Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: Return of the Chief

There are big movements afoot at Chrysler these days. The company that filed for bankruptcy protection just last year, held a sense of uncertainty and gloom over the pentastar brands. However, they are about to break that trend with a plethora of exciting new vehicles.

The first vehicle to receive the increased attention is the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Billed as a luxury off-roader, the Cherokee is another SUV that tries to mix top levels of luxury into a vehicle capable of getting itself dirty where ever the driver may care to take it. Many have failed in this attempt, and indeed, the last generation Grand Cherokee lacked a quality interior, while the drive was still very much soft-road oriented to to do battle with other high-end SUV's.

That changes for the 2011 model year, however. The new Grand Cherokee gets a bold new look, vastly improved interior design, and with help from an old elegance with Daimler, it now has a body stiff enough to take on even the most expensive in the business.

While exterior received a fair amount of attention, it was not the weak point of the outgoing model. The interior of the 2010 lacked any real luxury appointments and was of a design that seamed to age in front of your eye's. Jeep put a full court press into updating the interior to a higher standard. A sharp new design is complemented by premium soft-touch materials. However, it's the little details that make the Cherokee's interior truly great. Door storage bins are tapered, chrome vent handles have a soft rubber grip, while aluminum scuff slats line the rear cargo area add an extra touch of class. Drivers are also offered several feature upgrades including real wood and leather, heated steering wheel, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, four-way power lumbar controls, rain-sensitive wipers, Keyless Enter-N-Go, ParkView rear back-up camera and power tilt/telescoping steering column with memory. It's a coming together of hundreds of little insignificant details that make the interior of the Grand Cherokee a such a great place to spend your time.

Many will fondly remember the diesel version of the Cherokee that proved to be quite popular that offered increased off-road, towing and fuel efficiency abilities over the gasoline counterparts. As of yet there is no diesel version coming to Canada, however,  Jeep are quick to point out that the all-new flexible-fuel, 3.6L Pentastar V-6  gets better fuel efficiency than the outgoing diesel. The Pentastar engine features an 11 percent improvement in fuel economy, delivering up to 10.2 L/100km, Variable-valve Timing, 290 hp and 260 lb.-ft. Of course those that want a little more rumble under the right foot can opt for the 5.7L HEMI V-8 in the top three trim levels.

Moving our way down the driveline, Jeep has offered up three different 4x4 options to choose from. The Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and the Quadra-Drive II. Quadra-Trac I is a full-time AWD single speed transfer case with a 50/50 torque split offered on the base V-6. Quadra-Trac II is an electronically controlled two-speed unit that is available with a 2.72 low range ratio and Selec-Terrain, which allows the driver to choose from five different surface conditions. Auto is designated for everyday driving. Snow, is tuned to minimize oversteer and maximizes traction. Sport reduces traction control and gives a RWD feel. Sand/Mud maximizes traction and allows for additional wheel slip. Finally Rock is available in 4-Low and activates hill descent.

Along with the drivetrain layouts, Jeep is now offering Quadra-Lift, which implements air springs in place of the regular coil springs found on the base V-6. Controlled with the Selec-Terrain or manually, Quadra-Lift allows the Cherokee to be lowered nearly 4 cm for entry and exit, will lower 1.3 cm for performance driving or can raise the Cherokee 3.3 cm in off-road I, or 6.6 cm in off-road II. In off-road II, the Cherokee reaches a top ground clearance of 21.8 cm, for off-road duties.

So now that we have the technicals out of the way, lets get into the drive. I chose the base Laredo as my first vehicle as this comes standard with the all-new Pentastar V-6. Smooth is the optimum word here, as both the engine and the ride were revelation of quality. The V-6 pulled strong throughout the power-band and really was as efficient as Jeep promised. Having to settle for the base engine never seemed so good, in fact I actually preferred it over the rather brutish and guzzling HEMI counterpart. My only complaint was with the aging 5-speed automatic transmission, which lost a lot of rpm on upshifts and struggled to find the right gear going up hills. This should be rectified with Chrysler just signing a deal to build the ZF 8-speed automatic, that will likely make its way into the Cherokee in a few years time.

However, one of the most enduring factors that was left with me in driving the Cherokee was the increase in quality handling. The base Cherokee drove as smooth as a Lexus, and could likely give a BMW a run in the handling department. The strength of the new chassis is blatant, and really takes this vehicle into another level. The base V-6 was a joy to drive in the twisties, however, I found that the big V-8 with the Quadra-Lift suspension was much softer and moved around more than I would have liked. Were the base Cherokee made huge new strides in on-road abilities, the Quadra-Lift equipped V-8 reminded me of the older, softer Cherokee, one more suitable for those who intend to use it off-road

It is a Jeep after all, and Jeeps go anywhere. Don't let the flashy new disguise fool you, as this is one of the most capable luxury off-roaders going and is Trail Rated. Set loose in the Hollister Hills Recreational Area, we dragged the Cherokee up some impressive washouts and down steep sandy drops. Despite being equipped with all-season tires, the Cherokee upheld the brands recognitions for off-road excellence. For the four-wheeling gear-heads out there frothing at the mouth to know what type of numbers equate to in the off-road department, ground clearance is listed at 218 mm, with at 26.3-degree approach 26.5 departure angles and and a break-over of 18.8-degree with standard suspension. Opt for the air springs and those numbers change to 270 mm, 34.3-degrees, 29.3-degrees and 23.1-degrees.

The 2011 Grand Cherokee is currently being shipped to dealerships and will be available in four different trim levels. The base Laredo E which only comes with the Pentastar V-6 and starts at $37,995. The Laredo X upgrades interior features and offers the HEMI and Off-Road Group II as an option with Selec-Terrain and Quadra-Lift. The Limited comes standard with Quadra-Trac II, Selec-Terrain and HID headlamps and starts at $46,998 while the Overland tops the line with standard GPS, Quadra-Lift and 20-inch wheels. For a vehicle who's next closest rival is represented by the Land Rover Range Rover, the Cherokee represents a massive bang for buck in the luxury 4x4 segment.

MSRP: $37,995 - $49,995
Type: 5-door, 5-seat SUV
Layout: Front engine/4x4
Engine: 3.8L V-6/5.7L V-8
Power: 290/360
Torque: 260/390
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Brakes: Ventilated discs (front and rear)
Fuel economy: 13.0 L/100km City; 8.9 L/100km Hwy/15.7 L/100km City; 10.6 L/100km Hwy

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