Thumbs Up: Great ride quality coupled with go-anywhere capability.
Thumbs Down: Contrasting dash stitching creates distratcting glare.
Buy This Car If: You’re looking for the best value in a near-luxury SUV.
In the not-too-distant past, the words “luxury” and “SUV” were mutually exclusive. Luxury cars offered cushy-but-isolated rides and enveloped passengers in supple leather seats, isolated in tomb-like silence from the outside world. SUVs, on the other hand, were ladder-frame trucks designed to get you out where the busses don’t run, with few concessions to comfort or amenities.
Jeep’s former flagship Grand Wagoneer was really the first vehicle to attempt the melding of the luxury car and the SUV, and the model amassed legions of fans who praised it for its capability and (relatively speaking) its comfort. Despite going out of production in 1991 (and yes, we’re deliberately omitting the 1993 ZJ Grand Wagoneer), clean used examples still command top dollar when they hit the market.
Jeep’s latest Grand Cherokee, launched in 2010 as a 2011 model, continues to carry on the legacy of the Grand Wagoneer, albeit in a scaled-down version. While base models of the Grand Cherokee can be had with cloth seats, rear-wheel-drive and relatively unsophisticated suspension systems, range-topping Overland and Overland Summit models can be equipped to rival German luxury sedans, but with go-anywhere capability. There’s leather and wood (on the steering wheel, anyway); heated and ventilated front seats; heated rear seats; a voice-operated navigation system; Selec-Terrain traction management and even a Quadra-Lift air suspension that adapts ride height to driving conditions.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that the Grand Cherokee, in Overland trim, doesn’t punish you with ride quality typically associated with SUVs. We’d stop short of benchmarking it against a Buick sedan, but the ride quality is surprisingly comfortable. Bumps and potholes are soaked up with ease, yet the Jeep corners with surprising confidence, especially considering it’s off-pavement capabilities. Inside, the cabin is quiet, and rear seat passengers can enjoy an optional DVD entertainment system with split-screen capability and wireless headphones for domestic tranquility. It’s almost as if someone set out to design the perfect vehicle for an active and adventure-seeking family of four.
Given that a comparable BMW X5 xDrive35i Premium would sticker at $64,495 and a similar Mercedes-Benz ML350 4Matic would list for $62,280, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland that we tested was its price. As equipped, the Jeep stickered at a surprisingly reasonable $45,590. Sure, the BMW and Mercedes carry more prestige, but we’d be willing to bet the Jeep will take you to far more places, whether or not they’re listed on a map.
As for styling, the latest Jeep Grand Cherokee rounds off some of the previous model’s angular styling. It still looks masculine, but your wife won’t be embarrassed to drive it; vice versa, you won’t need sunglasses and a hat to drive your wife’s Grand Cherokee to the dealership for service, unless of course it’s painted Mary Kay pink and wears a license plate frame proclaiming “Princess.” The Jeep’s shape is functional, too, and the short overhangs allow for the steep approach and departure angles necessary for hard-core off-roading. While not all Grand Cherokee buyers will be eager to put brush pinstriping on a $40k-plus SUV, some will, and Jeep builds the Grand Cherokee for these customers.
Inside, “upscale” is the best way to describe the cabin. The dash is topped in stitched leather, an unexpected feature in this price point. The center stack is trimmed in satin aluminum-colored plastic, as are the vents and door handles. Crash pad and upper door trim are dark vinyl, but this is split by a simulated wood trim strip to offset the interior colored trim below. The styling is pleasant, but we’re not fond of the oddly-colored wood used in the Overland’s interior. In fact, it took some digging to determine that this was real wood, as opposed to simulated wood trim.
The instruments, however, deserve praise. They’re clear and easy to acquire, with a tachometer and temperature gauge on the left and a speedometer and gas gauge on the right. Both sit in recessed tunnels trimmed in chrome, and they’re split by a bright driver information display. Not only does this give you the standard information (direction, temperature, fuel economy, distance to empty, etc.) but it can also provide helpful info like oil pressure and transmission fluid temperature, useful for those who take their Jeep off-road or tow with them.
Front seats are adjustable to fit nearly any size driver, and feature ventilated leather and fan-cooling on Overland models. They’re heated, too, and give both driver and passenger an inflatable and adjustable lumbar cushion for day-long comfort. Contrasting piping adds a touch of class, as does the stitched Overland logo on the seat back.
Rear seats offer generous headroom and ample legroom, and even get heat for cold-weather comfort. Seats recline for passenger comfort and fold for maximum cargo room. While the Grand Cherokee provides three rear seat belts, the narrow center cushion and driveshaft tunnel make the middle seat useful for temporary duty only.
Under the hood, most Grand Cherokees come with Chrysler’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, rated at 290 horsepower and 260 pound feet of torque. It’s an excellent choice for most buyers, returning 16 mpg city and 23 mpg highway in 4×4 Grand Cherokee models. Acceleration is a bit leisurely, with 0-60 mph taking just over 9 seconds. Remember, speed isn’t the focus of this particular SUV (that’s what the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is for), and those wanting more grunt can also opt for a 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 engine rated at 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque.
Behind the wheel, the Jeep drives very much like a big sedan, albeit one with a commanding view of the road ahead. Irregular surfaces and bumps present little bother to passengers, likely thanks to the Jeep’s Quadra-Lift pneumatic suspension. Not only is it good at soaking up bumps on-road, but it also provides drivers with 8.1 inches of ground clearance in “Normal” mode. If that’s not enough, the suspension can be raised an additional 1.3-inches (Off-Road 1) or a further 1.2-inches beyond that mark (Off-Road 2).
When the going gets tough, Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system allows you to adjust traction, braking and ride height at the turn of a knob, which makes life a lot simpler than in the days of manually locking hubs and balky, manually-shifted center differentials. We’d stop short of saying that anyone can drive the Jeep Grand Cherokee off-road, but we’ll admit that training an inexperienced driver to navigate a trail would be a whole lot easier in the Grand Cherokee than in an old-school 4×4.
Chrysler provided the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland for our evaluation. Base price on our press-fleet tester was $43,820, including a destination charge of $825. Optional equipment included the $1,495 Customer Preferred Package 26P (rear DVD entertainment center, rear overhead console, power single-pane sunroof) and the $275 Off-Road Adventure II Package (front suspension skid plate, fuel tank skid plate, all season on/off road tires, tow hooks, transfer case skid plate, underbody skid plate, 18-inch polished aluminum wheels, ‘Trail-Rated’ badging) for a total sticker price of $45,590.
For comparison, a similarly-equipped Dodge Durango Citadel would sticker for $45,490, but the Durango won’t give you the off-road capability of the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Ford’s new Explorer will do a bit better than the Durango when the pavement ends, and a comparably equipped Ford Explorer Limited would price out at $45,065.