I got a call from my folks a year ago. It went something like this: “your mom wants a new Grand Cherokee for her birthday, what do you think?” I called up Chrysler and snagged a 2013 Grand Cherokee Overland Summit, the last major Mercedes/Chrysler vehicle to launch before Fiat took the reins. I came to the conclusion the American Range Rover was all kinds of crazy, had drivetrain deficiencies and she should wait until the 2014 refresh. That refresh has landed, so should mom buy one?
Mom [not so] secretly wants a Range Rover, but living in the middle-of-nowhere Texas, the only dealers within 70 miles sell Detroit’s wares. Bang went the Range Rover Sport.
The 2011 GC was a shock to the Jeep faithful. Not because it is the Mercedes ML’s half-brother, which itself is quasi related to the Mercedes E-Class, which is quasi related to the Chrysler 300. (My incest is complicated isn’t it?) What shocked Rubicon runners was the combination of independent suspension and portly curb weight. If you haven’t gotten over that shock, stop reading now.
2014 brings a trimline reshuffle to the GC. The Laredo X is replaced by a cheaper Laredo E, and the Summit ditches “Overland” to become a separate trim at the top of the range. There is more going on here than just trim renaming if you read between the lines. In 2013, the “Overland Summit” was a GC with all the luxury AND all the offroad bits. In 2014, the Summit is the realization that people don’t take their $52,000-$57,000 Jeep rock crawling any more than Range Rover owners joyride in the Sahara on weekends. As a result the 2014 Summit loses the skid plates and tow hooks found on lesser models and doesn’t have an option to add them from the factory.
For 2014 we get a de-chromed tailgate, new bumper covers, exhaust tips and a headlamp re-style. In addition to the removal of the large chrome strip below the tailgate glass, Jeep has gone up-market with more aggressive tail lamps and more differentiated trims. Laredo and Limited models get new bumper covers with round exhaust tips while premium trims get trendy trapezoids. Further cleaning up the Overland and Summit models, the hitch receiver and 4/7 pin trailer wiring connector are hidden behind a panel in the bumper. Speaking of towing, the factory towing setup is no longer available on base Laredo models. Want to haul? Step up to that Laredo E.
The GC’s grille has become less prominent and more integrated. Foglamps have shrunk to an almost cartoonishly small proportion, and the lower air intake gets a more aggressive shape. Overland and Summit models get LED daytime running lamps, headlamp washers and a design reminiscent of the refreshed Chrysler 300. While some of our Facebook users whined about the black strip under the lamp, it didn’t bother me.
The GC’s interior sees more evolution than expected. 2014 brings a new steering wheel with optional heating, a revised center console with the latest uConnect systems, upgraded wood trim and the same 7-inch LCD disco dash found in other Chryslers. The 7-inch LCD gauge cluster is flanked by a traditional tachometer, fuel and temperature gauge. The unit puts the Jeep well ahead of the competition and, interestingly, a notch below the full 11-inch LCD cluster used in Range Rovers.
Laredo and Limited shoppers get soft touch injection molded door and dash bits, while the premium trims get Chrysler’s latest fix for interior plastic problems: stitched leather. If you look at the photo above, everything above the wood trim is soft stitched leather and everything below is hard plastic. As long as you keep your hands above the meridian you’re in for a premium experience equal to the most expensive luxury cars in America. Drop below and you’re in Chevy-Cruze-land. That’s not unusual for a mass market vehicle however, and 2014 brings near flawless color matching (finally). Our summit tester took things up a notch by coating the hard plastic A-pillars, sun visors and headliner in Alcantara faux suede. The awkward gated shifter is gone, replaced by an Audi-esque joystick affair. On the down side, the plastic center console trim scratches easily and felt a little cheap. Chrysler: make that center console out of wood and you’ll have a winner.
As with most recent Chrysler products, the front seats have a pronounced “bump” in the center of the cushions making you feel like you’re sitting “on” the seat and not “in” the seat. Rear seat passengers will have little to complain about with reclining rear seat backs, air vents and the same soft-touch leather door treatment as the front. New for 2014 are two high-current USB power ports in the center console so your kids can charge their iWidget without cigarette adapters. Since the 7-seat Mercedes ML and Dodge Durango share the same DNA as the 5-seat Grand Cherokee, there is a surprising amount of rear legroom and cargo room for a 5-seat midsize SUV.
uConnect 2 is the first major update to Chrysler’s 8.4-inch touchscreen system that launched in 2011 and the first version of this system the GC has ever had. It couldn’t have arrived any sooner. If you have memories of sub-par infotainment from the Mercedes era, forget them, this is a whole new uConnect. Based on a QNX unix operating system, the system features well polished graphics, snappy screen changes and a large, bright display. For the second edition of uConnect, Chrysler smoothed out the few rough edges in the first generation of this system and added a boat-load of trendy tech features you may or may not care about.
