Following the disastrous launch of the Chrysler Pacifica, which was supposed to take that brand upscale, Chrysler (the company, not the brand) did a 180 and started developing the cheapest, least refined, and least attractive vehicles sold in the U.S. End result: Chapter 11. But even before the bankruptcy Chrysler once again changed course, and set about developing more stylish, better-outfitted vehicles. The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the first of these. How good is it?
The new Jeep Grand Cherokee is considerably larger than the old one, with a wheelbase of 114.8 inches (up 5.3), a length of 189.8 inches (up 3.2), a width of 76.3 inches (up 3.0) and a height of 69.4 inches (up 1.7). The new body is rounder and smoother, but still far from generic. Especially given that the new SUV is based on the Mercedes ML, Chrysler did an outstanding job creating an exterior design that is both clearly a Grand Cherokee and thoroughly up-to-date, with athletic proportions (the wheelbase grew more than the length) and no trendy details to mar the clean, muscular bodysides. The interior design is almost as successful, with a similarly clean design, tight fits, and higher quality materials than in the 2010. “Almost” because the interior design is somewhat generic and, even in the most expensive trim levels, increasingly passe silver plastic trim covers the center stack and center console. Certainly Chrysler’s designers can come up with something better than this trim, and few parts are cheaper to alter.
The seats are high and comfortable, with a large, moderately raked windshield contributing to an excellent driving position. Compared to that in a Toyota 4Runner, with its upright windshield, the view forward in the Grand Cherokee is like that in a car, just much higher off the ground. One oddity: the A-pillars bow inward to an unusually large degree at the top and bottom, so the shape of the windshield is like that of an old television. Thanks to larger exterior the rear seat is much roomier than before, so adults now have plenty of room for their heads, shoulders, and legs. Cargo volume is about the same as before. Plenty for most uses, but you’ll find more in other SUVs.
Two engines are offered so far, a 290-horsepower 3.6-liter “Pentastar” V6 and a 360-horsepower 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8. The Pentastar will replace older V6s in many Chrysler, Dodge, and Jeep models during the 2011 model year, but it was introduced in the new Grand Cherokee. Not the best introduction. Though the new 3.6 is a fine engine, with very good power and refinement for its size, in the all-wheel-drive Jeep it’s saddled with 4,660 pounds of curb weight (up about 200). An antiquated five-speed automatic doesn’t help; a transmission with more ratios could provide a shorter first gear. An eight-speed automatic is likely on the way. Until it arrives, the V6 Grand Cherokee feels sluggish at low speeds and never feels quick. As hard as it would once have been to imagine, 290 horsepower seem merely adequate. The V8 feels considerably more energetic, but still isn’t quick, with 0-60 times similar to those for the V6-powered Toyota 4Runner. The Hemi could also sound more special; in the new Grand Cherokee they’ve muffled it overly much.
The new Grand Cherokee employs a sophisticated all-independent suspension based on a Mercedes design, so it should come as no surprise that it handles and rides much better than any previous Grand Cherokee save the SRT8, with excellent on-road body control and little noise. On paved roads the more softly suspended Toyota 4Runner feels squishy and imprecise in comparison. But the Jeep’s mass and high center of gravity cannot entirely be avoided—it leans more in turns than the typical car-based crossover. The new Grand Cherokee might be a very refined SUV, but it is still an SUV. Though less than in past Jeeps the steering is light and numb, and on-pavement driving is far from engaging. By which I mean it’s very pleasant, but boring. With Jeep developing ever more luxurious versions of the Grand Cherokee, with a new Overland Summit recently introduced at the 2011 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), Lexus has far more to worry about than BMW. So far. SRT worked wonders with the chassis of the previous Grand Cherokee, and the new one provides a much better starting point. I’ve seen an SRT prototype around, so a new SRT8 is coming.
I did not drive either Grand Cherokee off the pavement [Ed: Despite what the press shots might have you believe], so cannot report how well it performs there. Jack Baruth’s press launch review suggests that, despite the Mercedes underpinnings, off-road performance remains worthy of the Jeep name, especially when equipped with the optional adjustable-height air suspension (also Mercedes-derived).
Even a minimally optioned 2011 Grand Cherokee with the V8 lists for $38,490, and it’s easy to configure one deep into the forties. Compared to the 2010, prices are up about $1,800, but the content level is up even more. Adjust for these additional features using TrueDelta’s car price comparisons. and the 2011 is actually $2,800 to $4,500 less pricey than the 2010, depending on trim level. These comparisons do not consider incentives, which were much higher with the 2010. More of a surprise: the 2011 Grand Cherokee V6 is about $4,000 less than a Toyota 4Runner or the even heavier new Ford Explorer when these are comparably loaded up. Though initially the prices might seem high, on closer examination Chrysler has priced the new Grand Cherokee aggressively.
I’ll be the first to admit that people don’t buy the Jeep Grand Cherokee for driving excitement. The things people do buy it for—style, luxury, the promise of off-road capability—have all been substantially improved with the 2011. Most impressive of all, the Grand Cherokee now has the look and feel of a premium vehicle, without a premium price. If you want these things, but also want to be thrilled by the driving experience, just wait for the SRT8.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data