Chrysler wanted a cross between a family vehicle and a go anywhere off roader. Gordon Torbet believes they found it.
The sweet spot
Under the myopic mismanagement of Chrysler, Jeep has suffered huge financial problems. The group's split from Daimler in 2007 was rapidly followed by a disastrous relationship with Cerberus Capital Management, resulting in Chapter 11 bankruptcy that could have spelled the end for the 70-year-old Jeep brand. A rescue package from Fiat last year proved to be the outreached hand to help pull Chrysler from its financial swamp. But the group is far from out of danger, even with an aggressive and hugely optimistic five-year plan laid out for its survival.
And against this constant barrage of money woes, Jeep has produced possibly the best statement of intent for the future of the brand. Having driven the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee on tarmac and rutted dust trails at the Hollister Hills proving grounds outside San Francisco, there is no doubt that this fourth generation of Jeep's bestseller (and Chrysler's second bestseller across its entire group range) is the 4x4 car maker's securest bet for survival.
Phil Jansen, the chief engineer of the Grand Cherokee, says research showed people wanted the company to find the "sweet spot" between sophisticated on-road people-lugger and competent "go-anywhere" off-roader. Well, the R&D money has been extremely well spent. The new Grand Cherokee is a more unified design than the model it replaces. Exterior lines are smoother and more dynamic while still retaining classic cues such as the hexagonal wheel arches and the seven-slatted chrome grille. Gone are the double circular headlight clusters, which have been replaced by slim, compact trapezoid bi-xenon units.
In profile, the longer wheelbase with reduced front and rear overhangs, as well as the gradually rising shoulderline and declining roofline, present a solid, poised stance, while harsh edges - which were a common feature to all Jeep models - have been smoothed out. Rugged masculinity is not completely absent: in certain lights the swage line along the Grand Cherokee's sides resembles a chiselled male jawline.
The muscle of the exterior is echoed by the two competent engine choices that will be available when the Jeep arrives later this year: an all-new 3.6L Pentastar V6 and a 5.7L V8. On blacktop, the 286hp V6 has sufficient, if not jaw-dropping, grunt and, thanks to variable valve timing, has smooth power delivery across the rev range, as well as plenty of torque (347Nm). Combined with independent suspension all-round, a 146 per cent stiffer steel uniframe body, stability control with Electronic Roll Mitigation, and full-time Quadra-Drive II all-wheel drive, the result is a surprisingly well-balanced and pleasantly responsive ride around corners for an SUV weighing 2,191kg.
The standard five-speed automatic gearbox is well behaved and suitably ranged to make the most of the torque in general driving conditions. While the changes in manual mode are not instantaneous, they still don't feel laborious. But a Jeep wouldn't warrant the moniker if it wasn't amply capable in the wilderness. And a quick switchover to the 352hp V8 variant soon clarified that this particular vehicle is still a deserving torchbearer for the brand. Across the range, the Grand Cherokee features both updated versions of its Quadra-Drive and Quadra-Trac technologies: the first of which features an electronic limited-slip differential (ELSD). This is the standard four-wheel-drive system for all-around on- and off-road handling, capable enough in most low traction situations.
The Quadra-Trak is for going further into unknown territory. It has a two-speed transfer case that controls the low-range gearing and the amount of power delivery to each axle through numerous sensors, and can, if necessary, deliver 100 per cent of its torque to the axle with the most traction. Add to this Jeep's new Quadra-Lift air suspension system with five height settings that can raise the body by 105mm, and a 45° dusty, rutted and twisting incline proves to be a walk in the park.
To control these systems, Jeep has now also incorporated Selec-Terrain. Similar to Land Rover's Terrain Response, it's a "Dummies' Guide to Off-Roading", if you like. Mounted on the centre console behind the gearshift, a rotating knob lets you choose between five modes: Sport, Snow, Auto, Sand/Mud, and Rock. Upon selection, the system adjusts engine mapping, suspension, traction control leniency and power and torque delivery depending on the feedback it receives from traction sensors at each wheel.
As much as you try to catch out the Grand Cherokee off-road, assuming that at some point you will find its breaking point, all the power and gizmology ensures that it never happens. And it's equally as composed on loose downhill terrain thanks to a variable Hill Descent control. You'd hope that any Jeep would at least be capable off-road - and it is. But past Jeeps have frequently fallen short on the interior design and quality of materials. Here it would seem that Fiat's influence at the Jefferson North Assembly Plant in Detroit has paid dividends.
Mike Manley, the president and CEO of Jeep, says that under the Italian car maker, master gauges to check tolerances and fit and finish have been introduced for the first time - and the difference is remarkable. Surfaces are tactile quality leather and cloth, the steering wheel is rugged yet sophisticated with a metallic double spoke at the base and quality leather grip, while the switchgear feels decisive and sturdy. The only cheap feeling plastics are the roof-mounted light and sunroof controls and the small holders forward of the electric window controls.
The list of standard features even on the Laredo would be deemed as impressive on most premium cars, and it's packed with more than 45 safety and security features. Meanwhile, the Grand Cherokee's longer wheelbase offers plenty of legroom in the rear as well as an 11 per cent increase in cargo volume. In a recent interview on his concerns about how the Grand Cherokee would sell, Manley told The Associated Press: "I'm not concerned about it at all. Having lived with this vehicle as the head of Jeep for almost a year, we have a winner. Absolutely."
It certainly looks like it. The Jeep Grand Cherokee will appear in UAE showrooms in November; pricing has yet to be determined.