Model driven: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo, 3.6-litre V6 petrol with five-speed automatic transmission: $45,000 (MLP)
Refinement has never really been a hallmark of the Jeep brand; off-road ability has always been the more important credential, especially considering its heroic status on the battlefields World War Two.
The latest Jeep Rubicon should continue to uphold that legendary off road status, albeit with a completely new interior design that should also win a host of new fans.
First impressions are that the family friendly 2011 Grand Cherokee looks set to raise the benchmark in the sub fifty grand SUV segment, with all-new styling, engines, and a raft of clever new technology and features.
It’s an important vehicle for Chrysler, and one that counts ‘big time’ towards the company’s successful comeback, and it’s already winning the hearts and minds of buyers in the US where it was released in September 2010.
The designers have clearly paid a lot of attention to detail on the new Jeep. It’s not hard to see the design influence from likes of the BMW X5, which became a benchmark vehicle for the new Grand Cherokee. This is a more distinctive, yet bolder front-end design, complete with the trademark seven-slot grille and euro-style lines down the side of the car and a wrap around taillight assembly. The finishing touch is the five spoke polished alloys on the entry model Laredo, while the premium Limited and Overland editions get 20-inch wheels.
It’s not just the exterior skin that gets the euro treatment either. The panel gaps have been reduced, the doors close with a quality thud, and elements like the speed of the windshield and short front and rear overhangs come together to create what is a very polished, if not sporty SUV look.
Inside, the package gets even better, with top class materials throughout, and an inventory of standard features that should put the Grand Cherokee at the top of its class. Features such as Selec-Terrain, Reversing camera, HID Xenon headlamps, 18-inch alloys, Dual-zone climate control, Keyless Enter 'n' Go and heated seats are only a sample of the standard kit.
After a couple of hundred kilometres across a mixed bag of tarmac and off road terrain, the all-new Grand Cherokee is a compete surprise in every way. That is, its on-road ability is now well and truly on par with its considerable off-road ability, and that’s only half of it.
Our test car for most of the launch program was the base model (that’s hardly the right description given the level of standard kit on board this thing) Laredo with an all-new 3.6-litre V6 petrol engine, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Yes, you read that correctly, a five-speed transmission, but more on that later, as it’s by no means a deal breaker.
The Pentastar V6 is a brand new powertrain for Chrysler, and the Grand Cherokee is its first deployment. It’s an all aluminium block with dual double overhead camshafts and Quad Variable Valve Timing developing a not too shabby 210kW and 347Nm of torque. That’s sufficient to get the big 2191kg Jeep moving along rather quickly, thanks to 80 percent of peak torque being available from 1600rpm to 6000rpm. It's not quite direct injection, but it's a big step in the right direction.
It’s pretty fuel efficient nonetheless with a combined figure of 11.4 litres per 100 kilometres, achieved after some fairly spirited on-road and off-road driving over part of the launch route.
Hit the keyless start button, and the V6 purrs away effortlessly with a surprising level of refinement and very low noise levels. On the highway, cruising at 110km/h, it’s the same refined story, although high-speed overtaking and general hill climbing induces considerably more engine noise as the five-speed box works extra hard to accommodate the aggressive throttle input. An additional gear ratio or two wouldn’t go astray and would certainly enhance the driving experience further. We’re fairly sure that will come later in the car’s lifecycle, but it’s certainly no deal breaker.
There’s also a new diesel engine due mid-year, although details are scarce. The talk is that it will be 3.0-litre V6 with high levels of refinement and performance.
We also got some time behind the wheel of a Limited, with the improved 5.7-litre HEMI V8. New to this powertrain is Variable Valve Timing, which pushes the output up to 259 kW and 520 Nm of torque. It’s a beautifully smooth engine, with loads of pulling power from down low in the rev range, and an excellent match for the new Grand Cherokee, despite adding a few extra kilos.
That said, the NVH (Noise, Vibration and Harshness) levels have attained new heights in the Grand Cherokee. Outside traffic noise is barely perceptible inside the cabin. It’s quieter than some of the prestige marques. There’s double laminate on the front windows and plenty of noise insulation material throughout the vehicle that has helped achieve this degree of quiet.
The Laredo comes with cloth seats, which must be said, are some of the most comfortable and properly bolstered pews I have encountered on any price SUV. The difference is that they’re bolstered from top to bottom on the seatback, which does an outstanding job of holding your torso bolt upright when the going gets twisty. Not only that, the driving position is deep into the car, but still with a commanding view of the road ahead. It’s not dissimilar to the benchmark BMW X5 and Range Rover Sport, in this regard.
