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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee: Up market and off-road

CNET Car Tech gets a preview drive in the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Wayne Cunningham/CNET
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
The new Grand Cherokee retains Jeep's legendary off-road capability while incorporating a tech-filled cabin. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On a cold San Francisco morning we gathered to hear Jeep staff talk about their new 2011 Grand Cherokee before a drive that would put us on winding mountain roads and a challenging off-road course. Jeep product planners, engineers, and designers were all in a self-congratulatory mood as they talked about the new Grand Cherokee's features, and with good reason. Last year the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the fate of this vehicle remained uncertain.

The car before us, which we would soon get to rough up on dirt roads, represented a difficult birth. From the beginning, it was a radical reinterpretation of the Grand Cherokee. Gone was the live rear axle from the previous version, in favor of a modern independent suspension. A fuel-saving 3.6-liter V-6 became the base level engine.

Jeep added its UConnect suite of cabin tech, including navigation and a wireless router. And the drive response is now controlled by a terrain system, which lets the driver simply select the type of driving surface with a knob on the console. The new Grand Cherokee looked to be a huge technological leap from its predecessors.

Luxury Jeep

While maintaining its reputation for off-road prowess with the Grand Cherokee, Jeep also wants to make it competitive in the luxury SUV segment, putting it up against the Lexus RX 350. That is a tall order, but from our initial look at the cabin, Jeep is off to a good start. Getting into the car, we were immediately pleased with the steering wheel's feel, as it is wrapped in a matte finish leather. Real wood trim graced the cabin, and soft plastics covered the dashboard. Upholstered interior door handles and console top completed the cabin appointments.

In the car, we immediately recognized the UConnect head unit, which combines navigation, audio, and the Bluetooth phone system, having seen it most recently in the Chrysler Town and Country. The hard-drive-based navigation includes traffic and 3D maps for a full-featured system, but the LCD is small, and the plastic buttons surrounding it are unrefined.

Jeep Grand Cherokee interior
Jeep updated the interior fit and finish to compete with luxury SUVs. Jeep

During this preview event, we didn't have the chance to test these systems but were impressed that Jeep will offer its full suite of electronics in the Grand Cherokee. Along with the Wi-Fi router mentioned above, Sirius TV and Flo TV will be available.

But what we found more interesting were some of the driver assistance technologies as we drove the Grand Cherokee down the freeway. Blind-spot detection turned on a warning light in the mirror when another car was off our rear quarter. Nicely inset buttons on the steering wheel spokes set the adaptive cruise control. With our speed dialed in at 75 mph, the Grand Cherokee slowed for traffic ahead, and would bring the car to a full stop if needed. This is decidedly a new era for Jeep.

Jeep tuned the steering perfectly, giving it a solid feel with a reasonable amount of resistance. Unlike Lexus, which tends to overboost its power steering, the Grand Cherokee wheel requires a little effort to turn, which mirrors the overall tautness of the suspension. Where many SUVs can feel like dumb crates with unpredictable handling, Jeep kept the Grand Cherokee tight, with good damping response when hitting the inevitable bumps in the road.

V-8 or V-6

For the first section of the drive, we had a Limited trim vehicle with the available 5.7-liter V-8. This engine uses variable valve timing, but only makes 360 horsepower. On the other hand, it also turns out 390 pound-feet of torque. It moved the Grand Cherokee effortlessly, going up hills on the freeway at 70 mph with no complaint.

This engine uses cylinder deactivation, cutting down on fuel use while cruising, but we still wouldn't expect economy over 20 mpg. Jeep has yet to explore efficiency technologies such as direct injection, and sticks the Grand Cherokee with a five-speed automatic.

The newly developed 3.6-liter V-6, although still mated to a five-speed, gets 23 mpg on the highway, according to Jeep. We drove a V-6 model later in the day, and found it to be a perfectly capable engine. During passing maneuvers, it struggled a little bit more than the V-8 but felt fine for everyday driving. This engine delivers 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, yet still gives the Grand Cherokee a 5,000-pound tow rating.

Selec-Terrain controller
The Selec-Terrain controller lets the driver easily set the four-wheel-drive program. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Although Jeep makes its Quadra-Lift air suspension available for the Grand Cherokee, this system is primarily designed to increase clearance for off-road work; it won't counteract body roll in the corners. But the front and rear independent suspension does an excellent job on its own.

Our first use of the Grand Cherokee's Selec-Terrain controller was to move it from the default Auto position to its Sport setting. The Selec-Train system has five settings: Sport, Snow, Auto, Sand/Mud, and Rock. Each mode adjusts the four-wheel-drive, transmission, and suspension.

The Sport program lowers the vehicle a little with the air suspension, lowers the transmission shift points, and substantially dials down the traction control. As we powered the car through the corners, the suspension felt firm, but allowed some body lean. The traction control let the back end come out enough to assist rotation. It might not have been up to the level of the BMW X5 M, but we found it very satisfying.

Real off-road

In its effort to assure us that the Grand Cherokee was no soft-roader, Jeep brought us to an off-road recreation area, letting us drive the vehicle over an obstacle course. Over a series of dirt roads we made use of the Sand/Mud setting, appropriate for the loose dirt and heavy ruts.

We cranked the suspension to its maximum, 11-inch clearance height and proceeded forward. In some of the deeper ruts we were surprised the Grand Cherokee didn't bottom out, while small mounds tested the break-over angle. With front wheels over the ridge the vehicle only scraped bottom when we went over a little fast.

For more serious challenges, we went to Rock mode, which automatically engages hill descent control. Ahead on the track, we looked doubtfully at what our Jeep minder called a rock garden, a series of small boulders set into the dirt that we were supposed to drive over. Trusting that everything would be all right, or at least that it wasn't our own car, we headed into it and were impressed as the Grand Cherokee made its way through, wheels rising and falling as they went over successive boulders.

Jeep Grand Cherokee
We would be hesitant to take any car down this slope, but the Jeep performed admirably. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The most amazing challenge of the day was a steep, 100-yard descent on a loose dirt road. Looking down the thing through the windshield had us envisioning the car slewing to the side and rolling all the way down. But Jeep assured us the Grand Cherokee could handle it ,so we engaged the hill descent control and pointed it down.

This was truly an amazing experience. Keeping feet off the brake or gas, the four-wheel-drive system kept its speed to a couple of miles per hour as it began to crawl down. The loose dirt caused the car to rotate right or left, which we countered with the steering wheel. Each time it started to turn, the four-wheel-drive system slowed it down further so we could react.

Eventually we made it to the bottom, car and occupants intact. Watching others in our party take this descent convinced us that the Grand Cherokee has few equals in the luxury SUV segment for off-road prowess. Land Rover seems the only rival, but its models come at luxury prices.

The base model 2011 Grand Cherokee Laredo starts at $30,995, but that is a rear-wheel-drive model. To get four wheel drive, and begin to get some off-road competency, the price goes up to $32,995. The Limited trim model begins at $37,495, and comes in both rear- and four-wheel-drive. The top model is the Overland. Of course, to get the kind of off-road capability we saw on our obstacle course, the vehicle needs to come with the air suspension and one of the advanced four-wheel-drive packages.