It's still the critical vehicle in the Jeep lineup, and unlike some other utility vehicles, it hasn't blurred its SUV past so much as to become unrecognizable. The Grand Cherokee still comes in Trail Rated editions, still has low-range four-wheel drive, still wants to be driven off-road--and at the same time, doesn't miss a beat on the utility side of its personality, while it does a pretty convincing job of connectivity, too.
The Grand Cherokee doesn't look very much like its German cousins, but there's some Mercedes M-Class behind its tipped-back, seven-bar grille and under its nicely detailed, trimmed-down body. The current Cherokee's fixed the visual problems of the last one--it's not squat, chopped, and blocky--but there's some blandness behind its front end, some global familiarity in its rear three-quarters that wasn't there in the iconic 1992 original. Maybe that's from the DNA it shares with the M Class, but the softness on the outside pays huge dividends on the inside, where the hard points are the same, and all the hard plastics and grainy pieces of the last Cherokee have been banished. It's a distinctive look, thoroughly Jeep in its combination of shapes and textures, and another successful effort from Chrysler that points out one of the real strengths of the company--the way it can finish a cockpit, given the right budget and time constraints.
The Grand Cherokee's just not the same. In terms of performance, that's an amazing development, because the slow progress Jeep had made toward civilizing the Cherokee took a huge leap forward with the 2011 model. Unchanged for the most part since then, this latest Grand Cherokee has a newly fluid feel on pavement that completely masks the considerable toughness and rugged ability baked into its hardware. Ride quality and steering have been vastly improved, to the point that the Grand Cherokee can have the soft-touch sophistication of a crossover. At the same time its four-wheel-drive systems hit the sweet spot of usability for casual off-roaders, but on-road drivers get even more attention. This might be the first Grand Cherokee that feels better on pavement than off, though the most advanced versions can still clamber over boulders and logs like they're about to be made into fur coats.
The Grand Cherokee also sports Chrysler's first new V-6 engine in a decade. The 290-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 teams up with a fairly dated five-speed automatic that's better than average, but still a relic from its wrecked marriage. Together, the powertrain combines for some resonance and boom at midrange speeds that could use some attention, but good passing strength and adequate fuel economy. This drivetrain's good enough to make the optional 360-hp HEMI V-8 an afterthought to anyone except the big spenders eager to inject some dollars into the Obama economy, though the HEMI's available air suspension and advanced all-wheel-drive systems are the equal of anything you'll find in a pricier M-Class.
Oh, did we forget the SRT8? The 470-hp HEMI addition to this year's lineup gets tight suspension tuning, flatter handling, its own cosmetic touches, even a layer on its touchscreen to measure its 0-60 mph times, estimated in the five-second range. Do want, even at the heady $60,000 entry price.
The Grand Cherokee may not offer up the third-row seating or funky-flexible interior of some bigger crossovers, but it has two extraordinary performance vectors that few SUVs can offer--few, other than the Porsche Cayenne or the BMW X5 or of course, the M-Class, the trio of utes it stacks up against most directly, even at its cut-rate price. That makes it an extraordinary value, one that earns top safety scores and our admiration--for hanging on to some classic SUV traits while blazing some new trails in driving fun and sophistication.