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2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Performance

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On Performance

Not many cars can go from plain civic duty to muscular track challenger in the same body style. The Jeep Grand Cherokee can do it while wearing hiking boots. That makes it one of the most well-rounded vehicles on the planet.

It's a case of one body, three very different missions. The Grand Cherokee tackles competitors like the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz M-Class, even the prosaic Subaru Outback, by being many different things at once, whether it's a frugal diesel cruiser, an inexpensive family SUV, or a high-powered luxury machine.

The automatic is finally up to speed--finally, the Grand Cherokee's handling and off-road talent have a worthy gear-changer.

V-6 or V-6, gas or diesel?

All Grand Cherokees start out with a common base engine and transmission. The 290-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 is Chrysler's bread and butter, found in almost every one of its products. With flex-fuel capability and variable valve timing, but without direct injection, it has good power at the wide middle of its powerband, and in the Grand Cherokee it sounds tamer and more refined than in some of the older Chrysler bodies.

An excellent eight-speed ZF automatic is standard across the lineup now; it's also paired with paddle shift controls where the paddles aren't quite long enough to function as perfectly as they could (audio buttons mounted on the back of the steering wheel get in the way). The smoother operation the gearbox offers over the old five- and six-speed units doesn't just give the Grand Cherokee a more comely attitude--it also comes with a 2-mpg highway mileage improvement, helped along by an Eco transmission mode and the tailgate spoiler now applied to all models. With the new transmission, towing is up from 5,000 to 6,200 pounds, too.

One step up is the most interesting Grand Cherokee powertrain, a 3.0-liter turbodiesel six supplied by VM Motori. With 240 horsepower but 420 pound-feet of torque, it gives a towing option with 30-mpg highway economy versus the HEMI. It has a diesel sewing-machine throb at idle lets you know you're in one--and it's fairly loud from 2500 to 4000 rpm. Still, with a 0-60 mph time close to that of the V-6, towing capacity of 7,400 pounds, and unbelievable tractability off-road, the diesel's a great alternative to either of the gas powertrains, not to mention the substantially more expensive turbodiesels from VW, BMW, Mercedes and even Porsche. It's a $4,500 option on Limited, Overland, and Summit models.

The other engine option on those versions is Chrysler's 5.7-liter V-8. Though it doesn't wear a HEMI badge, it acts just like one, with the grunt and pull of a Charger and the sweet, musical V-8 engine note to go with the tug. It's aurally superior, but the HEMI's not such a huge improvement in everyday driving that it's worth the immense fuel-economy penalty. Towing is up to 7,400 pounds and thanks to the eight-speed automatic, cylinder deactivation, and an "aero" air-suspension mode, gas mileage is up 2 mpg on the highway cycle.

Beyond all comprehension is the Grand Cherokee SRT, an SUV that answers a lot of questions no one has--but does it with such passion and conviction, you'll listen every time. It easily compares with the likes of the ML63 and Cayenne at a big discount. The 6.4-liter V-8 rips off 470 horsepower, shunting it to all four wheels on a variable basis through an eight-speed paddle-shifted automatic. Chrysler claims a thrilling 0-60 mph time of 4.8 seconds, and adds launch control this year so owners can see those numbers, repeatably, on the SRT's Performance Pages screen. That isn't the only impressive number: the quarter-mile's pegged in the mid-13s, top speed hits 160 mph, and 60-0 mph braking cuts things short in just 116 feet. It's true performance art, and extravagant in ways you might never associate with the Jeep name.

If you're unaware, today's Grand Cherokee is related to the Mercedes M-Class, back from the days of DaimlerChrysler. The relationship shows up in many ways, all of which make this the best-performing Grand Cherokee ever. The body is stiffer and sounder than ever before, and that enables the steering and the independent steel or electronic air suspensions to do their jobs more precisely than ever. The Grand Cherokee's suspension just gels with the steering to create crossover-like road manners, without the boundy ride and the slow steering responses of the past. With the Limited, Overland, and Summit editions, there’s an improved Quadra-Lift air suspension that can raise the Grand Cherokee from 6.4 inches to 11.3 inches off the ground through five modes—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 all- or four-wheel-drive systems. The basic Quadra-Trac I has a standard locking differential in the middle, with power split 50:50 front to rear, but no low range. Quadra-Trac II can split torque variably from front to rear, as traction disappears at either end, up to 100 percent in theory; a lower crawl ratio makes it even more terrific off-road this year. 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 the base setup is lightweight, simple, and more than enough traction control for crossover-SUV drivers.

Beyond that, the Grand Cherokee is one of the few vehicles that can be fitted with hardcore off-road talent. Jeep grafts a Selec-Terrain system to the "II" systems. Selec-Terrain lets you choose one of five traction-control modes according to driving conditions: Auto, Sand, Mud, Snow, and Rock. (The former Sport mode is selected on the shift lever.) It’s useful stuff—if you don’t already know to take it slow and steady when conditions aren’t perfect. Some versions earn the Trail Rated designation--those with Selec-Terrain and an off-road package--and we've seen how they earn it, scrambling up 200-foot, 55-degree inclines with a new Selec-Speed system that puts a steady amount of force into the drivetrain, and controls it in 1-kilometer-per-hour increments. It's brainless off-roading, all granted by electronics and anti-lock brakes.

The Grand Cherokee SRT is the other zenith. With its own tuning, adaptive air suspension and a "Selec-Track" governing body, it welds all that capability into a performance package that rivals the best Euro-utes. It can read its own stability control, transmission shift programming, transfer-case torque management, electronic limited-slip management, throttle and cylinder-deactivation controls, and tailor each into five distinct modes: automatic, Sport, Tow, Track and Snow. All the while, the SRT is 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 SRT's 20-inch, 45-series Pirelli all-season run-flats or optional P Zero summer tires. The sacrifice is almost nothing, except cost and some ground clearance. The SRT can tow 7,200 pounds now, thanks to changes in the limited-slip system, and it can still turn in about 0.90g of grip, thanks to programming that sets a 70-percent rear torque bias. 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.

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