Thumbs Up: Greatly improved, in every way, over the last version.
Thumbs Down: Sticker shock; those improvements have a price.
Buy This Car If: You want a midsize SUV with genuine off-road credibility.
Chrysler has made a major effort to highlight the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, including a series of memorable commercials entitled “The Things We Make, Make Us”. Their underlying message was clear: when the U.S. builds quality products, crafted with pride, we prosper as a nation. When we let that lapse, bad things happen. Nowhere is this more evident than with the previous generation Jeep Grand Cherokee. Once a segment leader, by 2010 it had fallen to the bottom of the midsize SUV pile. The base engine was a harsh, under-powered 3.7 V6 that wasn’t known for its fuel efficiency. While capable off-road, the Cherokee was numb on-road and provided little in the way of driver feedback. Inside, the interior was filled with hard, cheap plastic and not nearly up to others in the category. In short, there wasn’t much going for the old Grand Cherokee except for the Jeep name.
For 2011, Jeep has created an entirely-new-from-the-ground-up Grand Cherokee, and it’s back among the leaders in the segment. Everything, from exterior styling through interior quality and choice of base engine, has been improved. I’m not sure I’d buy into the “hand crafted by artisans” hype that Chrysler touted in the launch commercials, but this much is clear: the new Jeep Grand Cherokee is once again worthy of praise, and worth driving if you’re in the market for a mid-size SUV.
On the outside, the iconic Jeep styling remains, but it’s been modernized and made more aerodynamic. You won’t mistake the Grand Cherokee for any other vehicle on the road, and that’s important for Jeep to maintain brand identity. The new design carries a lot more style than the outgoing version, which had almost become cartoonish, relying on fender flares and exaggerated lines to convey a macho image. The new Grand Cherokee is much more subdued and tasteful, and that’s a (very) good thing.
Inside, the new Grand Cherokee really shines, and I’d call it on par with the new Ford Explorer for both quality and comfort. The dash is sculpted soft touch vinyl up top, split by a center trim panel (black in my Laredo X tester) and finished with carpet-matched plastic. The center stack, vents and steering wheel are trimmed in aluminum colored plastic, but it has a high quality look and feel about it. In the past, accountants would have told the designers, “use the cheaper stuff”; in the new Grand Cherokee, you get the feeling that the designers won this battle. Even the switchgear has an improved feel to it, although I’ll admit to not being a fan of Chrysler’s touch screen audio system. In my mind, you simply can’t beat old-fashioned knobs and buttons for easily adjusting the audio system.
The front seats in my Laredo X tester were leather, and were (of course) heated. Both the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat were power adjustable, and both had an inflatable lumbar support. I never needed to play with it, since the seats are well designed for long road trips, but it’s good to know you’ve got the option for the occasional cross-country drive.
Rear seats offer more legroom than the previous generation Grand Cherokee, and headroom for rear seat passengers is more than ample. My tester even had a dual pane panoramic sunroof, so rear-seaters get to enjoy a view of the sky instead of just a view of the headliner. Surprisingly, the rear seats aren’t heated; in a vehicle that’s pushing the $40k mark, especially one that touts all-weather capability, heated rear seats should be standard equipment with leather upholstery.
Behind the wheel, drivers get a commanding view of their surroundings. The Grand Cherokee has excellent outward visibility, and I don’t recall a single blind spot. The thick, leather wrapped steering wheel fit my hands well, although I imagine those with small hands may find it too big for their liking. I didn’t like the rear mounted audio controls on the steering wheel, which seemed improperly placed for easy use and overly sensitive. I had a hard time scrolling up or down through radio stations, as the control seemed to randomly bypass certain presets.
The instruments reside in chrome-trimmed pods, split by a large and comprehensive driver information display. Unlike other manufacturers, who make you choose from average fuel economy or current fuel economy or distance to empty, the Jeep’s display gives you all three in a bright, easy to read display. It also shows your current direction and the outside temperature along with the information you’ve dialed up, so credit goes to Jeep for building one of the best driver information systems in the industry.
Power comes from a 3.6 liter V6, good for 290 horsepower and 260 ft lb of torque. That’s up from 210 horsepower and 235 ft lb of torque in the outgoing model, while fuel economy remains essentially unchanged. The EPA rates the new 3.6 liter V6 at 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, and I saw an actual 19.1 mpg in combined city and highway driving. The only transmission choice for the 2011 Grand Cherokee is a five speed automatic, which tends to upshift quickly to boost fuel economy; if it’s acceleration you want, you’ll need to keep your foot in it a bit longer than you initially expect. If you want more power still, Jeep offers the 5.7 liter Hemi V8, which is rated at 360 horsepower and 390 ft lbs of torque. Properly equipped, a 5.7 liter Grand Cherokee can tow up to 7,300 pounds, which gives them bragging rights over the new Ford Explorer (which can only tow up to 5,000 pounds).
On the road, the Grand Cherokee favored ride comfort over handling but that’s not a bad thing. As expected, there was body roll in corners, but transitions in pavement or railroad tracks disappeared under the Jeep’s tires. My Laredo tested had Jeep’s Quadra-Trac I 4wd system, which is really Jeep-speak for “AWD”; despite being 4wd, it had no locking differentials or low range gearing. In other words, this was the configuration to select if your exploration needs included only the wilds of Hoboken, NJ, or the untamed steppes of Buffalo, NY. If you want to explore the backcountry, you’ll need either the Quadra-Trac II or Quadra-Drive four wheel drive systems, preferably enhanced with the Quadra-Lift height adjustable pneumatic suspension. If you have a two speed transfer case, you can also opt for Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system, which includes multiple terrain settings and a hill descent control. If the Rubicon Trail is in your future, you’ll want to opt for the Quadra-Drive, the Quadra Lift and the Select-Terrain system; if you still get stuck, I’d pin that on you and not on Jeep.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a vehicle worthy of the Jeep legacy, and it comes in a variant to fit virtually any lifestyle. If I had one surprise, it would be pricing: my tester was a well equipped base model, but it still managed to hit almost $40,000. That’s not inexpensive, and at that price some key options were absent. My tester lacked a nav system, for example, and I’ve already commented on the lack of heated seats in the rear. If you go for a higher end model and check all the option boxes, you can easily top the $56,000 mark, and that’s a lot of money for a non-luxury vehicle. If the new Grand Cherokee proves to be as reliable and well built as Chrysler tells us it is, then perhaps my criticism is off base. Quality costs money, but returns solid value for that investment.
My 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo X 4×4 had a base price of $32,995 including destination charge. Options on my tester included the $225 Blackberry Pearl Coat paint, the $4,000 Laredo X Package (Power Adjustable And Heated Leather Front Seats With Inflatable Lumbar Support, Leather Rear Seats, Dual Zone Climate Control, Rearview Camera, Rear Park Assist, Bluetooth Phone Interface, Premium Audio, Remote Start, Security Alarm, 115v Power Outlet, Leather Wrapped Shift Knob, Cargo Cover, Universal Garage Door Opener, 18” Wheels With Off-Road Tires), the $595 Trailer Tow Group (7 and 4 Pin Wiring Harness, Class IV Receiver Hitch, Rear Load Leveling Suspension, Full Size Spare Tire) and the $1,195 Command View Dual Pane Sunroof, for a total sticker price of $39,010. For comparison, a similarly equipped 2011 Ford Explorer would sticker at $36,415 and a similar Honda Pilot EX-L would sticker for $36,375.