-roaders' difficulty scale of one to 10, the boulder-strewn, gully-infested Rubicon rates a 24. (As one veteran mud plugger puts it, the only part of a vehicle that's not likely to break on the Con is the radiator cap.) To qualify as "trail rated", a Jeep product must have enough traction, ground clearance, maneuverability, articulation and water fording to tackle the Rubicon.

Trail rated Jeep stays true to its roots.Well, maybe not the Rubicon. In fact, the Con would turn a stock Grand Cherokee into scrap sooner than you could say 'I TOLD you we needed bigger tires and a LOT more ground clearance'. Even so, Jeep's trail-rating criteria guarantees that the Cherokee is a seriously capable off-roader.

Yes, but who needs a trail-rated SUV to pick-up the kids from school or brave the supermarket parking lot? Well, um, no one. And while Chrysler PR reports that more Grand Cherokee owners go off-road than drivers of the SUV's "primary competitors" (20% vs. 11% for the Chevy Trailblazer and 7% for the Ford Explorer), there's no getting around the fact the vast majority of Grand Cherokee tires will spend their working life kissing tarmac. You know it. Jeep knows it. And that's why they want you to believe that they've civilized the Grand Cherokee.

Rear three-quarter shows where they found the extra room: in the back.As long as you avoid the whole handling issue, it's hard to argue the point. For one thing, the new Grand Cherokee's cabin is as comfortable as the interior of a properly appointed sedan. The upmarket Grand Cherokee Limited combines sturdy, supportive leather with tasteful wood and high-grade plastics. Well-fed adults will still find the rear perches a bit cramped, but at least the legroom no longer threatens deep vein thrombosis. And when you're not head banging to the Boston Acoustics sound system, the Grand Cherokee's build quality provides a suitably hushed atmosphere for intelligent conversation.

Like how the Grand Cherokee's exterior betrays Jeep's desire to join the automotive mainstream. The "box on stilts" look that used to embody and project the Grand Cherokee's utility has been discreetly softened. The new shape is longer, lower and wider, with a steeply raked (not to say rakish) windscreen. The brand's new face– rounded headlights and housings and a deep chin spoiler– exemplifies the move away from Jeep's Army surplus design heritage, towards a more modern, Orvis-like sensibility.

Some bigger wheels and tires would toughen-up the image, but at what cost to the already compromised on-road ride and handling?What's more, the Grand Cherokee has an entirely refined powerplant– in a Boeing turbofan kinda way. In fact, the 330-horse, 5.7-liter lump lurking in the engine bay makes the new Limited the scramjet of mid-priced SUV's. OK, zero to sixty in 6.59 seconds isn't exactly sub-orbital. Still, unlike its classmates, the Grand Cherokee can get out of its own way– fast. It leaps off the line so quickly you can feel the rear 17's squirming for traction. At higher speeds, the Hemi-powered Limited loses much of its accelerative aggression, but maintains its ability to cruise without complaint.

Until you come to a corner. Just how bad is the Grand Cherokee's on-road handling? After all, Jeep's engineers have given the new model an independent front suspension, five-link rear suspension, rack and pinion steering, grippy all-season rubber and, should all that fail, ABS and ESP. Let's put it this way: if you drive to live, the Grand Cherokee's bouncy ride and skittish handling aren't dire enough to distract you from your lite rock radio. If, however, you live to drive, perhaps sir or madam would like to consider another, more laterally gifted member of the DCX family?

The new Jeep Grand Cherokee transforms the old 'box on stilts' into a more suave-looking urban dweller-- that can still kick off-road buttThat is, unless, you're an enthusiast who likes to journey into the great American outback. Then it's yee flipping hah! I caned the Grand Cherokee at my local off-road course and had myself a peak experience. With Quadra Drive II, Jeep's latest four-wheel-drive system, it was point and scoot. Blasting over hill and dale, I discovered that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is to rocks and inclines what a Porsche 911 is to tight corners.

However dubious the Grand Cherokee's on-road manners, you gotta respect its off-road prowess, and Jeep's decision not to abandon their trail rated roots. If the new Grand Cherokee is still better on back roads than paved ones, so be it. There are plenty of SUVs that are mediocre on both. As Roman General Julius Caesar said when leading his troops across the original Rubicon river, 'alea iacta est'. The die is cast.

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