Several years ago, I paid heed to my inner child and attended Iron Maiden’s “Aces (Very) High Tour”. During one of the breaks, singer Bruce Dickinson said, “I don’t know what’s going on. We’re still making records, and I think they’re pretty good. But nobody on the radio wants to play them. They don’t play that kind of music now. Even if people want to hear it.” Intrigued by his comment, I bought the new Maiden record. He’s right. It’s pretty good, even if the music industry has moved on. It’s also a completely standard, formulaic effort that sounds exactly like every Iron Maiden record after their final burst of creativity, “Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.”
What if… the new Iron Maiden record had been a double album, with the first disc being an absolutely perfect distillation of every previous record, and the second one being ten jazz standards, all performed to the highest standard of musicianship? Would anybody buy it, or would they still line up for the latest MP3s from the Silversun Pickups? That’s the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee in a nutshell. It’s staggeringly competent off-road, but it’s also an absurdly composed, quiet, and comfortable freeway cruiser. Are you interested, or would you rather have a GMC Acadia?
I’m an absolutely lousy off-road driver. When I’m on my own, I get stuck at least half the time. I require constant hand-holding from spotters and I barely understand the basic concepts involved in clearly obstacles. In other words, I’m the off-road equivalent of the average journalist on-road. The Grand Cherokee, however, was perfectly willing to do all the work for me on a rather technical and difficult sand course at Hollister Hills in NorCal. The new Selec-Terrain rotary controller mimics Land Rover’s “Terrain Response”, and it’s teamed with a first-for-Jeep “Quadra-Lift” air suspension. It can lift the “JGC” to eleven inches off the ground or drop it for passenger loading.
There are two off-road-oriented AWD systems available. Quadra-Trac II has an intelligent center diff and a brake-operated traction control system all the way ’round. Quadra-Drive II adds an electronically-controlled LSD in the rear. Both variants feature a hill descent control that also works in reverse to permit a safe back-out from over-enthusiastic climbing attempts. Using a V-6 powered, Quadra-Lift-and-Quadra-Drive-II Grand Cherokee Overland, I was simply unable to get myself stuck. Even the most rookie moves, like stopping just short of the breakover point on a sand-covered rock, couldn’t faze the Jeep. Applying any amount of throttle simply “tells” the Grand Cherokee to find the wheel with traction and gently feed it through until the obstacle is cleared. It’s the next best thing to the off-road ideal of triple locking diffs… hell, it might be better for those of us who are clueless about how to maintain traction.
You get the idea. Although this is the first Grand Cherokee to have IRS all the way ’round, the off-road ability has been manifestly improved by the additional ground clearance and the available intelligent drive systems. The notion of off-road supremacy is a core part of the Jeep “brand fundamentals”, and it’s present and accounted for here. In the real world, however, these trucks rarely leave the tarmac, and that is why Jeep and Land Rover are not the leading volume nameplates in this segment. Real-world buyers want real-world usability, and that’s where the Grand Cherokee has fallen far behind the car-based competition.
Chrysler’s chosen to address this deficiency in the most aggressive way possible. The new JGC still looks like a Grand Cherokee, but the visual similarity hides larger rear doors, four desperately-needed inches of rear-seat room, and a class-competitive interior package. Interior materials are of similar quality to what you’d find in a Flex, and if the uConnect isn’t even close to SYNC in terms of usability and eye appeal, the Jeep has an Audi-style multicolor display between the tach and speedometer that can be very addicting to use. Active Cruise Control is available and it works better than it does in the competition, permitting a closer gap and “falsing” less often on two-lane roads.
The new Pentastar V-6 is the engine the Grand Cherokee has needed for eighteen years. It’s an oversquare engine, revs with alacrity, and returns 23mpg in RWD variants. It has more than enough power off-road and on fast roads. The only reason to choose the cylinder-deactivating HEMI would be to bump the tow rating from 5000 to 7400 pounds; the Pentastar is that good.
Nor does the chassis let the motor down. It’s possible to have your JGC completely optimized for on-road use; in addition to the RWD model, there’s a no-low-gear, no-touch AWD system available. Either can be had with 20″ wheels and reasonably sticky rubber. The 17″ and 18″-wheeled off-road variants, however, can still hustle on-road. It’s possible to easily double posted corner speeds and tuck into the triple digits between turns on twisty two-lanes. I’ve been on BMWCCA “fast road drives” where this JGC would have been twenty miles ahead by lunchtime. Don’t expect a Chevy Traverse or RX350 to come close to the Grand Cherokee on a twisty road.
If you have a Land Rover LR4 and an Acura MDX in your garage, and you don’t require a third row of seats, you can send them both to the auction and replace them with this Grand Cherokee. It’s that good. There’s just one little issue: this is no longer the vehicle the market seems to want. It’s the perfect Iron Maiden album, delivered a decade too late. The market has clearly indicated its preference for car-based crossovers. The original Grand Cherokee debuted into a market full of truck-framed, molasses-slow, cramped and unwieldy entries. This one arrives in a market where a Camry-platform variant is king. It won’t meet the needs, perceived or actual, of the average buyer. I’d love to own one, but what do I know? I’m still listening to Iron Maiden.