A new eight-speed auto improves the on-road manners of a big SUV that is also highly capable off road.
A Jeep Grand Cherokee that can’t take on the outback? Not so long ago, such an idea would have been deemed sacrilegious – but times have changed.
Not even America’s famous 4x4 brand can ignore the buyer trend towards two-wheel-drive SUVs that still look the part but come with fuel efficiency benefits.
Jeep introduced front-wheel-drive versions of the Compass and Patriot locally in 2012, but the first major update to its flagship model since the latest generation was launched in 2011 sees the first non-4WD Jeep Grand Cherokee in Australia.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x2 brings cost of entry to the model, which visually features revised front and rear ends, down by $4000 to $45,000 driveaway ($43,000 RRP).
Each of the other nine models in the 10-strong Grand Cherokee line-up, however, features the company’s go-anywhere ability, ranging from $46,000 RRP to $77,000 for the performance SRT version.
Click to read our detailed article on Jeep Grand Cherokee pricing and specifications.
The base Laredo and next-up Limited trim grades feature a 4WD system with high and low range that is electronically switchable via a console switch and can send up to 100 per cent torque to either axle as required.
Step up to the Overland and SRT models and an electronic limited-slip rear differential extends the capability.
All continue with the Selec-Terrain system that follows Land Rover’s Terrain Response by allowing drivers to pick specific vehicle settings for varying surfaces – including snow, rock, mud and sand (with the last two now separated).
An auto mode alternatively lets the Jeep Grand Cherokee work things out as it deems necessary.
And the big Jeep continues to be hugely impressive off road, despite the model switching from a live rear axle to independent front and rear suspension in 2011.
Only the road-biased tyres prevented a Grand Cherokee at the front of our launch convoy from completing a steep, bump-ridden muddy ascent, as the mud-caked wheels finally struggled to get purchase as the car tried to turn as well as climb. (An optional ‘Trailhawk’ off-road package including hybrid tyres similar to those fitted to the Wrangler should become an option again for the model, though, for the most serious of off-road enthusiasts.)
Hill ascent and descent control systems also means you can travel up or down in the Jeep without touching the brake or accelerator pedals.
Whether you choose the 4x2 Jeep Grand Cherokee due to budget or fuel economy – though it only saves 0.3 litres of fuel every 100km over the 4x4 – the rear-wheel-drive model isn’t entirely restricted to bitumen.
The Laredo 4x2 can still comfortably tackle slippery mud tracks, albeit it with less traction than a 4x4 version – heard as well as felt as the V6 petrol engine’s revs spike during a temporary loss of significant momentum.
Serious approach, departure and ramp-over angles also mean the 2WD Grand Cherokee can ride easily over big dips and mounds that would see many a high-riding wagon get stuck or suffer bumper damage.
Australians aren’t stuck for choice when it comes to large SUVs capable of serious off-roading, but none in the Jeep Grand Cherokee’s price range can match its on-road manners.
The likes of the Mitsubishi Challenger, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Prado are all highly compromised on the road in the way they ride and handle.
Jeep’s Grand Cherokee was in the same bracket until this generation arrived in early 2011 with underpinnings shared with the current Mercedes-Benz ML.
It still can’t match a Territory for steering precision, ride compliance or cornering composure, but then the Ford is not designed to go off road.
On the black stuff, the Laredos – whether 4x2 or 4x4 – offer the best ride comfort in the Jeep Grand Cherokee range, helped by their smaller, fatter-sidewalled 18-inch tyres.
The dampers, particularly at the front, could work a bit faster to help settle the body more quickly over country road undulations, but the Jeep is never excessively floaty and it’s sufficiently stable around bends.
So far, so much the same as before for the Grand Cherokee, but a new eight-speed automatic – from German gearbox geniuses ZF – is one of the 2013 changes that does the most to improve this Jeep’s on-road manners.
