Two years later, the Grand Cherokee finally hit the market, and while we've devoted plenty of space since then to extolling the virtues of higher-trim models, we've neglected to spend much time in the closest thing to an "everyman's" Grand Cherokee you'll find: A four-wheel-drive Laredo with the standard 3.6-liter V6.
But who can blame us? A Grand Cherokee specced out in range-topping Overland trim is almost as good as a Range Rover for a fraction of the price, while one ordered in SRT8 configuration rivals Porsche's mega-buck Cayenne Turbo.
At around $40,000 rather lavishly-equipped, however, the Grand Cherokee Laredo might hit the sweet spot.
What is it?
Jeepers refer to the division's products by their internal names; in this case, the fourth-generation Grand Cherokee is called the WK2. Despite that codename, it shares virtually nothing with its rather average predecessor, the 2005-2010 model known as the WK.
Riding on a platform developed with Mercedes-Benz (whose parent company, Daimler, ran - or, rather, strip-mined - Chrysler for a while), the Grand Cherokee remains a unibody SUV without a separate frame. Unlike its predecessors, however, it discards off road-ready solid axles for a fully independent setup that yields huge benefits on road but reduces much-needed articulation - or wheel droop/compression - when the pavement ends. To make up for that deficit, the traction and stability control systems can be tailored to a variety of surfaces with a spin of Jeep's Land Rover-inspired Terrain Response control knob.
But opting for that off road goodie - a must have for those intent on exploring this Jeep's capabilities - means selecting one of several option packages since the base Grand Cherokee 4x4 has a single-speed transfer case that effectively makes it an all-wheel-drive vehicle like, say, a Subaru.
In our tester's case, a $695 All Weather Capability package added the two-speed t-case/Terrain Response, plus tow hooks, daytime running lamps, rubber mats and an engine block heater but, curiously, no skid plates. We think Chrysler should rename it the Canada Package.
Counteracting that capability is a $1,695 group that adds stylish 20-inch wheels and a Garmin-based navigation system. Those tall wheels look great, but the tires' short profiles are a hinderance off road. Our tester was further loaded up with the X package, which adds enough hedonistic items to make this SUV nearly an outright luxury vehicle.
What's it up against?
Most buyers might not leave the pavement, but those who do so will want to cross-shop the Grand Cherokee against the Toyota 4Runner, the last body-on-frame midsize SUV to still employ one solid axle.
If you're just looking for all-weather traction, the Grand Cherokee is generally sized and priced against the Ford Edge, Toyota Highlander and GMC Terrain.
How does it look?
Clearly derivative of the still-stylish 1993 original, the latest Grand Cherokee is arguably the segment's most tastefully-attractive SUV.
Clean lines combine with subtly flared fenders for a forward-looking design that we think will age much better than its lumpy immediate predecessor. We especially like the Grand Cherokee's profile, which looks lower and squatter than it really is.
On their own, Laredos feature nearly as much brightwork as the mid-level Limited, and any difference is further negated with our tester's twin-spoke 20-inch alloy wheels.
And on the inside?
A strictly five-passenger affair, the Grand Cherokee has plenty of stretch-out space front and rear. Driver and passenger are treated to firm, chair-like seats covered in a leather seemingly made from rubber cows raised on the famous Low Budget Ranch.
Fortunately, the materials quality goes up from there since what few hard plastics are included are mostly well hidden.
A T-shaped dashboard includes user-friendly switchgear, but we're anxious to see Chrysler's larger uConnect infotainment system (seen in the Dodge Charger, among others) arrive in the Grand Cherokee - likely for the 2014 model year. The current navigation/audio head unit can be a little cumbersome, although the Garmin software is a cinch to use.
Out back, the Grand Cherokee's well-finished cargo area sits high off the ground but swallowed all of our luggage. Split-folding rear seats include handy rake-adjustable backrests.
But does it go?
Tipping the scales at over 4,500 lbs. as-tested, the Grand Cherokee isn't exactly a lightweight. It makes the most of the 290 horsepower produced by Chrysler's now-ubiquitous 3.6-liter V6, but the outdated five-speed automatic can be a little overly anxious to shift into a higher gear to save fuel. In normal driving, Grand Cherokee is more than adequate, but a full load or hilly terrain results in a fair amount of downshifting to access power above 2,500 rpm.
The upside is stellar as-tested fuel economy: We bested both the 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway ratings during our evaluation and we turned about 20 mpg overall. For a vehicle that can still make molehills out of mountains, that's good news.
Even more impressive is the way the Grand Cherokee rides and handles. Our tester's 20-inch wheels paid off when the road curved; combined with the four-wheel traction and relatively low body lean, the Grand Cherokee was an unexpected joy to hurl through our winding road course. Moreover, the independent suspension soaked up everything the country's infrastructure could throw it at with none of the side-to-side head-bobbing that afflicted its solid-axled predecessors.
Those independently-sprung wheels wrapped in tame tires didn't suffer much when we sojourned away from the civilized world, either. With the Terrain Response knob twisted to Sand/Mud mode, we were rewarded with less abrupt reaction from the stability control system and the gas pedal, which meant that it was awfully tough to mire the Jeep in loose soil. Not surprisingly, axle articulation is limited, so the Grand Cherokee was happy to pop a wheel or two off the ground, an experience that could be unnerving for a novice four-wheeler. Without skid plates adorning our tester, we didn't see fit to venture onto the toughest of trails, but the Grand Cherokee should take most buyers to just about any remote hiking or biking trail.
But what really sets Grand Cherokee apart is the way it so beautifully blends on-road comfort and driving joy with stellar off road ability. Is there a better all-rounder on the market? We doubt it.
Why you would buy it:
At this price, there's simply not a better way to explore paved - and unpaved - roads.
Why you wouldn't:
You're saving up for the Grand Cheroke Overland's leather-wrapped interior and height-adjustable suspension.
Leftlane's bottom line
If there's a more fault-free on/off-roader available anywhere near this price point, we'd like to see it. Grand Cherokee might not be as out-of-the-box capable as the tall-riding 4Runner, but it rewards with the driving dynamics of a luxury sedan.
We're anxious to see what changes are in store for the 2014 Grand Cherokee set to go on sale next year - we're expecting an eight-speed automatic and a larger infotainment system - but this Jeep is absolutely at the top its game right now.
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x4 base price, $29,195. As tested, $41,105.
X Package, $5,300; E Group, $2,000; 20-inch wheel/navigation group, $1,695; All Weather Capability Group, $695; Panoramic moonroof, $1,295; Destination, $925.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.