Driven: 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8

By John Beltz Snyder

July 19, 2011

—Willow Springs, California

The Angeles Crest Highway was a beautiful way to get from Los Angeles to Willow Springs raceway, and a great venue to display the handling prowess of the all-new 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. The scenic mountain curves tested the grip of the P295 Pirellis, and no matter how hard we pushed it, the rubber never broke loose at any corner. Tossing the wheel back and forth, the Jeep responded quickly, with easy transitions and amazingly little body roll. Having those comfortable bolstered seats to hold our torso in place didn’t hurt either. In the tighter corners (and, later, navigating the paddock area of the big track at Willow), the Grand Cherokee felt a lot smaller than expected, thanks to a decent 37.1-foot turning circle. On top of all this, the steering wheel (shared across the 2012 SRT lineup) is thick and nicely shaped for aggressive driving, and wrapped in nice leather—the cherry on top of a good steering experience.
When we weren’t confined to lower speeds necessitated by complex corners (not to mention the steep drop-offs lining the roadside), we had the chance to have a little fun with the SRT8’s new beating heart. The 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 under the hood makes 470 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque (it makes 470 pound-feet in the other SRT8 vehicles). It didn’t seem as noisy or unruly as the outgoing 6.1-liter motor, and the Grand Cherokee handles the extra 50 horsepower with a lot more finesse. In the city, it can be driven exceptionally smoothly, providing more comfort than one would think a beast like this would be capable of. It accelerates smoothly, and on the highway, it always had extra power on hand for passing maneuvers. We were especially impressed with the Jeep’s highway stability, often feeling as though it were traveling 25 miles per hour slower than what the speedometer read.
The Jeep’s five speed automatic transmission shifts quickly and smoothly. Also included is a manual mode, where one can shift with the gearlever using a side-to-side action, or, better yet, via the dainty, steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters. Either way, with all the horsepower and torque, we never were able to find ourselves in the wrong gear, wanting for more thrust. Usually, we’d like a box with at least six gears for this sort of fare, but this setup never left us hanging.
In the relatively pressure-free realm of highway cruising, we were able to soak in some of the comforts afforded by the SRT8’s cabin. The manufacturer didn’t skimp on materials, and we liked the combination of suede, leather, contrast stitching, and carbon fiber trim throughout the interior. Finding a comfortable seating position was a cinch, with power seats and power telescoping steering wheel. We weren’t masochistic enough to try out the heated seats (front and rear) or the heated steering wheel, but we made good use of the ventilated front seats—all standard in the 2012 model. Our tester came with the available dual-pane sunroof, but as we left the LA smog behind for the glaring desert sun, we were happy to keep it closed for most of the trip.
In front of the center console, the Jeep has a Selec-Track dial for its different drive modes. From left to right, they are labeled Track, Sport, Auto, Snow, and Tow. Yes, unlike the previous-generation Grand Cherokee SRT8, the 2012 model is rated to tow 5000 pounds. Of course, this meant taking the central dual exhaust pipes and routing them toward the corners of the bumper, but the rear end still maintains a clean, sporty look. Most of our driving was handled in either Auto or Sport mode. In Auto, the Jeep feels smooth and athletic, and it adapted well on its own to aggressive driving. Also, we noticed that when we found and turned on the “Eco” light on the instrument panel, we were able to see when the cylinder deactivation system was working to save fuel, and if we listened very carefully, we could even hear a change in the tone of the exhaust when this happened.
In Sport, it was hard to discern a lot of the differences right away. The most notable changes were that the suspension stiffened up a bit (helpful when navigating those aforementioned curves), and we got a little bit more road feel through the steering wheel (probably a byproduct of the suspension settings). Also, the transmission would hold onto gears longer, and if in manual mode, it would refrain from shifting on its own even as the tachometer needle bounced of the limit. It wasn’t snowing on our trip out to the desert, and we weren’t towing anything so we left Snow and Tow alone for this trip. And Track, well, that was going to be happening soon.
When we reached Willow Springs, we were eager to test out the Jeep SRT8 on the track. After our recon laps, we were allowed to let ‘er rip through the nine corners and fast straights over the 2.5-mile course. With the Selec-Track dialed to Track mode, the Jeep allowed for a little more slip in the wheels (slip we had trouble even noticing, on account of the tires’ insane grip and the Jeep’s four-wheel-drive). We almost couldn’t believe that we were driving a vehicle this big, this heavy, and with this much clearance as fast as we were through the corners. Body motion was well controlled and we felt very stable bending the Jeep around the track. In the straights, 80 miles per hour quickly and effortlessly becomes 100 mph, then 125 mph. When it’s time to slow down a 5150 pounds of vehicle, the huge Brembo brakes really did the job well. With 6-piston calipers and 15-inch rotors up front, and 4-piston calipers and 13.8-inch rotors in the rear, we were always able to achieve a good entry speed with a dab of the brakes.
After a few laps and a checkered flag waving us in, we stood outside of the Grand Cherokee SRT8 in the pit lane and looked it over, a bit in awe of it. Its aggressive face, aerodynamic bodywork (all functional, the manufacturer promises), and planted stance all really do this new Jeep a bit of justice. Already, we yearned for more time in the car, under different conditions and in different venues, as it was clear that it had more tricks up its sleeve for any driver willing to search them out.
The Porsche wins in terms of design. The interior craftsmanship is very good, and you know you’re in a special car. That Porsche badge can be worth a lot. Plus, the Cayenne’s eight-speed transmission is a better gearbox. Still, the Jeep SRT8 costs almost $10,000 less, and sports 70 more horsepower and 96 more pound-feet of torque. If you want a status symbol, opt for the Porsche. Choose the Jeep for outright performance.
For the more practical driver that still wants a bit of a kick in the pants, the BMW X5 xDrive35d has a diesel motor that offers 425 pound feet of torque. Not only does it cost about $3500 less, its 26-mpg highway rating will save you a lot more over the long run. Come on, does your ute really need to do 0-60 in less than five seconds? (“Yes” is a perfectly acceptable answer here.)
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
Engine: V-8, 6.4 liters, 16v
Output: 470 hp/465 lb-ft
0-60 MPH: 4.8 sec
Top Speed: 160 mph
Weight: 5150 lb
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 12/18 mpg
Price: $55,295
On Sale: August 2011

+WR Classic Video: 2008 Dodge Viper SRT10