There’s a version built in the US under licence slotted into models powered by the 3.6-litre V6 ‘Pentastar’ petrol engine, with the German-made unit paired to the 3.0-litre V6 diesel, 5.7-litre V8 and (SRT) 6.4-litre V8.
Regardless of manufacturer, the eight-speeder largely overcomes the flaws of the old five-speed auto that hampered the same engines previously by struggling to pick appropriate gears, shift smoothly or provide satisfying throttle response.
Accelerator pedal pressure still isn’t instantaneous in the V6 petrol – even if Sport mode is selected – but the extra ratios otherwise help to mask the fact that 347Nm of torque at a high 4300rpm is not quite ideal for shifting two tonnes plus of metal.
All models now feature paddleshift levers as well, which are particularly useful for the V6 petrol.
The pick of the V6s remains the 3.0-litre turbo diesel, which not only boasts an extra 223Nm of torque but also produces it from a more commonly used part of the rev range, at 2000rpm.
This pulling power not only gives more confidence in off-road driving and a highest-in-range 3500kg towing capacity shared with the 5.7-litre V8, but it also makes the Jeep Grand Cherokee a more effortless and more economical driving experience.
The catch? Well, it’s not a small one because Jeep asks buyers to stump up an extra $5000 over the equivalent V6 petrol (and making it identically priced to 5.7L V8 models).
The 5.7L V8 wasn’t available to test on launch, while time in the SRT was restricted to just a handful of kays – though enough to appreciate it for its aggressive acceleration but also dislike the supremely stiff ride.
Inside, the Grand Cherokee has made further improvements to a cabin that in 2011 made a notable leap in quality and presentation for a US-made vehicle.
Rock-hard, scratchy surfaces are still found at the lower and mid levels, and the centre stack and centre console plastic looks cheap, so perception of quality is more comparable with a Toyota Kluger or Ford Territory (good without being special) rather than a BMW X5 or Mercedes ML despite Jeep labelling this as a premium SUV.
But the company has focused its best materials on the key touch points for driver and passengers.
So the upper dash and parts of the door trim are softer, and the steering wheel and new T-shaped gearlever are wrapped in leather. Overland models add a top section of wood to the steering wheel.
The centre stack’s T shape remains though looks much smarter with the introduction of a large, 8.4-inch touchscreen (5-inch version on the base 4x2), fresh layout of heating and ventilation controls, and the extension of black plastic to surround the air vents. There's also a new, smarter-looking steering wheel.
Jeep continues to be generous in the What’s-included-for-the-price department.
The Laredo’s standard features, for example, include bi-xenon headlights, auto-dimming rear view mirror, electrically adjustable seats with heating, dual-zone climate control, rear-view camera, rain-sensing wipers and voice command Bluetooth.
Highlights for the Limited grade include an Alpine audio, sat-nav, 20-inch alloy wheels, front and rear parking sensors, leather seats and heated rear seats.
Overland’s additions include dual-pane sunroof, higher-grade leather upholstery and trim, adaptive cruise, and warning systems for blind spots and forward collision avoidance.
Rear legroom isn’t quite as generous – less than the Territory’s for example – though the current Jeep Grand Cherokee is far more spacious than its cramped predecessor.
There’s still no third row option for the Jeep Grand Cherokee, so buyers looking for a seven-seater Jeep will have to wait until about 2015 for such a model. (Click to read our separate story.)
Boot space is a useful 782 litres, expanding to 1554L with the rear seats folded, though again it’s beaten here by the almost identically sized Territory – which has a 1153-litre boot even before seats are collapsed.
Interior packaging, then, joins interior quality as areas that can still be further improved, while we wish the diesel variant was cheaper ($3000 is an average premium).
The Jeep Grand Cherokee, though, will have no issues maintaining its popularity with its otherwise generally strong value and ability to mix some respectable on-road manners with its genuine off-road capability.
Land Rover does this expertly, too, though a comparably sized Discovery 4 will cost you more than $70,000 to put on the road.