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When Jeep released its 2011 Grand Cherokee, it startled old Jeep aficionados by going with an entirely independent suspension and implementing electronic off-road settings. The 2014 Grand Cherokee takes the technology even further with its digital speedometer and integrated apps.
The result is a near-perfect luxury SUV that maintains real off-road credibility.
Rather than manual differential locks, the Grand Cherokee benefits from Jeep's Quadra-Trac and Selec-Terrain systems, which take sensor information and intelligently distribute torque to all four wheels. Likewise, an air suspension automatically levels the vehicle and aids in wheel articulation. As a bonus, that air suspension gives the Grand Cherokee a particularly comfortable ride on pavement.
The example I got into was a 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit with four-wheel drive. Most models can also be had with just rear-wheel drive. The Summit trim comes fully loaded, and although it tops $50,000, it competes extremely well with the much pricier Range Rover feature for feature.
In fact, the interior of the Grand Cherokee sported all the luxury and comfort I would expect of a Range Rover. The dashboard was covered in leather, colored in Jeep Brown. The wood trim, with its matte finish, felt grainy and natural. The front seats, power-adjustable on each side, even had both venting and heating controls.
Instead of a big pole of a shifter stabbing up from the console, the Grand Cherokee uses a modern, compact, and ergonomically designed hand grip for the vehicle's eight-speed automatic transmission. Rather than pulling it through a gate, I merely had to pull it back or push it forward to engage whichever drive mode I wanted. It's fully electronic, smooth, and easy to operate.
This Grand Cherokee came equipped with the base engine, Jeep's 3.6-liter V-6. Not the most advanced power plant, its variable valve timing helps it turn out 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, while getting fuel economy averaging around 20 mpg. Not stellar, but reasonable for this 5,000-pound SUV.
The V-6 proved adequate for the Grand Cherokee, but there are a few other engine options to consider. The most intriguing is a 3-liter V-6 diesel, which Jeep says gives the Grand Cherokee a range of over 700 miles. Other options are a 5.7-liter V-8 gasoline engine, and the Grand Cherokee SRT's 6.4-liter Hemi V-8.
What really surprised me initially about the Grand Cherokee was, instead of a lumbering tank stripping side mirrors off of parked cars as I piloted down city streets, it proved to be excessively maneuverable, with easy and precise handling. The steering, which uses an electrohydraulic boost system, moves with little effort and the turning radius seems better than on some compact cars. That tight turning radius helps in the city, crowded parking lots, and on the trail.
Checking the spec sheet, I saw that the Grand Cherokee comes in well under 16 feet long, yet accentuates its five-passenger seating with healthy amount of cargo space.
When I hit the gas for a passing maneuver or a merge, the V-6 delivered decent acceleration, good enough for traffic but not enough to be impressive. A couple of things can affect acceleration, one being the Eco mode, which comes on by default at startup. It affects the transmission programming and can be defeated with a button push.
The other is Sport mode, activated with a second pull back on the shifter. The car let me know I had selected Sport mode by turning the LCD speedometer red and posting a big alert saying "Sport Mode Activated." Suddenly the throttle response became sharper and the transmission more aggressive. But it was loath to use the top two gears, so in the interest of fuel economy I only used it when the road got twisty.
Paddle shifters on the steering wheel let me manually select gears, but this transmission was very laggy in its gear changes. I reserved manual gear selection for engine braking when going downhill.
Sport mode made the air suspension hunker down a bit as well, improving handling. The Grand Cherokee never showed quite the handling acumen of a Porsche Cayenne, but I didn't have to slow for the turns too much.
Barreling down the highway at speed, the Grand Cherokee automatically lowered the suspension to improve its aerodynamics, resulting in better fuel efficiency. Despite being lowered, the air suspension still delivered a truly comfortable ride. After spending a full day driving the Grand Cherokee, I had none of the usual aches and pains one might associate with a road trip.
Part of the technology payload that comes standard on the Grand Cherokee Summit is Jeep's Uconnect navigation system. Instead of the tortured interfaces introduced by many other automakers, Jeep keeps it simple. An 8.4-inch touch screen mounted in the center of the dashboard and a few buttons around the steering wheel are all that is needed.
The touch screen shows a menu ribbon across the bottom with icons for navigation, the stereo, the hands-free phone system, and, surprisingly enough, apps.
This Uconnect system uses navigation software from Garmin, so the destination menus will be familiar to anybody who has used a Garmin portable navigation device. Unlike previous generations of the Uconnect navigation system, the Garmin software is much more integrated with the other functions, so I did not feel like I was going into an entirely different product when I switched from navigation to the stereo controls. The design is cohesive.
The maps show 3D representations of some buildings in downtown areas, and the Garmin software does an excellent job with route guidance, taking traffic conditions into account for intelligent routing. Along with good graphics illustrating upcoming turns and junctions on the main screen, the LCD speedometer also shows turn directions.
Garmin offers typical destination options, such as address input and a points-of-interest database. The Grand Cherokee's voice command also let me enter an address as a single string, instead of breaking it down into single components. But the real bonus, something showing that the Grand Cherokee is embracing tech, is that Jeep includes Bing for local search on the app screen.
Bing includes its own voice command function and an onscreen keyboard for entering search terms.
