Every now and then we find that an actor or singer has reinvented him or herself. Instead of fading from view forever, an entertainer who still has lots of life left will chart a new career direction and make somewhat of a comeback.
You could think of the Jeep Grand Cherokee as an actor who shot to fame in the 1990s with a sitcom that was a runaway success. Everyone wanted to be seen around the star back then, and it reaped the rewards of an adoring public that couldn’t get enough. But as times changed, younger stars kind of took over and the big Jeep was all but forgotten.
It’s time for a new Grand Cherokee, one that has been freshened up and has gone back to school. A new sport utility vehicle for today’s world, and one that hopes to recapture a bit of its success many years ago. It’s still the same vehicle in a way, yet an entirely new one at the same time.
This is an important product for Chrysler, because it represents the first new vehicle they’ve been able to get to market post-bankruptcy. While both GM and Ford have been steadily launching exciting new cars since the meltdown of the auto industry in early 2009, Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep showrooms have been stocked with products that are beginning to show their age.
Development of the new Grand Cherokee goes back to long before the recession and industry sales slump hit. In fact, the chassis was derived from the one that sits beneath the Mercedes-Benz ML-class. Remember that for a number of years until their corporate divorce, Chrysler was part of Daimler-Benz.
For Jeep purists, the new underpinnings mean no more solid rear axle, once a staple for severe off-road conditions. But for the 99% of buyers who want a smooth highway ride, the independent rear suspension is a much better way to keep the wheels where they’re supposed to be while on pavement. Sophisticated electronics will take care of the off road part.
So while the exterior styling still says “Jeep,” underneath the newly-tightened skin is a much more sophisticated SUV. Also new under the hood is a V6 engine that’s miles ahead of the one in the previous Grand Cherokee, both in terms of power and fuel efficiency. Chrysler says the new 290 horsepower unit is actually 11% more fuel efficient that its predecessor, yet towing capacity is a healthy 5,000 pounds.
For more grunt behind the familiar Jeep grill and increased towing capability (up to 7400 pounds), the 5.7 liter V8 is carried over from prior years. Although this engine packs a 360 horsepower punch, it features variable valve timing and cylinder deactivation in order to make it somewhat fuel efficient, relatively speaking.
This all adds up to a Grand Cherokee that’s ready for the modern world – a world where people don’t just buy any old SUV because they think its cool. The game has changed, and the large sport utilities still on the market have had to adapt. Sales will never be what they were during the heyday of the 1990s, but those that are still around and have been modernized will enjoy modest success.
I got to drive a 2011 Grand Cherokee with the new V6 engine and one of several 4×4 systems that are offered: QuadraTrac II. While this particular Jeep wasn’t “Trail Rated” (the company’s official term for one that can really tackle the rough stuff off road), it did have the Selec-Terrain system, with a control knob that allows the driver to choose a four wheel drive management program for snow, sand and mud, or a setting called sport that gives maximum control while on pavement.
By all accounts, Chrysler has a winner on its hands. The interior has been very much refined, especially in the high-end Limited trim that my test car had. There’s a new level of quietness inside, partly due to new manufacturing techniques that make the body stiffer and more solid. All the controls on the dash and console are quite intuitive, and the seats are very comfortable.
Fuel economy was a bit of a disappointment, but that tends to happen when a vehicle like this is used in typical Southern California driving. (In other words, lots of traffic.) While EPA ratings for the V6 engine are 16 mpg city and 22 highway, I average around 14-15 in mixed driving. At that rate, I don’t think the V8 could do a whole lot worse, so it may be a better option in order to get the extra towing capacity.
Base price for a 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is $30,215. The Limited model I drove had a base price of $38,820, but was equipped with a few high-end options like radar-guided cruise control and a rear seat DVD entertainment system. Bottom line price was $45,205, which puts it right in there with what competitive vehicles cost.
The new Jeep is ready for its comeback. Aware that its glory days are in the past, yet fit and trim enough to face the future.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz@pacbell.net.