New & Used Jeep Grand Cherokee: In Depth
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The Jeep Grand Cherokee is a mid-size SUV that can carry up to five passengers while it crawls over rocks and traverses pavement equally well.
Most Grand Cherokee models from the past decade have been powered by V-6 or V-8 gasoline engines, with a choice between rear- and four-wheel drive. A turbodiesel is now in the lineup, and for 2015 the Grand Cherokee receives moderate design updates, plus more power for its slightly bonkers SRT edition.
With its luxurious interior and in-cabin technology, to its SRT and turbodiesel models, the Grand Cherokee can assume many identities--everything between luxury SUV and tough off-roader. As such, it's a rival for the Ford Explorer and the Toyota 4Runner as well as some Euro utes like the BMW X5 and the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
MORE: Read our 2015 Jeep Grand Cherokee review for prices with options, specifications, and fuel economy ratings
The Grand Cherokee is one of the vehicles that spawned the SUV gold rush in the 1990s. It and the Ford Explorer drew a generation of drivers out of sedans and into big, tall wagons, for better and for worse. It's still one of the best sellers today, and though a handful of other SUVs combine toughness and luxury ambiance, almost none of them do it at the Grand Cherokee's price point.
Back then, and still today, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is a very off-road-capable luxury sport-utility vehicle, offering rather chunky, rugged styling, along with enough family-friendly practicality inside.
The first-generation Grand Cherokee (called ZJ by the company and off-road enthusiasts) wasn't an exceptional on-road performer by any measure, but they moved just fine with the long-running and torquey 4.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine (of AMC origins). The 5.2-liter or 5.9-liter V-8 engines were definitely the choice for those who towed, and the 5.9 Limited felt like an all-out muscle truck. During some of this time, the most luxurious versions of the Grand Cherokee were badged Grand Wagoneer, and included a specially trimmed, leather-lined cabin and a wood-paneled-look exterior.
The second-generation (WJ) Grand Cherokee arrived with a rounded version of the original's styling that was still distinctive and recognizable. The interior trimmings were more luxurious, and mechanical updates included a new five-speed automatic transmission and a hydraulically actuated Quadra-Drive four-wheel-drive system; rear-wheel drive and a more basic four-wheel-drive system remained on offer as well. The engine menu stayed put, although eight-cylinder models saw increased output.
The Grand Cherokee was again substantially redesigned for 2005. This time, Jeep threw out the old in-line six, replacing it with an also-dated 3.7-liter V-6, but all-new 5.7-liter and 6.1-liter HEMI V-8 engines joined the range. While the V-8s brought brisk acceleration and plenty of muscle for towing, this generation was widely panned by critics as being a step back in what mattered to much of the Grand's buyer base; most notably, it felt a bit tighter, seating-wise, than the previous generation.
For a short time, Jeep also offered a 3.0 CRD turbo-diesel version of the third-gen Grand Cherokee; it performed well and was quite fuel-efficient, but emissions regulations and slow sales forced an early demise.
Beginning with the 2006 Grand Cherokee SRT8, Jeep showed that it could appeal to go-fast on-road enthusiasts, too. The performance model packed a 420-hp, 6.1-liter HEMI, a sport-tuned suspension, and a host of upgrades, and this model could not only do modest off-roading but also get to Autobahn speeds and reach 60 mph in well under five seconds.
In all of its existence through the '90s and '00s, the Grand Cherokee was lacking several things that were increasingly required by suburban families: More precise, carlike handling; a better on-road ride; and top-notch safety. But over the past decade especially its rugged image and Rubicon capability were no longer enough; its sloppy steering and choppy-yet-boundy ride were, in fact, deal-breakers to many, and families moved over to other luxury-brand SUVs that didn't cost much more.
Today's Grand Cherokee
Things changed when the 2011 Grand Cherokee was introduced in 2010. Thanks to the earlier DaimlerChrysler tie-up, the new Grand Cherokee shares a basic architecture with the Mercedes M- and GL-Class SUVs. It's more sophisticated as a result, with smoother on-road dynamics, an available air suspension, and great steering, while still retaining the off-road chops that made the Grand Cherokee what it was in the beginning. Although Daimler and Chrysler are no longer an item, this prime example of their shared expertise will continue on anyway.
As before, the 2011 Grand Cherokee was as extreme as you wanted it to be—with the top Quadra Drive system sophisticated enough for either negotiating slippery rocks and mud or mindfully gripping with the right wheel in your snow-drift-buried driveway. And even better, Jeep has also introduced a Range Rover-like Selec-Terrain system that simplifies getting through the tough stuff, with an Auto mode plus separate ones for sand/mud, snow, and rock.
With its modern and more refined 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, in addition to returning HEMI V-8s, the new Grand Cherokee is also a bit more fuel efficient in its base form.
The SRT8 returned for 2012, with a 465-hp, 6.4-liter HEMI fitted to the much-improved, new-generation Grand Cherokee. It's now simply known as the Grand Cherokee SRT.
The Grand Cherokee has always been ahead of its time with respect to features. Back in its first-gen version the Grand Cherokee offered features like steering-wheel audio controls, plush leather upholstery, heated seats, and keyless entry. The newest models can be had with extensive entertainment and information extras like Uconnect Web (to turn the vehicle into a wireless hotspot).
In 2013, a rugged Trailhawk version of the Grand Cherokee joined the lineup. The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk included off-road-specific hardware such as 18-inch off-road tires; an air suspension; off-road-tuned traction control; its own badging and black and red accents; and black suede and leather seats.
The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee made its debut at the 2013 Detroit Auto Show, bringing a significant refresh to the lineup. A new eight-speed automatic transmission is now standard throughout the lineup. Brand-new for the model year was a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 that achieves an excellent 30 mpg on the highway. Towing capacities were boosted and now range up to 7,400 pounds for the V-8 and diesel. SRT models (no longer SRT8) gained a new Launch Control feature, as well as a Track Mode that sends 70 percent of torque by default to the rear wheels for high-performance driving.
All models in the 2014 Grand Cherokee lineup received a new shorter grille, slimmer taillights, and new LED rear lamps that mimic the shape of the headlamps. New active-safety features included Forward Collision Alert with Crash Mitigation, and a new 19-speaker, 825-watt Harman/Kardon surround-sound audio system highlights a set of revised infotainment features.
Changes for 2015 include an output bump to 475 hp for the Grand Cherokee SRT, as well as a new Red Vapor package for that highest-performance GC. The Summit also gets some enhancements, including an Argentine Tan leather option, a new monochrome California Edition exterior package, and acoustic glass. Both the Summit and SRT get active noise cancellation that plays through the stereo.