While I could select any of the search results and have the address entered as a destination for the navigation system, Jeep should give drivers access to Bing from the destination screen. It does not make sense to bury it on the apps screen.
Jeep also puts Sirius Travel Link in the apps area, which shows weather, fuel prices, movie times, and sports scores. More intriguing, there is a slot on the apps screen for a Uconnect app store. Although I found few offerings currently, it has the potential for a great deal of expansion.
The only problem I found with the Grand Cherokee's touch-screen interface is that it could be a little sluggish. It was not as bad as some of the slower systems out there, but it was not as fast as a newer tablet or smartphone. Its reaction times were similar to those of a Kindle Paperwhite.
Further showing itself to be one of the more advanced systems on the market, the Grand Cherokee's voice command also let me request music by name from an iPhone cabled to the car's USB port.
Next to the USB port sat an SD card slot as another audio source. The stereo also offered Bluetooth audio streaming, HD Radio, and satellite radio. The interface for each source looked good, even showing album art in some cases, and proved easy to use. Missing were such online audio sources as Pandora or Spotify, although the Uconnect app store suggests that these may show up at a later date.
Music plays through a very nice Harman Kardon audio system, at least with the Summit trim. The specs said the system boasted 20 speakers, including a subwoofer and center, but I could not find all of them. However, the 825-watt amp left a good impression in my ears.
Set to default equalization levels, the system leaned toward bass, which I enjoyed. The sub exerted a palpable force through the car, so that I felt as well as heard the music. However, it did not shake the door panels or cause other unfortunate noise. It also did a fine job with mid- and high ranges, delivering a full, textured sound. I would not put this system up there with the highest-level audiophile systems, but it was quite good, and far from what one might expect from a Jeep.
As if that amount of cabin tech were not enough, Jeep includes a number of driver assistance features to smooth out long road trips. The Grand Cherokee Summit featured adaptive cruise control and a blind-spot monitor, the latter very useful considering the high-riding position, which can obscure smaller cars to either side.
What seemed a little strange is that Jeep includes one button that engages normal cruise control, and another that engages the adaptive cruise control. Choice is usually good, but the two-button arrangement is unnecessary. Jeep makes use of the LCD speedometer to show a representation of the currently set following distance, which I could adjust using buttons on the steering wheel.
The adaptive cruise control did a good job of smoothly adjusting to the changing speeds of cars ahead. While following a line of cars heading toward a stoplight, I kept my foot off the brake to see what the Grand Cherokee would do. As the cars slowed to a halt, the Grand Cherokee braked until it got down to about 25 mph, at which time it sounded off a warning telling me that I should take over control. I believe this system would be technically capable of bringing the Grand Cherokee to a full stop, but Jeep probably does not want to deal with the liability.
The Grand Cherokee also had a backup camera, which proved surprisingly devoid of features. It lacked both trajectory and distance lines, either of which might come in hand given the limited rear visibility. A surround camera system would also have been nice for both maneuvering around boulders and parking lots.
And speaking of boulders, the Grand Cherokee performed very well on a trail drive, especially considering its stock Goodyear Fortera HL All-Season rubber. At a Jeep-sponsored event, I drove the 2011 Grand Cherokee along a technical course, where it performed admirably. I do not believe this update loses anything in that regard.
The trail I drove in this car afforded me the opportunity to see how it handled a rocky, moderate descent and climb. Putting it into its 4WD Low setting required shifting to Neutral, then its automatic Hill Descent control let me keep my foot off the brake and concentrate on steering. The Grand Cherokee's systems automatically compensated for wheel slip and kept the vehicle in control.
The Selec-Terrain control offers settings for snow, sand, mud, and rock, although that last only worked when I also engaged 4WD Low. Most of the time, even on a dirt road, I left it in Auto, which automatically adjusted torque and other settings depending on what its sensors told it.
Jeep did an excellent job with the 2014 Grand Cherokee, improving it many ways without messing anything up. I particularly like that the touch-screen interface for the cabin tech works so well, yet is so simple. Other automakers could really take a lesson from Jeep in this regard.
There are a few minor issues I found with the Grand Cherokee. First, that touch screen could be just a little snappier in its reaction times. The two buttons for cruise control seemed unnecessary, and added to button clutter. Likewise, one button on the steering wheel activates voice command for navigation and audio, while another activates the hands-free phone system. I would normally cite something like that as a larger problem, but Jeep keeps the buttons compact and close together, with well-differentiated icons.
One odd glitch I noticed was that the vehicle had a tendency to stay in night mode, dimming the LCDs, after I drove through a tunnel or shady spot in the road. That became a little annoying, but was quickly addressed by taking the headlights out of automatic mode.
I would also like to see a direct-injection system on this engine, increasing its efficiency, but the diesel engine option makes for a reasonable answer.
Given that the 2014 Grand Cherokee offers a great amount of comfort for road trips, a nice luxury interior, modern and useful cabin electronics that include apps, and real off-road capability, I would say most of the issues I found were easily outweighed by all the goodness.
|Model||2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee|
|Power train||3.6-liter V-6 engine, eight-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||17 mpg city/24 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||20.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Standard flash-memory-based with traffic data|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Bluetooth streaming, USB drive, iOS integration, SD card, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon 825-watt 20-speaker system|
|Driver aids||Adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitor, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$51,990|