Driven: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

By Brandon Turkus

October 25, 2010

—Pontiac, Michigan

If there is one vehicle that is key to Chrysler’s survival, there is a good chance that it is the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Grand Cherokee has always been a popular choice, especially in the Snow Belt, due to its off-road ability, large but easy-to-handle size, and general coolness. For 2011, the resilient GC gets some new sheet metal, and importantly, an all-new 3.6-liter V-6 motor. Jeep offered us a week behind the wheel, and during that time, we pushed it to the max both on- and off-road.

Our Bright Silver tester was a base Laredo with four-wheel drive (rear-wheel drive is also available for those who don’t quite get the “Jeep” idea), and importantly, the Off-Road Adventure I package. This is a must-have if you plan on getting your Jeep messy, as it replaces the Grand Cherokee’s standard Quadra-Trac I system with Quadra-Trac II. For those not familiar with Jeep-speak, that means the standard one-speed transfer case is replaced with a two-speed unit.

The second notable addition is Jeep’s new Selec-Terrain system. Working with the two-speed transfer case, Selec-Terrain offers Hill Descent Control, and five different terrain options (Auto, Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud, and Rock). While not as extensive as Land Rover’s Terrain Response System, Selec-Terrain works in a similar manner. By adjusting torque-distribution, brake force, and traction control settings (among other things), it optimizes the vehicle for different surfaces at the twist of a knob. We spent most of our on-road time in Auto, with twistier bits prompting us to switch to Sport. Both modes worked fine, but there was a noticeable shift in balance when in Sport mode. Eighty percent of the torque was transferred to the rear tires and the electronic stability program loosened up. In this mode, the Cherokee felt damn near nimble, which was surprising in a 4600-pound vehicle that was designed to work off-road.

The timing of our loan lined up with a yearly event that some friends plan, which involves fire hoses, a large field, several Jeeps and trucks, and a large amount of mud. We found this to be a great opportunity to test the Jeep’s off-road prowess and ability to get exceptionally muddy.

Once in the mud, we switched to Sand/Mud. This setting offers a fifty-fifty torque split (as opposed to Auto’s forty-sixty split) and switches the stability control into an off-road mode designed to maximize traction. The Jeep, even in deep mud, felt lively, like we weren’t really pushing it. We did manage to get stuck, which required the help of a highly amused F-150 driver. Cutting through a particularly nasty bit of mud, the front end dug in and stranded us. The optional Quadra-Lift air suspension may have prevented this problem, as the added ride height it offered would have kept the body out of the mud. Unfortunately, it isn’t available on the standard Laredo. While its off-road prowess has a lot to do with the excellent Selec-Terrain and four-wheel drive, we have to give some credit to that new motor.

While the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 is still available as an option on Limited and Overland models, the standard motor is the excellent 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6. The long-in-development Pentastar offers 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. After a week with the V-6 Cherokee, we found ourselves questioning the need for the Hemi. Jeep claims that ninety percent of the V-6’s torque is available between 1600 and 6400 rpm and we are inclined to believe them. While the GC didn’t leap off the line, it was certainly acceptable, offering spirited jaunts from a standstill.

Chrysler did a great job on this motor, as it is one of the smoothest non-Hemi motors to come from Chrysler in some time. Power delivery is extremely linear, with plenty of shove throughout the rev range. Strangely, the GC required a bit of muscle to get going, as the gas pedal was pretty stiff. Combine this with a throttle response that could use some sharpening, and we found ourselves unintentionally crawling away from stoplights. Once we got going though, we found the motor could easily accelerate for quick highway passes. Jeep claims that the new Grand Cherokee V-6 should return 17 miles per gallon in the city, and 22 mpg on the highway, which is on par with Toyota’s 4Runner. With our admittedly heavy right foot, we saw an average of 18 mpg in mixed driving.

Considering the newness of its engine lineup, we were a bit disappointed with the Jeep’s five-speed automatic transmission. The unit is far from fast-acting, let alone sporting, with a manumatic mode that has never been our favorite. Moving the gearlever side to side instead of forward and back to change gears never feels natural. The slush box is merely okay for normal driving, but Jeep had a real chance to go above and beyond here.

Jeeps have been designed as rugged off-road vehicles since the first MBs and GPWs rolled off the production lines at Willys and Ford. Due to this off-road nature, past Jeeps weren’t exactly renowned for on-road driving dynamics, but we reckon that this GC is a bit different. The new Cherokee delivered a sporting ride that wasn’t crashy. Of course, we still knew about road depressions, but for the most part, the entire car was nicely pinned down. Body roll—and this was especially noticeable when playing in the mud—was well controlled, while vertical movement walked the tightrope of being firm without being harsh.

The Jeep’s suspension tuning worked in concert with the steering setup to provide a nicely communicative ride. Between the comfortable cloth seats and the thick-rimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel, we had a good idea of what was going on between our tires and the road surface. Speaking of that steering, it had just enough weight behind it to make it feel properly involving. There was plenty of feedback, at least when compared with other SUVs, and we were never left guessing where the front wheels were pointed.

One thing we must commend Jeep on is how quiet the Cherokee is. Unless the engine is really pushed, there wasn’t a lot of noise that entered the cabin. Road noise, despite the off-road tires, wasn’t an issue either. Even off-road, the cabin was really quiet. It gives the Jeep, even at the affordable $36,000 price of our tester, a real luxury feel.

The exterior redesign is one of the big stories on the 2011 GC. This new model goes back to the rugged good looks of the first two generations of Grand Cherokee, and we must say it looks pretty good doing it. The traditional Jeep seven-slat grille is still there, while the revised front air dam is removable, increasing the approach angle for serious off-roading. The squared-off wheel arches look good, while allowing enough room for enterprising owners to fit larger tires to increase off-road prowess. Out back, a polished exhaust pipe protrudes from the bumper (Hemi models get dual exhausts). The drama-free design of the new GC is a pleasant departure from the last generation of over-styled Jeeps.

The real revelation is on the interior. Jeep has stepped up the game on interior design, and while the GC won’t be confused with an Audi anytime soon, we are confident in saying this is one of the nicer interiors to come from Chrysler in some time. Everything was where it needed to be, with the steering wheel, HVAC, radio, and Selec-Terrain controls being easy to access and use. Some of the materials still felt a bit cheap, though, especially the buttons on the face of the steering wheel. Still, the new interior is miles ahead of the rubbery cabins of past Chryslers, and some of the best work we’ve seen in this category, and at this price.

The 2011 GC is the first indication of the path that Chrysler is on. Despite a few flaws, it’s an excellent demonstration of the kind of vehicle Chrysler is capable of building.

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x4
Engine: V-6, 3.6 liter, 24v
Output: 290 hp/260 lb-ft
Weight: 4660 lbs
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 16/22 mpg
Towing Capacity: 5000 lbs
Base Price: $32,215
As Tested: $35,935
On Sale: Now