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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee goes upmarket and off-road

Jeep's new Grand Cherokee premium SUV represents a major update for the venerable model. Jeep fitted it with advanced off-road systems to handle demanding terrain and updated the interior for comfort. We participated in a preview drive that took us over some tough obstacles.

Wayne_Cunningham.jpg
Wayne_Cunningham.jpg

Wayne Cunningham

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1 of 19 Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On this rocky climb, the Grand Cherokee demonstrated how it could handle uneven, slick surfaces.

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Jeep is taking steps to transform itself into a modern car company, and the 2011 Grand Cherokee is evidence of success. This vehicle retains Jeep's off-road reputation while adding a luxury interior competitive with the likes of Lexus.

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Over an off-road course, we got to test things such as the vehicle's break-over angle, how well it could negotiate sharp rises without bottoming out.
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Although the sides and rear of the Grand Cherokee are toned down, keeping stylistic flourishes to a minimum, it incorporates classic Jeep touches such as trapezoidal wheel arches and the seven-bar grille.
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Designers even placed an icon representing the seven-bar grille on the headlight's central element, showing nice attention to detail.
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Grand Cherokees are strictly five-passenger vehicles. Jeep does not include the option for a third row.
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The suspension is taut, leading to a firm but comfortable ride. The Grand Cherokee can also be had with air suspension, although it is primarily designed to add clearance in off-road situations.
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Following an industry trend, Jeep updated the interior with soft plastics, making surfaces pleasant to touch. Real wood trim runs along the dash, and leather seats include heating and cooling functions.
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Contours in the front seats allow extra knee room for rear-seat passengers. We found ample room in the rear seat.
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The rear shows two-tone styling with this interior color choice, along with chrome luggage strips on the cargo floor. Under that floor are removable bins for storing sundry items.
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The three-spoke steering wheel has a good feel because of the matte finish leather wrapping. Another trim option includes a wood strip in the top part of the wheel.
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We were surprised to find adaptive cruise control in the Grand Cherokee, a radar-based system that will bring the car to a full halt if traffic is stopped ahead. A button on the steering wheel spoke lets you set the following distance.
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Jeep is unfortunately stuck with a five-speed transmission for the 2011 Grand Cherokee, leading to lower highway fuel economy. Although not marked on the gate, moving the shifter left or right from the Drive position manually shifts gears.
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The Selec-Terrain controller is new in the Grand Cherokee, letting you easily select a four-wheel-drive program suitable for conditions. These modes affect transmission, four-wheel drive, traction control, and suspension programs.
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Jeep's hard-drive-based navigation system works well, showing traffic and offering readable maps. But the LCD is on the small side and we would like to see a more off-road-oriented display.
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iPod integration and onboard music storage are two of the advanced audio sources in the Grand Cherokee.
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Heading into a rock garden, the Grand Cherokee showed how well it could handle small boulders. Along with its good clearance, all-wheel-drive systems applied the right amount of hold and power to each wheel, as needed.
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Heading down this steep slope, we didn't touch the brake or accelerator, letting the car's descent control do most of the work.
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While coming down this grade, the wheels shifted between hold and power to keep grip. The loose surface caused the Grand Cherokee to twist left and right, which we corrected with the steering wheel.

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