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.
Although a premium SUV, the Grand Cherokee keeps its off-road credentials.
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.
The five-speed automatic does not let you manually shift and has no low ranges
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.
The Grand Cherokee can handle difficult surfaces, like rock fields.
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.
The Selec-Terrain system lets you dial in the Grand Cherokee's suspension and control for specific surface types.
The engine did not give us a lot of on-demand power while cornering, but the Grand Cherokee's all-wheel drive and suspension tech helped it perform well, limiting body roll and delivering an overall feeling of stability. The suspension showed a good deal of refinement, not only handling corners well but contributing to a comfortable ride on various road surfaces.
Around town and on the freeway the Grand Cherokee felt equally tractable, easy to maneuver in tight quarters and smooth riding at high speeds. The V-6 didn't deliver the passing power we would have liked, but it turned in reasonable fuel economy. We achieved a 19.5 mpg average, admittedly with a bias toward freeway and highway driving. The EPA rates it at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. The V-8 dips down to 13 mpg city and 19 mpg highway.
Helping us out on the freeway was a blind-spot detection system and adaptive cruise control, two advanced features that show Jeep isn't afraid of technology. The blind-spot system worked well, lighting up icons in the side mirrors when cars were off the corresponding rear quarter. If we happened to hit the turn signal for that side, the system flashed the icon and sounded a warning note, useful in an SUV.
This bubble in front conceals forward-looking radar for the adaptive-cruise and collision mitigation systems.
The adaptive cruise control let us set our speed and following distance for slower traffic. We were impressed when the radar locked on the slim profile of a motorcycle ahead, maintaining a comfortable following distance. This system is capable of bringing the Grand Cherokee to a complete stop.
The cruise control's radar is also used for a crash mitigation system that, when sensing an impending collision first gives an audible warning then activates precrash systems such as tightening seat belts. This system seemed to lack discrimination, occasionally sounding its warning for traffic or objects that weren't in our path. But it never went beyond the audible warning for false alerts.
As a standard feature in the Limited trim Grand Cherokee, the head unit has a colorful LCD on the center stack with a 30GB hard drive inside. Strangely, we did not have navigation in this vehicle. Jeep says that it will include some kind of Garmin GPS with the Grand Cherokee Limited at a later date. We have used the hard-drive-based navigation system that is supposed to be optionally available with the Limited trim. It shows traffic information and has the usual features we expect from a navigation system in a luxury vehicle.
With the hard drive, we could store quite a bit of music in the Grand Cherokee, either by ripping it from CDs or transferring from USB drives. Jeep puts some tools for managing files on the hard drive in the vehicle's interface, and offers a good browser to select music by album, artist, genre, or individual track. Although not optioned on our vehicle, iPod integration is available and uses the same interface.
The Grand Cherokee includes an interface for managing files on the car's 30GB hard drive.
What really impressed us was the quality of the audio from the car's 10-speaker system. Unbranded, the system uses a 506-watt amp and delivers excellent detail all around. The sound is as well-balanced as from any premium car-based system, with controlled bass and pleasant highs. Vocals come through clearly, and we found it overall a very enjoyable listening experience.
Having that good-quality audio system is especially important considering our car's optional rear-seat entertainment system. The ceiling-mounted LCD showed the typical problem of blocking the view from the rearview mirror when down. It only shows a single source, as opposed to some of the new dual-source screens showing up in minivans lately. But along with DVD playback, it also shows satellite TV. This limited offering from Sirius brings in shows appropriate for children from Nickelodeon, Disney, and Cartoon Network.
In other Chrysler company cars using a version of this head unit, such as the Dodge Challenger, we complained that the voice command button was too far from the driver. The Jeep Grand Cherokee not only puts the voice command button on the driver side of the head-unit bezel but also puts a button on the steering wheel.
This voice command system proved very accurate in our testing and also allowed for dialing by name from a paired cell phone's contact list. The Bluetooth phone system also appears to have the capability of reading out received text messages, but we were not able to test that capability.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee has come a long way over the decades, as evidenced by this vehicle's advanced cabin tech. Its stereo, Bluetooth phone system, and navigation are all very feature-rich, but what helps push it over the top are the extras, including the rear-seat entertainment system, driver assistance features, and an available wireless hot spot network.
For performance tech, its off-road systems show excellence in features and capability. However, the engine choices and transmission are not as advanced as they could be, and they show it with moderate power and fuel economy.
Where the Grand Cherokee could use some real refinement is in the cabin tech interface, which looks out of place among the general interior fit and finish. And though the vehicle offers the practical interior space and ergonomics we would expect in an SUV, its rear looks too generically boxlike. However, its front end does a good job of proclaiming its Jeepness.
|Model||2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee|
|Power train||3.6-liter V-6, five-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||16 mpg city/22 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.5 mpg|
|Navigation||Hard-drive-based navigation with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single-CD/DVD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||Onboard hard drive, Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, satellite radio|
|Audio system||10-speaker 506-watt audio system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot detection, backup camera|
|Price as tested||$45,205|