By on July 5, 2010

Behold the mighty off-road prowess of the Grand Cherokee SRT-8! Yes, my ratty-looking lawn is about as far off-road as most JGCs ever go. The 2011 Grand Cherokee even offers a couple of optimized drivetrain-and-suspension setups for those people who, as the nice Jeep PR man said during the introduction, “only go off-road… in their minds.”

The autojourno business is an odd one. Your not-so-humble author was one of the first people to have the chance to drive the 2011 JGC anywhere, and also very possibly the last journo on the planet to obtain a 2010 Grand Cherokee as a press vehicle. I’d like to think that, at the moment I achieved 88 miles per hour in the 2011 truck, I went back in time and successfully snagged a 2010 as a loaner.

There’s no SRT-8 in the 2011 lineup, although I strongly suspect there will be one debuting later on in the year, so if you want the combination of big-cube HEMI and Brembo brakes in your SUV, this is your only choice for now. The question is: with the demonstrated excellence of the new model, is there any reason at all to choose a 2010?

If you’ve just stepped out of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, stepping into the 2010 will shock you. The ergonomics are all wrong — at least, they are for me at 6’2″, 225lbs, and a 48 Long suit size — and the steering wheel seems to sit in one’s lap. The rear seat is cramped, as was the case in all Grand Cherokees prior to the new model, and the general state of trim quality seems a bit low for a $49,000 vehicle (as tested). I compared this back-to-back with my Ford Flex Limited and Audi S5; the Jeep comes in a distant third for interior ambiance. The dashboard and center stack, in particular, aren’t up to the standards of the class.

The instrument panel itself has a few nice surprises. It’s well-trimmed, with convincing chrome rings and two high-resolution two-line LCD displays. One of those displays can be configured on-the-fly to record g-force in four directions and time to distance for braking and acceleration. Set the display for 0-60, apply the brake, use the throttle to strain the big HEMI against the four big red Brembo brakes to the tune of 2200rpm or so, and release the brake when the light turns green. Instant no-hassle 5.0-second 0-60, with passengers, just about perfect, every time. If that sounds slow by magazine standards, don’t be fooled. Most exotic cars struggle to break five seconds to sixty in the real world, on dirty roads, with a slight curve or hill thrown in. The SRT-8 is extremely quick.

I find the first-to-second shift performed by the Mercedes-sourced WA580 transmission particularly charming. There’s a very brief ignition cutout during the shift, which happens with almost DSG speed, and when the ignition switches back on there’s a wonderful “brap” as the motor re-fires as the new, lower rev level. It’s pretty much the same thing you get with a PDK-equipped Porsche or a Nissan GT-R.

Both of those cars, by the way, will need to stay on their toes around the SRT-8. A normally-aspirated 911 won’t keep up with this truck from a slow roll, and the Grand Cherokee is capable of stealing a car length or two on a GT-R until the turbos really wake up. The 6.1-liter V8 may drink fuel at a rate that seems astonishing by modern standards — I recorded 15.5 average on the freeway and 10-11 during my two-lane commute, about which more in a moment — but it does the business in a straight line.

My current daily commute takes me about 108 miles from my front door to the garage at Switzer Performance. About thirty-five miles of that happens on Ohio two-lanes in “Amish country”. The roads are marked 55 and 65, but the traffic commonly crawls at 35 to 50, slowed down by tanker trucks struggling on hills and the desperate, rural poor in death-rattling old Cavaliers, trying to make it to work or their crystal-meth lab. In these situations, every possible pass has to be made, every time, no exceptions, no waiting. The difference between making every pass and waiting behind traffic is, literally, ninety minutes of commuting time every day.

Not every car is perfectly suited for this. My Boxster S is absolutely lousy, since I can’t see around the pickup trucks and it requires snagging second gear to step out with alacrity from behind the traffic. My S5 is better, since it has torque. A GT-R is better still, since it requires less space. Best of all is the Grand Cherokee SRT-8. The infamous “high and mighty” view, toned-down a touch by the low suspension, allows me to see the pass. The HEMI allows me to make the pass, and the Brembos allow me a solid haul-down back into the traffic line if I can’t snag everybody in one run. No, the Brembos probably aren’t enough for track work, since this truck weighs 5300 pounds, but for wiping off fifty or sixty miles per hour in a single press, they are spectacular.

The only fly in this back-road ointment is, regrettably, the SRT-8′s solid rear axle. Not all SRA cars are terrifying on rough roads — see “Ford Mustang, post-2005″ for an example of one that’s more than okay — but the Jeep’s weight, size, and rollover point combine to obtain one’s full attention when hitting potholes, pavement waves, or uneven patching. At full speed, the back end will step out, and the stability control seems to have little to say about it. After a few all-hands-on-deck episodes, I learned to be very careful about applying full throttle on broken pavement. The new SRT-8, when it arrives, won’t suffer from that problem.

Let’s tally up the pros and cons of buying a 2010 SRT-8. Pros: you can buy one now. You can get a hell of a deal. They retain their value in the used market and are likely to do so. It’s fast. It’s comfy enough for front-seaters. Cons: the new one is better in every single way, it will probably have more power, and your children/parents/other rear-seat denizens will thank you profusely.

Speaking personally, I’d wait for the 2011. If you want a truck now, then the SRT-8 makes a solid case for itself. You won’t go faster for less money in a truck, and you won’t really go much faster for two or three times the price. The mechanicals are well-proven, and you won’t have a hard time selling it. I wouldn’t blame you for pulling the trigger today, but don’t blame me when you see that the next one is far, far better, okay?

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