When Fiat swooped in to help the governments of the United States and Canada deal with floundering Chrysler in 2009, the Italians had one brand on their minds: Jeep.
The brand that has been synonymous with Americana since 1941 is one of the most valuable anywhere - and it was undeniably the biggest asset in bankrupt Chrysler's portfolio.
Four years on, Jeep's flagship has been refreshed for the first time under Fiat's control of Chrysler. Naturally, we had to check one out.
What is it?
The fourth-generation Grand Cherokee - known as WK2 in Jeep circles - was well-received as a 2011 model a few years ago. Conceived primarily during Chrysler's darkest hours when the automaker was being passed from Daimler to Cerberus and eventually to Fiat, the Grand Cherokee shares its underpinnings with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class.
For 2014, a nip and tuck outside was joined by enhanced technology inside. The biggest news is underneath, where all Grand Cherokees - V6 and V8 gas models - gain a new eight-speed automatic gearbox. A pricey turbodiesel engine ($5,000 over the V6 gasser) sourced from an Italian engine builder half-owned by Fiat is also newly available. A limited-run Grand Cherokee SRT with a hot road 6.4-liter V8 and a track-tuned suspension is the least Jeepy Jeep ever built
In addition, the model mix has been shuffled to prioritize the newly mid-range Limited model now that top-tier Overland and Summit models are on offer.
But for the purposes of our testing, we sought out a low-spec Laredo with Jeep's 3.6-liter V6 engine, four-wheel-drive and an All Weather Capability Group that includes Jeep's Selec-Terrain off road system.
Notably, the Laredo line has been pared down to just a few options. Want leather seats, navigation or a V8? You'll have to step up to the Limited.
What's it up against?
Given that the Grand Cherokee offers substantially more off road capability than any crossover-type vehicle, its list of direct rivals is fairly small.
If you want to leave the pavement, cross-shop the larger Toyota 4Runner. Otherwise, Grand Cherokees in the as-tested Laredo grade square off against the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Ford Edge and Hyundai Santa Fe.
How does it look?
Retaining the same body as before, the 2014 model gains a reshaped grille, bumpers and head and tail lamps.
Up front, the look is more complex than its predecessor. We like the more detailed lower fascia, which is presumably a little more aerodynamic than before, but we're mixed on the smaller headlamps. They include projector beams for the first time, but they look a little too squinty for our taste.
We like the changes out back more. The new tail lamps are fresh without appearing overdone and the nifty roof-mounted spoiler actually helps air move around the Grand Cherokee a little better.
Our tester's decidedly pavement-oriented Michelin Latitude tires wrapped 18-inch alloy wheels that are a step up from the standard 17s. Slightly more rugged tires are optional, but you'll want to visit the Tire Rack for some knobbier rubber if off roading is on your agenda.
And on the inside?
Ignore the instrument cluster and center stack for a moment and you'll see that not much has changed aside from the color palette.
Gone are the silver-painted plastic accents. In their place you'll find warmer bronze-hued trim that mixed rather poorly with laughably fake wood-grain-like black plastic trim. To our eyes, it looked more like cheap plastic that had been scraped with heavy use. Combined with the black carpet, black seats, black trim and - you guessed it - black headliner, the effect was too coal mine-like for us.
On the other hand, we like the way that Jeep has integrated a pair of LCD screens into the dash. Slotted in the center of the instrument cluster is a big screen that renders a speedometer and an easy-to-use trip computer. Logically-arrayed steering wheel controls made sorting through its menus a breeze. Up on the center stack sits a smaller screen that goes with the Grand Cherokee's base radio unit. Laredos don't offer Chrysler's acclaimed 8.4-inch Uconnect system, but the standard head unit provides some nice graphics and a simple interface. We wish there were the industry standard six presets, not five, however.
Otherwise, Grand Cherokee remains comfortably roomy. The tall window ledges and thick pillars do give the front seat area a more intimate feel than the Grand Cherokee's large proportions might otherwise suggest, but there's plenty of stretch-out space for everyone. Materials are generally above average throughout, though chintzy center console plastic remains an eyebrow-raiser - especially on higher-spec Grand Cherokees.
But does it go?
Grand Cherokee's 3.6-liter V6 is a familiar site across Chrysler's larger cars, trucks and SUVs. In this application, it's rated at 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft. of torque. As the V6 is essentially unchanged for 2014, the engine's dancing partner garners all the headlines. The new, Indiana-built eight-speed automatic gearbox developed by ZF is a sweet unit, capable of firing off quick shifts and generally apt to keep the engine in its power band.
Grand Cherokees default to a new Eco mode unless a center stack-mounted button is pressed. Designed to save fuel, the mode forces early upshifts and requires a deep stab at the throttle to elicit a downshift from the gearbox. Given that the V6 is really just adequate in terms of power for a particularly heavy 4,700 lbs. SUV like the Grand Cherokee (optioned up with the Overland package, curb weight tickles 5,000 lbs.), Eco mode is annoyingly frustrating. We found ourselves pushing hard on the throttle just to keep up with traffic.
But with Eco mode disabled, Grand Cherokee feels vastly more sprightly. Fuel economy undoubtedly suffers a bit, but we nonetheless managed to peg the EPA's 17 mpg city figure and we nearly hit the 23 mpg highway number despite spending much of our cruising time ever so slightly exceeding the 70 mph posted limit.
It's just a shame that drivers have to remember to tap the Eco button every time they set off.
Along with the new transmission, Jeep replaced the Grand Cherokee's hydraulic power steering with a new electric unit (except on V8 models). Consistent and nicely-weighted, the system is a good fit for the heavy Jeep.
Underneath, the fully independent coil-sprung suspension absorbed bumps with aplomb, benefitting in part from the heavy curb weight. Grand Cherokee never feels lithe, but it is pleasantly maneuverable in urban situations and sufficiently settled on the highway or on curvy back roads. Our test vehicle lacked the load-leveling rear suspension of those equipped with the optional towing package. Opt for a higher-trim model and you'll also net a full height-adjustable air suspension, which improves ride quality on undulating terrain.
Leftlane's bottom line
The eight-speed gearbox and myriad detail changes have made an already terrific Jeep Grand Cherokee even better for 2014.
Unfortunately, some new niggles have entered the picture - namely, the coal mine interior and the fun-sapping Eco mode. Our advice to Jeep? Bring in a few more interior hues and set Eco mode to "remember" its last setting.
And then put Grand Cherokee on a diet for its next generation, please.
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x4
base price, $30,795. As tested, $37,530.
E Package, $1,700; All Weather Capability Group, $1,695; Security and Convenience Group, $1,350; Power moonroof, $995; Destination, $995.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.