In addition to improved voice commands for USB/iDevice control, uConnect 2 offers smartphone integration allowing you to stream audio from Pandora, iHeart Radio or Slacker Radio. You can have text messages read to you and dictate replies (if your phone supports it) and search for restaurants and businesses via Yelp. In addition to all the smartphone-tied features, uConnect 2 integrates a CDMA modem on the Sprint network into the unit for over-the-air software updates and access to the new Chrysler “App Store” where you will be able to buy apps for your car. Since there’s a cell modem onboard, uConnect can be configured to act as a WiFi hot spot for your tablets and game devices as well. Keep in mind speeds are 3G, not Sprint’s WiMAX or LTE network.
Completing the information assault is SiriusXM’s assortment of satellite data services which include traffic, movie times, sports scores, fuel prices and weather reports. As with uConnect data services, there’s a fee associated after the first few months so keep that in mind. 2014 also brings uConnect Access which is Chrysler’s answer to GM’s OnStar providing 911 assistance, crash notification and vehicle health reports. Garmin’s navigation software is still available as a $500 add-on (standard on Summit) and it still looks like someone cut a hole in the screen and stuck a hand-held garmin unit in the dash. The interface is easy to use but notably less snazzy than the rest of the system’s graphics. If this bevy of techo-wizardry hasn’t convinced you Jeep is now in the 21st century, consider this: our tester didn’t have a CD player. If the bevy of USB ports has you confused, you can rock your Cat Stevens CD by paying $190 for a single-slot disc player jammed into the center armrest. Excluding the Garmin navigation system, uConnect 2 ties with BMW’s iDrive in my book for the best infotainment system. Add in the somewhat clunky nav software, and it’s still among the best.
Under the hood it’s a new world for the big Jeep. The same 290HP/260lb-ft 3.6L V6 and 360HP/390lb-ft 5.7L V8 are carried over from last year but that’s where the similarities end. In addition to the two gas mills there is a new 3.0L diesel V6 made by VM Motori S.p.A of Italy. (VM Motori is half owned by Fiat and General Motors if you were wondering.) The 24-valve DOHC engine uses a cast iron block, aluminium heads and a single computer-controlled variable geometry turbo to crank out 240 ponies and 420lb-ft. (There’s also the 470HP SRT version, but that’s for a different review.) The V6 is the base engine on all models (SRT excepted of course) and it is the only engine offered in the Laredo and Laredo E for 2014. Limited, Overland and Summit buyers can drop $2,695 for the V8 and $4,500 for the “EcoDiesel” V6.
All four engines (yes, even the SRT) are mated to a ZF-designed 8-speed automatic. V6 models use the low torque variety made by Chrysler while V8 and diesel models use a heavy-duty 8HP70 made in a ZF factory. If you’re up to date on Euro inbreeding, you know this is the same transmission used by BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover and Rolls Royce. To say this is a step up from the vilified Mercedes 5-speed or the Chrysler 6 speed (the 65RFE featured some of the strangest ratio spacing ever) is putting it mildly. Fuel economy jumps 9% in the V6, 10% in the V8 and the diesel model claims 30MPG on the highway. No small feat in a 4,500-5,400lb SUV. Thanks to the heavy-duty cog-swapper, towing jumps from 5,000 to 6,700lbs for the V6 and the V8 and diesel hold steady at 7,400 lbs in RWD form and 7,200 lbs for the AWD model.
Our Summit had the optional Quadra-Trac II AWD system which uses a 2-speed transfer case to split power 50:50 for normal driving, features electronic locking, and provides an improved 44:1 low range for off-road use (up from 30:1 in 2013). Jeep’s variable height air-suspension dubbed “Quadra-Lift” is option on Limited and standard on Overland/Summit allowing you to air-lift your way from a parked 6.7 inches to 11.3 (0.6 more than last year.) Of course those numbers are only valid if you: A. remove the air dam properly before you go off-road, or B. slam into a rock and rip the air dam off while off-road.
If you think a transmission doesn’t make much difference, drive the 2013 and 2014 Jeeps back-t0-back. Not only is the 2014 V6 model 2/10ths faster to 60 than last year’s V8, the on-road feel has been substantially approved. The old model felt like it was never able to find the right gear for anything, while the 8-speed seems psychic in comparison with the right gear ready and engaged before you knew you needed it. That’s a good thing, because a 5,000+ pound SUV with 260lb-ft and an 8-speed with a tall overdrive gear are a recipe for frequent shifts. Indeed on Highway 101, the transmission would routinely downshift to 7th to go up freeway overpasses. Quick shifts and a wide gear-ratio spread pay dividends when towing. I hooked up a 5,000lb trailer and the V6 Summit had no problems hauling it up and over a 2,200ft mountain pass.