While there have been massive improvements throughout the new Grand Cherokee, the biggest leap forward is in the ride and handling department. That said you’ll probably want to go ahead and tick the option box that says Quadra-Lift. It’s Jeep’s new closed air suspension system, which provides up to 104 millimetres of extra lift across five ride height settings (Normal Ride Height, Off Road 1, Off Road 2, Park Mode and Aero Mode), and is supported by air springs at each corner. The result is a continuously complaint ride regardless of the terrain and conditions, as well as the obvious safety benefits of variable ride height capability both on-road and off-road, and well worth the additional two and half grand over the life of the vehicle.
There’s another bit of tricky electronic gear on board too: it’s called the Select-Terrain system, and it's standard kit across the Grand Cherokee line-up. It’s a clever system that’s not dissimilar to Land Rover’s ‘Terrain Response’ in that drivers can dial up any one of five different settings (Snow, Sand/Mud, Rock, Auto, and Sport) depending on the prevailing driving conditions. We tried the system out in a deep sand bowl in regional Tasmania and drove out up a steep incline simply in auto mode, too easy.
Each setting means the electronic co-ordination of up to 12 different engine, suspension and breaking systems, including transmission shift points, throttle control, transfer case, and stability programs for the best possible traction.
Grand Cherokee has always been a capable off-roader, and although the launch program included only a few rock laden descents and a steep soft sand bowl, the vehicle was well within its comfort zone as far as its four-by-four capabilities go.
Our Laredo (as is the Limited) was equipped with Jeep’s Quadra-Trac II 4x4 system, which is essentially an Active full-time two-speed transfer case with low range. It effectively monitors tyre slip using a range of sensors to locate tyre slip at the earliest possible moment, and can transfer up to 100 percent of torque to the axle with the most traction.
The Overland model goes one step further with its Quadra-Drive II system, which adds a rear Electronic Limited-Slip Differential (ELSD).
One of the most usable safety features in most off-road capable vehicles these days is Hill Descent Control (HDC), and the Jeep system works particularly well. Essentially you hit the appropriate button on the Select-Terrain interface as you prepare to negotiate the steepest of slopes (rock, sand or mud) and the vehicle will automatically control the speed and braking, requiring only steering input from the driver. You can also regulate the speed of the descent by selecting a particular gear ratio. We tried it on both sand and ruts, and it was impressive and grade-A user friendly.
It’s not just the ride quality that impresses either, the chassis is 146 percent stiffer than the previous model, and that’s patently evident from the very first bend in the road you encounter. There’s very little body roll for an SUV of these proportions; moreover, it feels as planted as some of the premium offerings from Europe in this segment. There’s good reason for such a well-sorted chassis too as buyers can take additional comfort in knowing that this same chassis was co-developed with Mercedes-Benz, and is also the platform for the next generation ML-Class.
There’s also plenty of weight in the steering too with good feedback on the tarmac, which allows for an enjoyable driving experience, which is more car like than SUV with accomplished off-road skills.
Worth a mention too is the 11.6-metre turning circle. What that means is that for a large-ish SUV, the Grand Cherokee has remarkable agility in tight spaces.
The interior cabin treatment even on the entry-level Laredo definitely has a premium feel to it, with soft touch plastics and some nice Black Elm effect panels on the fascia and door trim. What I’m not a fan of is the plastic steering wheel hub; it looks cheap and nasty, although the wheel rim itself is first class and a treat to drive with. If you prefer leather, then the Limited is the way to go. The Overlander goes all the way with a hand stitched leather dash and door trim, and that's something you won't find in any other SUV around this price point.
There is a stack of creature comforts other than those I mentioned earlier, but the all-important standard fit ‘Uconnect Media Centre’ is the standout item. The centrepiece is a 16.5cm touch screen and 30GB hard drive, which can store 6700 songs - you won’t be short of music.
A feature of this unit is a Bluetooth system that supports 7 Bluetooth phones with hands-free and address book downloads for up to 1100 entries. You also get a voice command system that allows you to change radio stations, make and receive calls, and record voice memos.
Along with every conceivable feature a family could ever want, safety has clearly been a top priority for Grand Cherokee. There are a more than 45 safety and security features on board, including active head restraints and seven air bags, along with full side curtain airbags and a driver inflatable knee-bolster airbag.
There’s also a tonne of load space in the Jeep, with almost 800 litres with the rear seats are up, and close to double that with seats folded. The load point is also a sensible height for easy access for those heavier items.
Towing shouldn’t present any issues either with a trailer tow capacity for the Pentastar V6 of 2268 kilos and 3500 kilos for the 5.7 litre HEMI V8.
The bang for buck winner in the Grand Cherokee range is the entry-level Laredo at $45,000. That said, the optioned up V6 Limited at $55,000 and the top shelf Overlander at $69,500 also represent outstanding value for money in this segment.
Overall, the new Grand Cherokee is good enough to attract a whole new clientele looking for a highly accomplished SUV with oodles more cachet and features than anything else in its price range.