If you're in the market for a five-seat SUV with strong performance and off-roading possibilities, there's sure to be a Grand Cherokee that fits. We're mixed on the utility of the middle version of this sport-utility vehicle, but sold on the basic and intergalatic versions offered up for sale this year.
Jeep mixes and matches a V-6 or two V-8s, a five-speed automatic, a trio of four-wheel-drive systems, and steel or air suspensions to make the Grand Cherokee the best-behaved Jeep yet. It's on a par with the likes of the VW Touareg on the road, while it keeps its trailblazing bona fides intact.
At the starting gate, there's a 290-hp V-6, a six-cylinder that marks Chrysler's first from-scratch piece in more than a decade. It's a catch-up powerplant that incorporates variable valve timing, flex-fuel capability, and lots of fuel economy tricks and tweaks, all adding up to a fairly smooth midrange performer that gets a bit boomy in this application, especially when it's pressed hard on freeway entrance ramps. We think it's strong enough, even with its dated five-speed automatic, to leave the burbling, torquey, 360-hp 5.7-liter V-8 option to those who might need extreme towing capacity. The V-8's a HEMI in all but name, and it pulls and sounds like one, but it's not such a huge improvement in everyday driving that it's worth the immense fuel-economy penalty. The V-6 version ekes out 17/23 mpg in rear-drive V-6 versions, or 16/23 mpg for the four-wheel-drive model; the V-8 musters only 13/20 mpg, with standard four-wheel drive.
Then there's the Grand Cherokee SRT8, so distinct it's nearly a separate vehicle (in fact, Chrysler's trying to elevate the SRT vehicles into a brand all their own). The SRT8 starts with a Cherokee outfitted with a 6.4-liter HEMI that barks out 470 horsepower, and channels it through a five-speed paddle-shifted automatic to all four wheels. Chrysler claims a 0-60 mph time of 4.8 seconds, a quarter-mile time in the mid-13s, a top speed of 160 mph, and braking from 60-0 mph in 116 feet. How it gets there isn't a huge mystery: big displacement is tempered with cylinder deactivation to quell some of the appetite for gas destruction, but the SRT8 still only manages 12/18 mpg, or as Chrysler happily whistles past the dinosaur graveyard, 450 miles on a single tank. It's a glorious, vain, attention-getting piece of performance art, and you'd be a fool not to want one for the obvious reasons, and a fool to want one with gas approaching $5 a gallon.
Further beneath its skin, the Mercedes contribution to the Grand Cherokee’s upbringing is more invisible. The Jeep's unibody architecture is stiffer and sounder than ever before, and that enables the steering and steel or electronic air suspensions to do their jobs more precisely than ever. No more live axle: the latest Cherokee's suspension is independent all around, and it gels with the steering to create crossover-like road manners. No more boundy ride or vague steering: the Grand Cherokee handles pavement about as well as a Honda Pilot, if not with the carlike ride motions of a Flex. With the Limited and Overland editions, there’s an available Quadra-Lift air suspension that can raise the Cherokee from 4.1 inches to 10.7 inches off the ground—great for off-roading, and even more settled on-road.
For the times you want to explore new territory, the Grand Cherokee can be ordered with one of three four-wheel-drive systems. The basic Quadra-Trac I is a standard locking differential in the middle, with power split 50:50 front to rear. Quadra-Trac II can split torque variably from front to rear, as traction disappears at either end; Quadra-Drive II adds on an electronic limited slip differential across the rear axle so that the Grand Cherokee can respond even more intelligently to slipping and sliding. You’d want the most extreme choice for the most extreme duties, but our favorite is the plain base setup—it’s lightweight, simpler, and more than enough traction control for casual drivers.
On top of all this, Jeep grafts a Selec-Terrain system to the torque-splitting systems. Selec-Terrain lets you choose one of five traction-control modes according to driving conditions: Auto, Sand/Mud, Sport, Snow, and Rock. In concept it’s a lot like the system in the Land Rover lineup; in practice, the Jeep version requires you to intervene more with the gas and brake. It’s useful stuff—if you don’t already know to take it slow and steady when conditions aren’t perfect. Lastly, with the rear-drive V-8 Grand Cherokee, Jeep claims a 7,400-pound towing capacity.
SRT8s, of course, get their own tuning, with adaptive air suspension and a "Selec-Track" governing body that controls it and the stability control, transmission shift programming, transfer-case torque management, electronic limited-slip management, throttle and cylinder-deactivation controls, all split among five modes: automatic, Sport, Tow, Track and Snow. It's also working in concert with Quadra-Trac to ship torque around--all to one rear wheel if need be--to balance out traction on the SRT8's 20-inch, 45-series Pirelli all-season run-flats or optional P Zero summer tires. The sacrifice? SRT8s can tow only 5000 pounds while they turn in about 0.90g of grip. You'll never be able to compare an SUV driving experience to this one again unless you sample a Cayenne Turbo or an ML63 or an X5 M--it's flat, sharp, full of raucous engine noises, maybe a little agitated in its Track ride motions, fully tweaked for a great time.