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How in the world did this happen?
How did Chrysler, after suffering through three ownership structures in as many years, an embarrassing retreat into bankruptcy and partial nationalization by not one, but two countries turn out an impressive piece of machinery like the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee?
For that matter, if it could do this, why did all of that other stuff happen in the first place?
While the all-new car -- the first to be introduced since the Italian-Canadian-American automaker was formed in 2009 (with the exception of the heavy-duty versions of the Ram pickup truck) -- is far from flawless, compared with the competition, it sure seems like it is.
Just look at it. In addition to embodying the essence of two decades of Grand Cherokees, there isn’t a wrong line to be found on its modernized, muscled-up body. Surround any vehicle with dozens of journalists -- as Jeep did at the product launch I attended --and they’ll surely find dozens of things wrong with it…each. After more than two days with the car and said flock of scribes, I heard not a single negative word about its exterior design, and I fully concur with that sentiment. The classic seven-slot grille, the raked windshield, the deeply dimpled flanks, the trapezoidal wheel openings, the blacked-out side glass and the taillights that gloriously ape those from a 1963 Wagoneer, all mesh perfectly. OK, the headlight bulb covers shaped like the grille of the original WWII-era Jeep are a bit hokey, but since they’re so subtle -- I didn’t even notice them until Jeep’s chief of design, Mark Allen, pointed them out -- they get a pass.
Come to think of it, they actually are kind of cool.
Jeep played it safe on the interior, choosing clean, simple forms. The only surprise is how well-executed it all is compared with the subpar environment of the outgoing model. The company touts that there are soft-touch materials throughout, but that doesn’t mean everywhere. Just the top of the dashboard and strategic touch points, like the armrests. Hard plastic still lives on the doors and lower portions of the dash, but in this price class, that’s not a failing. The entry-level cloth seats are worthy of the $30,995 sticker price, and the optional leather is even better. Top of the line $39,495 Overland models get even more elegant piped hides, a stitched leather dash and real wood inserts that wrap nicely onto the doors.
To suit finicky Grand Cherokee devotees who like their trucklet exactly the way it is, the overall size didn’t grow much, but a 5-inch wheelbase stretch adds four very welcome inches of rear legroom. The split bench situated there reclines and, on premium models, is heated. An optional entertainment system with a new feature called FloTV lets passengers watch Fox News Channel (among others, yawn) on the move. Depending on trim level, one of two different navigation systems provide information to the driver, while active cruise control and a blind spot warning system are upscale countermeasures against any distractions.
As has been the case since the Grand Cherokee inspired the idea of using an SUV as a family car so many years ago, most of them have spent their time employed in that role. But just as Bear Grylls having three kids doesn’t mean he still can’t survive in the Gobi desert on you-know-whats and giggles -- literally -- it’s the same for the Grand Cherokee.
In addition to the standard rear-wheel-drive setup, three different all-wheel-drive systems are available that run the gamut from everyday use to serious off-roading. The simplest, called Quadra-Trac I, has a fixed power split of 48 percent front, 52 percent rear and should be able to manage any inclement weather or banana-peel strewn surfaces that you encounter. Quadra-Trac II is aimed at the towing set and adjusts that figure to 40/60 while allowing 100 percent of the power to be sent to the front or rear when slip occurs. Quadra-Drive II -- available only with the 360 horsepower 5.7 liter HEMI V8 engine -- can direct all of the go to any single wheel that still has traction, which is particularly helpful if you are teetering on the edge of a cliff. There is no Quadra-Drive I, I’ll assume it fell off one. The deuces come with a control knob that lets you fine-tune their performance for specific surfaces including snow, sand or rock.
The HEMI and its five-speed automatic transmission are effectively the only carryover bits from the old model, but Jeep predicts that only 20 percent of you will care. The rest will opt for the aptly-named Pentastar V6, an all-new 3.6-liter that will be powering many Chrysler and Fiat products in the years to come. In the Grand Cherokee it produces 290 horsepower, which is a huge improvement over the 210 hp 3.7-liter it replaces, plus it is flex-fuel capable, so less corn for you.
It’s a silky-smooth motor, quiet when cruising and never harsh, even at its 6,500 rpm redline. I know this, because, despite a 260 pound-foot torque rating, it’s a little overmatched at times, particularly when trying to pass uphill, something even a heavy right foot can’t do much about. Chalk it up to a transmission that’s likely been geared for fuel efficiency, rather than acceleration. A few more cogs in the mix wouldn’t hurt, either. Chrysler has an eight-speed on the way in a couple of years, and here’s hoping it makes an appearance here. The low range of the 4X4 system cures any of its ills when tackling the rough stuff, where it is as unstoppable as a family-hauler ever needs to be.
The rest of the time the Grand Cherokee dazzles you with overachieving refinement. Wind noise is at a minimum, and the steering wheel has a hefty, direct feel that belies the vehicle’s German roots the first moment you turn it left or right. Yes, the Grand Cherokee began its incubation when Chrysler was under the same corporate umbrella as Mercedes-Benz, and a good portion of what’s not seen on it was originally developed alongside the latest ML -- and that’s not a bad thing.
Jeep’s latest has a ride and handling balance that is superior to many things that look more like cars than this very capable crossover does. And that’s with the run of the mill steel-sprung, independent suspension. Obviously I wouldn’t have been so specific about its construction if there wasn’t another.
The optional Quadra-Lift suspension not only serves to make the specifications list even more confusing, but truly takes the Grand Cherokee to the next level -- in fact, just about any level it needs to reach. With it, a set of air springs can raise and lower the vehicle over a range of 4 inches, allowing for easy entry when parked and a maximum of 10.7 inches of ground clearance off-road so you don’t find yourself stuck on top of a boulder. It'll bound over just about anything in total control without bouncing or bottoming out. Good luck finding anything like it in another vehicle at this price level. Nevertheless, Jeep only expects 1 in 10 buyers to shell out for one of the packages that it comes bundled with. It says a lot about the company’s commitment to its much-vaunted Trail Rated image that it even offers technology like this at such small volumes.
How small? Hard to say. In the darkness of 2009 Jeep moved just 50,000 Grand Cherokees, but we won’t count that. It was 120,000 two years ago, and 300,000 at the end of the 20th century – aka: the good old days. The company won’t say what the projections are for the new one, but it recently added a second shift at the Jefferson Avenue assembly plant in Detroit that produces it, in anticipation of strong demand in both the U.S. and overseas markets where it has high hopes for sales success. It should.
Taken in full, what the Grand Cherokee represents is nothing short of a half-price Range Rover with far more than half of the appeal, and, very likely, much better dependability. Throw top safety ratings into the mix and if Chrysler can’t sell a lot of these expect it to put Jeep -- the entire brand -- up for sale in a couple of years, because it surely is hopeless.
Still, while company execs tout new owner Fiat’s late influence into the quality of the manufacturing process for the Grand Cherokee, the vehicle is very much representative of where Jeep was and is, not necessarily where it's going. That path still needs to be tread. At least it looks like the folks leading the way are heading in the right direction.
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Type: Front-engine, rear or all-wheel-drive, five-passenger, five-door SUV
Engine: 3.6L V6 / 5.7L V8
Power: 290 hp, 260 lb-ft (V6) / 360 hp, 390 lb-ft (V8)
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
MPG: 16 city 23 hwy (RWD V6) / 13 city 20 hwy (AWD V8)
Tow rating: 5,000 lbs (V6) / 7,400 lbs (V8)
FOX Car Report does not accept travel and lodging consideration when attending manufacturer-sponsored product-launch events.
Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.