Car reviews - Jeep - Grand Cherokee - 5-dr wagon range
Styling, improved dynamics, off-road prowess, value pricing, practical cabin, V8 punch, luxury cabin feel
Room for improvement
No diesel for now, fuel economy, on-road compromises compared to class-leading Territory
31 Jan 2011
AT LAST, after a cavalcade of ugly models that commenced with the 2001 Cherokee and included the Commander and Patriot, Jeep is back on form with the fourth-generation Grand Cherokee.
Adopting traditional styling cues that owe much to the classic XJ Cherokee of the 1980s and ’90s, the all-new WK looks decidedly cleaner, sharper and more upmarket inside and out than the outgoing WH.
It is therefore impressive that the newcomer is significantly cheaper, taking a big step closer towards the popular medium SUV segment hard-hitters, the Ford Territory and Toyota Kluger.
Perhaps it is time to look at the American 4x4 icon in a new light.
Compared to the aforementioned rivals, the Jeep is in a class of its own in terms of off-road ability, since it actually possesses some.
With the optional Quadra-Lift air suspension fitted, the models we sampled in the wilds of Tasmania left us in no doubt that the newly haute couture Yank can still come over all Bear Grylls should circumstances dictate.
Aided by a Land Rover-style Selec-Terrain system that allows the driver to effortlessly choose how slow or deep or high the vehicle needs to be for the given terrain, the Grand Cherokee possesses all its usual formidable cross-country capabilities.
Many owners may now stay on the tarmac for fear of scratching the classy paintwork will probably keep the Jeep firmly on terra firma for most owners.
With an all-new platform that will also underpin the next-gen (W166) Merc ML, due in about a year’s time, the Jeep sure feels strong and sturdy and is much quieter inside, while the new front suspension system certainly adds to the driving finesse.
However, we found that, while there is a massive improvement in the way the Jeep steers (light and easy, with a very good turning circle) and handles (responsively, and with the added security of 4WD grip), we could not put the Grand Cherokee in the same dynamic league as the Territory. It feels too top-heavy, too cushy and too remote from the road.
There is certainly nothing wrong with the body control, loose gravel traction, highway roadholding, steering feel or overall directional stability of the latest Grand Cherokee, but we longed to drive the regular steel-sprung version that promises to be more of a driver’s car. Unfortunately, none were provided on the launch.
Also disappointing was the lack of a diesel at launch. Thankfully, a 3.0-litre V6 common-rail turbo unit is coming and that cannot come soon enough if the average fuel consumption readouts are to be believed, especially for the V6.
In the always-sonorous 5.7-litre Hemi V8 we were seeing around 17L/100km over our highway/4x4 track thrash, which is not that grim since both courses involved some heavy right foot action that revealed impressive acceleration for a 2.3-tonne SUV, especially for overtaking and the like.
Jeep says the all-new 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine can be diesel-like in its economy, but the 18L/100km figures we ended up with beg to differ. Yet it’s a much better powerplant than the raucous old 3.7-litre lump still serving most other Chrysler/Jeep products, for it revs relatively sweetly, provides sufficient pick-up around town and cruises quietly.
We did not find anything wrong with the gearing of the old-school five-speed automatic gearbox, or the silky upshifts, but most rivals are sporting six or more forward ratios so Jeep had better get a move-on in auto trannie development, if only for marketing’s sake.
The mid-level Limited interior’s soft-touch, large-grained plastic trim is very current-gen Merc M-class (so that’s no problem against Territory/Kluger), and nothing rattled, squeaked or broke off in our test cars, even after the demanding off-road section that saw us thump into the odd crater.
Better still, the seats are large and inviting, the instruments and centre console are elegantly drawn and positioned, and all the switchgear bar one feel agreeably hefty. Why Jeep would adopt a foot-operated park brake in this day and age is beyond us, though. It spoils the upmarket interior feel every time you have to use it.
Other than that, we found the spacious and practical cabin more than matches Jeep’s claims. On showroom appeal alone, the lower-end competition had better be prepared for what the Americans have pulled out the hat.
In the end, we left the Grand Cherokee wanting more: more exposure to the luxury Overland as well as the base Laredo, and more time to drive both the V6 and V8 in more varied circumstances. We also want to sample the base steel-sprung version off-road as well as on, to see how the new suspension system really copes. But, most of all, we are eager to get behind the wheel of the diesel, since this is the engine that will make or break the Jeep in this country.
So it is with some qualification that we say the latest Grand Cherokee’s good looks are backed up by sound engineering and a hugely improved cabin environment. Disappointments are very few and expectations are now higher than ever.
If you are about to buy a medium-sized SUV, you would be doing yourself a disservice to ignore the latest Jeep. The Laredo is more versatile and interesting than Kluger and company while the superbly equipped Overland should make you think twice about buying that Benz, BMW or Audi Q7.
But we’d wait for the diesel or rumoured SRT-8, for – as the styling and quality already reveal – things for the Grand Cherokee should get even better from here on in.
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