By Andrew Ganz
Wednesday, Oct 27th, 2010 @ 12:00 pm
 
Our first extended outing in what's shaping up to be Chrysler's savior - the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee - is probably best dubbed as an experience in "Jeep Lite."

While it was equipped with the automaker's new, long-anticipated 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine, our Grand Cherokee was missing something rather important.

A transfer case and a front differential.

Well, at least it represents how most Sun Belt buyers actually use their Jeeps, off road heritage be damned.

What is it?
Based on Mercedes-Benz M-Class architecture, the fourth-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee (WK2 to those in the know) is by far the most sophisticated Jeep flagship to ever hit the market.

Options and models run the gamut, from 4x2 Laredo base models with the 3.6-liter V6 (like our tester) up to 4x4, 5.7-liter V8-powered Overlands with height-adjustable air suspensions, advanced multi-mode traction controls and Range Rover-like luxuries.

The Grand Cherokee was introduced to much fanfare as a 1993 replacement for the venerable Jeep Cherokee, but it soon established itself as a premium offering capable of squaring off against luxury SUVs. Time was not kind to the Grand Cherokee by its 2005 model year third generation, however, which suffered from major cost cutting that greatly diluted its upscale appeal.

But Jeep says things are back on track for 2011. A now-defunct relationship with Germany's Daimler gave Chrysler access to some platforms and technologies in exchange for, well, nearly everything else in Auburn Hills. Namely, cash reserves, but it wouldn't surprise us if the Germans pillaged all the furniture, wall clocks and hot water heaters from Chrysler's sprawling Michigan headquarters.

What's it up against?
Off road-capable SUVs are quickly falling off the market, but our 4x2 tester is probably better suited to rivalling crossovers, anyway. If you want to go off road - meaning you've selected a 4x4 Grand Cherokee - cross shop the Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Xterra and Land Rover LR4.

But if you're a pavement pounder interested in a high seating position and decent cargo space, put a Grand Cherokee Laredo like our tester up against the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Kia Sorento and Toyota Highlander.

Any breakthroughs?
Under its hood and behind its seven-slot grille, the Grand Cherokee premiers Chrysler's new Pentastar V6. The long-delayed replacement for the automaker's 2.7 and 3.5-liter V6s, the Pentastar will soon power just about every Chrysler product short of trucks and compacts. In the Grand Cherokee, the engine features dual variable valve timing but not direct injection.

The Grand Cherokee also rides on a version of the unibody Mercedes-Benz M-Class platform that debuted back in 2005. Both platforms boast essentially identical wheelbases, although in practice neither vehicle feels remotely related. The Grand Cherokee has also spawned a larger, three-row Dodge Durango sibling set to go on sale soon.

How does it look?
Looking more like a modernized update of the first and second-generation (ZJ and WJ, respectively) Grand Cherokees, the 2011 shares little with its immediate predecessor. The look is smooth yet sharply chiseled and distinctively Jeep in its design DNA.

An enlarged seven-slot grille is flanked by small headlamps and aggressively flared fenders before giving way to a rather ordinary side profile. Only the rear fascia, which looks like an amalgamation of a handful of other vehicles, seems incongruous. No matter the angle, the look is positively upscale and classy, even on our lightly-optioned Laredo tester.

We'd like to see a larger tire package even on street-oriented Laredos, since the standard 17-inchers wrapped in 245/70-17 Goodyear Forteras get lost in the big wheel openings. Stock 17-inch wheels are fine, although the 20-inch setup standard on Overlands doesn't exactly scream "off road machine."

And on the inside?
Among the biggest strides have been made inside the Grand Cherokee, where the old model's Playskool-grade plastics have been thrown out the window (probably the flip-flap-opening tailgate window).

Even a base Laredo gets classy gauges, soft touch plastics almost everywhere, leather on the very nice (but soon to become very common) three-spoke steering wheel and fine cloth upholstery. Silver-painted plastic trim isn't upscale, but it works at this price point and it blends well with the nicest fake wood we've seen in a while. Only low-rent climate controls, too many switch blanks and a single stalk for the wipers and turn signals feel out of place.

The cloth-covered front seats proved especially comfortable, feeling more like slightly more forgiving Mercedes-Benz units than the over-stuffed Chrysler fare of yore. A comfortable driving position was easy to find and, for once, all five passengers have decent stretch-out space. The rear seat felt especially commodious when compared to previous Grand Cherokees.

Our tester's basic AM/FM/CD audio system is a standard Chrysler unit, but it worked well enough and delivered impressively crisp sound that was easy to modulate via buttons mounted behind the steering wheel spokes. Why nobody else has offered this feature, we don't know.

Behind the rear seats, the Grand Cherokee offers a very nicely finished cargo area and decent space. A spare tire hides underneath the floor, where it stays clean but requires the removal of your luggage when it needs to be changed. Some rivals mount their spares beneath the vehicle.

But does it go?
Our 4x2 Grand Cherokee Laredo is the lightest offering, but still tipped the scales at around 4,470 lbs. That portly curb weight doesn't help acceleration, although we found the new V6 to be plenty capable at moving the Grand Cherokee around.

Rated at 290 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 lb-ft. of torque at 4,800 rpm, we know this engine has more power to give. The recently-announced 2011 Dodge Challenger's Pentastar V6 boasts 305 horsepower, for example.

Highway passing required a kickdown of the Mercedes-sourced five-speed automatic (just fine, even in an era of six-speeds), but in-town driving rarely had us accelerating above 3,000 rpm.

The V6 is smooth and silent, transmitting virtually no vibration into the cabin and offering little high-rpm growl. If anything, we missed the burble of the optional Hemi V8.

But we certainly didn't miss the thirsty V8 when it came to visiting gas pumps. Our tester returned a solid 23.5 mpg on a 250 mile highway trek and never dropped below 18 mpg in urban slogging. That's a hair above the EPA's estimates of 16 mpg urban and 23 mpg highway.

We love the Hemi V8, but the Grand Cherokee's V6 makes a very strong case for itself.

The fully independent suspension might not seem as solid and simple for off road use as traditional live axles, but it rides wonderfully on road, soaking up every bump and expansion joint we could throw at it. High speed stability was especially good, making the Grand Cherokee an ideal long distance cruiser.

But where we were most impressed was with the Grand Cherokee's steering. Previous Grand Cherokees have been entertaining on pavement primarily thanks to their relatively trim proportions, but the 2011 adds responsive, smooth steering to the package. Surprisingly, the Grand Cherokee provides more feedback and faster responses than even its M-Class kissing cousin. It was an absolute blast to throw through our favorite two-lane curvy byways, even with soft-riding tires. A sports car it is not, but the line between off roaders and pavement pounders is getting blurrier.

Why you would buy it:
You're looking for a state-of-the-art midsize SUV.

Why you wouldn't:
You're inclined to go off road, or at least trudge through some snow. Buy the 4x4.

Leftlane's bottom line
Even in wimpy 4x2 form, the 2011 Grand Cherokee is tough to beat. We've forgotten all about the previous generation's misgivings thanks to this impressive new SUV. Simply put, the Grand Cherokee is once again best-in-class and it is at least as good as most SUVs two or three times its price.

We're really looking forward to spending more time in a properly-equipped 4x4 model, which we intend to take over hill and dale to really stretch its legs.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x2 base price, $30,215. As tested, $33,135.
Security and Convenience Group, $1,495; Trailer Tow Group, $595; Engine block heater, $50; Destination, $780.