If you need proof that the American car industry is capable of engineering and manufacturing world-class performance cars, have a good look at the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.
This high-performance SUV is arguably everything to everyone (except maybe to Greenpeace, but that only adds to its charm). On its own, the Grand Cherokee is a practical, comfortable and extremely refined SUV. Add the Street and Racing Technology (SRT) DNA and all of a sudden it becomes an entirely different beast, offering the latest in active safety and in-car technology plus a proper 6.4-litre Hemi V8. Best of all, Jeep Australia has brought it in at the relatively low price of $76,000 before on-road costs.
Before you get too excited, let's clear the air here. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 is already sold out for this year. Only 250 units are coming in 2012 and die-hard Jeep fanatics long ago accounted for every single one (without even knowing the full price).
If you must have one ASAP, best to stop reading now and run to your closest Jeep dealership.
For those that are a little sceptical of an American SUV promising the earth at a reasonable price, let's take a moment to examine the facts. Many believe that American cars offer nothing more than poor build quality, unreliable and outdated technology, sub-par driving dynamics and a generally disappointing ownership experience.
That may have been true up until a few years ago, but since most of the American car industry went through its financial crisis, filed for bankruptcy and was rescued (in Jeep’s case by Italy’s Fiat), they’ve come out guns blazing.
You only need to sit inside the new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 for five minutes before you realise it’s on par with the best in build quality and refinement. The interior is surprisingly very good. You’d almost say it’s un-American in that it’s not made from cheap plastics with shoddy build quality.
On the road the cabin ambience is top notch with limited tyre or road noise. The nappa leather sports bucket seats at the front are cooled and heated while the rear seats also get heating. You’ve got satellite navigation, Bluetooth telephone and audio streaming capability, simple-to-use instruments and a big chunky American-style steering wheel to top if off.
The Grand Cherokee SRT8 comes standard with a blind spot detection system that will warn you (via the side mirrors) if you’re attempting to merge lanes into another car. It has forward collision warning and active cruise control, so it can follow the speed of the car in front with full automatic braking and acceleration function. It will also wake you up in case you’re about to have a head-on and you’re too busy playing with the 19-speaker 825-watt Harman Kardon audio system.
Then there’s the use of real carbonfibre through the dash, which goes to show you that the days of fake wood and pretend carbon are no longer celebrated in the US of A. But since it’s built for Americans, you can easily fit five Australian-sized adults and have room to spare. There’s so much room up front that the super-comfy bucket seats almost make you feel too skinny.
To be fair, this Grand Cherokee is actually based on a Mercedes-Benz ML SUV platform, so you can indeed argue that it’s the German engineering at its core that makes it what it is. But that doesn’t exactly detract from the offering.
Not only does its monstrous V8 provide 344kW of power and 624Nm of torque, which sets a 0-100km/h sprint time of just a tad under five seconds, but combine its Bilstein adaptive damping suspension (which is undeniably German) and the six-pot front and four-pot rear Brembo brake system (Italian) and all of a sudden you’ve got a package that actually goes around corners without feeling like a boat.
Again, this newfound cornering ability is traditionally very un-American. They don’t have many corners in America and when they do, it’s a big deal. We were pleasantly surprised by how stable the Grand Cherokee felt around tight corners at high speed. Clearly this feeling was mutual as Jeep Australia brought us to the Australian automotive research centre in Anglesea to perform an acceleration and high-speed test plus a few runs through a tight cornering course that would have been the last place you’d ever expect an American car to shine.
The results? The best 0-100km/h run of the day was around 5.2 seconds and going 200km/h around winding bends was a piece of cake. When it comes to fast cornering capability, the Jeep is, for a lack of better words, very German (which is another way of saying, very good). The only sign that this is an American car is the steering feel itself. It’s very responsive but the feeling is light and it doesn’t tighten up regardless of what driving mode you happen to be in.
Speaking of which, the folks at SRT don’t mess around. The Grand Cherokee SRT8 has a Track mode. Seriously. We can’t fathom why and on what planet you would bring a large SUV to a race track, but if you must impress your friends, it does provide a track setting specifically designed for when your mid-life crisis has really blossomed.
To the American engineers’ credit, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 offers 146 per cent more torsional rigidity than its predecessor. It also happens to be 25mm and 30mm lower at the front and rear respectively. All of which is enormously helpful when it comes to dominating a corner at speed.
Managing all that power is the Jeep’s all-wheel drive system, which is hooked up to a five-speed automatic transmission. It’s somewhat disappointing that a six-speed can’t handle the enormous torque but the five-speed tends to do a pretty decent job of dealing with the power and torque. Manual mode (via the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters) is relatively hopeless as gear changes are slow and painful. Simply leave it in automatic and it will surprise you.
If you’re wondering why there’s no mention of fuel economy, it’s basically because that’s not the point. If you want a fuel-efficient Grand Cherokee, buy the diesel. If you crave the same functionality and practicality as a large SUV but with soul and enormous character, buy the SRT8. Officially it uses 14.1L of fuel per 100km, in reality that’s more likely to be around 20L/100km.
From the outside the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is about as American as they get, but without being vulgar. The front gains LED daytime running lights and functional enhancements to the bonnet while the rear gets a spoiler and two four-inch tip exhausts. At full force it sounds like the US Army in invasion mode - it’s brutal and rather loud.
The appeal of this car is significantly more than just a practical but performance-oriented SUV. The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 makes sense for anyone looking at a range-topping FPV or HSV. Not only does it provide the same level of practical family space (in fact, it provides much more), but it also comes feature-packed with the latest technology and a more powerful engine.
Overall, we were very impressed by the latest from the folks at SRT. It would have have been nice to see the larger and more user-friendly satellite navigation system out of the Chrysler 300C SRT8, and some more effort could be put in to the manual mode gear changes. Nonetheless, it’s hard to complain because for $76,000 you’re simply not going to find another SUV that can come anywhere close to this for performance, refinement, practicality, driving dynamics and features.
Jeep is currently enjoying record sales in Australia - its third largest market. The company is selling roughly 300 more units per month than it can actually deliver. If you want one of these, best to get in line.