Among American car brands, Jeep has a unique cachet, a reputation for toughness that dates back to World War II. Vehicles under the brand have come a long way over the years, and the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the most modern yet.
Traditionalists might take umbrage at the changes represented by the 2011 Grand Cherokee, which dropped live axles in favor of a fully independent suspension, features a sumptuous interior equal to that of a Range Rover, and even gets a rear-seat entertainment system with satellite TV.
But technology has improved the Grand Cherokee, giving it an off-road system that can be dialed in for specific types of terrain, from snow to sand to rock crawling. Its air suspension lets it rise up to provide 10.7 inches of ground clearance. And though these systems help the Grand Cherokee uphold Jeep's reputation, they also let it do something for which Jeeps aren't known: corner at more than reasonable speeds.
The Grand Cherokee remains a five-seat SUV boasting a good amount of cargo room in the rear. Jeep keeps the iconic seven-bar grille, but from the sides and rear, the vehicle looks like any other modern SUV, trading in hard lines for gentle curves. The rear quarter reminded us of recent SUVs from Audi and Volvo.
Those premium marques might have also inspired Jeep on the Grand Cherokee's interior. With our Limited trim model we were treated to cooled and heated leather seats along with quality materials over the dashboard. The steering wheel offered a satisfyingly thick ring, and sound deadening kept external noise to a minimum.
Our Grand Cherokee featured Jeep's new 3.6-liter variable-valve-timed engine, a power plant expected to appear in many Chrysler company vehicles. In this application, the engine produces 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. A 5.7-liter variable-valve-timed V-8 producing 360 horsepower is also available.
Variable-valve timing may be the current apex of engine technology at Chrysler, but other companies have moved ahead, most notably with direct injection, in efforts to squeeze out more efficiency. However, Jeep does employ cylinder deactivation technology in the V-8 to reduce fuel consumption.
With the V-6 we found an engine that, though certainly up to the task of moving the Grand Cherokee comfortably down the road, didn't offer an immediate boost when we hit the gas. The V-8 is more satisfying in that regard.
That engine is mated to a five-speed automatic transmission, another piece of power train technology a little behind the times. It shifts smoothly enough, but an extra gear or two could have allowed for more efficient engine speeds. Surprising was the lack of manual gear selection or any low ranges. When getting ready to pass, we could not proactively drop down a couple of gears, instead having to wait for the transmission to react to pressure on the gas pedal.
Jeep might have figured that a low range for the transmission was not necessary, as our vehicle's off-road gear featured descent control. At an event earlier this year, Jeep let us drive a couple of Grand Cherokees up and down steep dirt trails and over a variety of off-road obstacles, at which the vehicle excelled.
Driving it down a steep trail made of loose dirt, we put it in descent-control mode and merely had to steer as the Grand Cherokee maintained a careful speed and adjusted braking at each wheel to maintain traction and control. Likewise, the Grand Cherokee proved its mettle while scrambling up rutted trails, kicking torque front and back as needed, the off-road program set to adjust power for the conditions.
Through a small boulder field the Grand Cherokee adjusted travel at each wheel, maintaining contact with the ground at as many points as possible, and accounted for wheel slip in the way it dealt out power.
Among its different trim levels--Laredo, Limited, and Overland--can be found differing levels of off-road gear. Our middling Limited version had Jeep's Quadra-Trac II system with descent control but lacked the air suspension available with the Overland trim.
Along with the differing surface types on the Grand Cherokee's Selec-Terrain knob was a Sport setting, not something we would expect to find in a Jeep. Turning the dial around, we were a little disconcerted to see an amber icon on the instrument cluster indicating traction control was off. But according to Jeep the system does not completely disengage, it merely dials down a little bit.