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The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of the most familiar SUV nameplates in the business, but unlike some other vehicles that shall be named later, and often, it hasn't walked the crossover plank. It's still a rugged piece of equipment that can get as dirty and deeply entrenched in mud and ruts as you'd like--or as tightly wedged in the pickup lane at middle school.
Redesigned in 2011 from a platform shared with old business partners at Mercedes-Benz, the Grand Cherokee doesn't look much like its distant cousin, the M-Class, on the surface, or in its cabin. The classic Jeep seven-bar grille sees to that, though it's faired in more effectively than ever. The Grand Cherokee's proportions have been fixed from the last generation's short, squatty look, lifted and smoothed in all directions--and if you get the chance to park next to an M-Class, it's immediately obvious the two share some DNA. That's also clear once you step inside the Grand Cherokee and spy the relationship of hard points like gauges and air vents, but the Jeep's styling is completely its own. It's also some of the best we've seen in a string of very successful Chrysler cabins; the materials are almost uniformly expensive-looking, the controls are logically placed.
The combination of American flair and some German engineering does amazing things for the Cherokee, giving it a newfound feel that almost masks its considerable toughness. It's still an off-roading SUV—but with the vastly improved ride, steering, and soft-touch sophistication of a crossover. Its four-wheel-drive systems hit the sweet spot of usability for casual off-roaders, but on-road drivers get even more attention. This might be the first Grand Cherokee that feels better on pavement than off, though the most advanced versions can still clamber over boulders and logs like they're about to be made into fur coats.
The Grand Cherokee also sports Chrysler's first new V-6 engine in a decade. The 290-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 teams up with a fairly dated five-speed automatic that's better than average, but still a relic from its wrecked marriage. Together, the powertrain combines for some resonance and boom at midrange speeds that could use some attention, but good passing strength and adequate fuel economy. This drivetrain's good enough to make the optional 360-hp HEMI V-8 an afterthought to anyone except the big spenders eager to inject some dollars into the Obama economy, though the HEMI's available air suspension and advanced all-wheel-drive systems are the equal of anything you'll find in a pricier M-Class.
Oh, did we forget the SRT8? The 470-hp HEMI addition to this year's lineup gets tight suspension tuning, flatter handling, its own cosmetic touches, even a layer on its touchscreen to measure its 0-60 mph times, estimated in the five-second range. Do want, even at the heady $60,000 entry price.
The Grand Cherokee may not offer up the third-row seating or funky-flexible interior of some bigger crossovers, but it has two extraordinary performance vectors that few SUVs can offer--few, other than the Porsche Cayenne or the BMW X5 or of course, the M-Class, the trio of utes it stacks up against most directly, even at its cut-rate price. That makes it an extraordinary value, one that earns top safety scores and our admiration--for hanging on to some classic SUV traits while blazing some new trails in driving fun and sophistication.