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Driven: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

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There's a clash of titans set for the end of this year, when the 2011 Ford Explorer makes its public debut after an endless teaser campaign on Facebook. Yes, that campaign, the one we're all over on our social-media-for-cars site.

What's the other mythical creature being tossed in the ring? The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, brand-new this year, and so much the better for it you'll swear it's entirely new genetic material.

And it is.

The Grand Cherokee is taking a more traditional tack than the Explorer, when it comes to rekindling the flame with real SUV buyers. We hear the Ford will depend on turbocharged fuel economy and street-friendly handling to launder its sullied brand name. The Grand Cherokee is practically rolling around in the dirt: it's all about off-road prowess with--finally--an equal dose of pavement smarts.

It's also making much of its Mercedes-Benz roots, however estranged they might be. Part of the reason the new Grand Cherokee is so well-executed, is it marries the great platform found underneath the Benz ML-Class, down to the air suspension, with some new traction controls, a classic Jeep look (though it's a little softer than before), and Chrysler powertrains. Give credit to Chrysler's strong new V-6, but dole some out to Mercedes for the Jeep's sweet steering feel, and its ably damped ride quality with either the base setup or the air suspension option.

While you're at it, give the DaimlerChrysler divorce the blame for the Jeep's five-speed automatic, which needs a gear or two just to be up to date. You have to be on speaking terms to make sure the kids are being taken care of.

With good performance on any surface, very good styling and interior space, the Grand Cherokee's as good as any crossover on the market. We'd never have suspected it would turn out this well, given all the courtroom drama that sucked in Chrysler from DaimlerChrysler, to Cerberus, and finally into bankruptcy and partial public ownership. Somehow, the Cherokee's dodged those hurdles, and it's going to age well--which gives Fiat a six-year cushion on designing a new generation vehicle all Jeep's own.

Whether Chrysler and Fiat will be able to strike this chord of finesse is a pretty fundamental question for their whole alliance. For now, they have what should be a solid hit on their hands--and a Swiss Army knife to carve out converts from the likes of the Honda Pilot, the Volkswagen Touareg and maybe that kinder, gentler Ford Explorer waiting in the wings.

For more photos, specs, pricing and news, check out our full review of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

 
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