In a sea of sharp-handling FWD crossovers, the GC is practically the only mid-size 5-seat SUV left that still drives like a truck. The soft suspension, over-boosted steering and tall ride have a positive effect on highway ride quality, but take a toll on handling. Despite wearing wide 265-width tires, the GC will only carve corners in the off-road-incapable SRT model. Still, that’s not this Jeep’s mission. Much like a Range Rover, the Summit’s raison d’être is to drive like a Barcalounger regardless of the road surface. Mission accomplished. Sort of.
Weight is something you can more easily ignore on-road than off-road. Why? Because the traction surface is predictable and grades are never going to approach the GC’s advertised approach/departure angles. Off road, I got the Summit stuck twice on a moderate trail I am very familiar with (my neighbor has a private 380 acre off-road park that is his “backyard”). The lighter Jeep Patriot had no troubles on the same course. Yes, tire choices have a huge impact, but keep in mind the Patriot had road rubber as well. The first problem was a log about 9″ in diameter. The GC climbed over it but couldn’t reverse off of it. The suspension clearance wasn’t an issue, it was weight and traction. Again, better rubber would have helped, but so would a lighter curb weight because the Patriot didn’t have the same issue on the same log. The second location the GC got stuck for a while was on a steep and “gravely” slope. Again, the lighter SUVs on the same trail had no issue. Yes, QuadraDrive II excels in situations where you have one or more wheels in the air, giving you a very smooth transition of power that can’t be matched by slip-and-grip systems. But seriously, how often do $57,000 SUVs encounter that on the school run?
I must now comment on QuadraLift. Yes, you can increase the suspension height to 11.3 inches, but most people I encountered had no idea what this does to the geometry. Allow me to explain. This GC has four-wheel independent suspension. That means each wheel’s suspension hinges at a point near(ish) the center line of the vehicle. At “normal” ride height, the suspension is in the middle of it’s travel. Lower it for parking mode and the wheels move “upwards” toward their bump-stops. Raise the ride height and the wheels move “downwards” in the wheel wells pushing the car up. When you’re in Off Road II mode at 11.3 inches, you’ve pushed the wheels as far down as they can go nearly hitting their lower maximum travel. This leads to some very peculiar off-road manners, some loud bangs as the suspension hits its lower stops in off-camber situations and a rough ride. Compare that to something like an FJ cruiser which has more suspension travel at similar ride heights and the FJ is going to be the more comfortable off-road companion. How much of a problem is this? Not much, most Grand Cherokee buyers think of their gravel driveway as “off-road.”
The Grand Cherokee is deeply conflicted SUV if we look at it through the lens of modern crossover comparisons which have eschewed every reason the SUV was invented except for ride height. If however you’re a shopper that expects a 5-seat SUV to be able to tackle more than a gravel road or the occasional speed bump, tow 7,000lbs and accommodate a winch, you don’t have many options. In truth, the Grand Cherokee is one of the best handling “traditional SUVs” ever made, it’s just that the competition has moved toward on-road performance. Sound like a Range Rover to you? It should and Jeep knows it.
Although the Summit has become a tad pricier this year, it’s still $13,000 less than a Range Rover Sport. Brand image is important, but the Jeep-Range Rover delta is strangely not as wide as the Dodge-Jaguar delta, especially for folks like my mom in the middle of the country. What about me on the left coast? I own a 2001 GMC Envoy (gasp) that has 140,000 miles on it. I’m that 1% that actually tows with their SUV. Frequently. A pickup truck doesn’t fit my lifestyle and I find my 14-foot box trailer more useful for farm/ranch/construction duty (I built my own home and everything arrived on-site in the trailer). When my GMT360 SUV grenades its fourth transmission, I’ll need a replacement. My options: The VW Touareg or the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The options may be narrow, but they have never looked better.
- Best interior Chrysler has ever made. And they didn’t even use Corinthian Leather.
- The V6 and 8-speed will make you forget the thirsty V8 exists.
- Oil burners rejoice!
- High tow ratings are incredibly rare today.
- Curb weight is a real problem for this Jeep both on and off road.
- The V8 is still thirsty.
- Some interior plastics are still too cheap for $57,000.
Chrysler provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review
Specifications as tested
0-30: 2.57 Seconds
0-60: 7.09 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 15.33 Seconds @ 77.5 MPH
Average Observed Fuel Economy: 19.8 MPG over 768 miles