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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee: The Tom Brady of Jeeps

Posted by Bill Griffith  December 24, 2010 09:00 AM

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(All photos: Bill Griffith for The Boston Globe). Click photo for larger version.

When we describe the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee as more sophisticated and refined than its predecessors, here's what we mean in pro football terms.

The old Grand Cherokee was Brett Favre-like — grizzled, country-boy tough, at home on dirt roads, preferred Wrangler-type jeans (a reference to both Jeeps and jeans), and was decidedly uncomfortable when its drivers were wearing a tuxedo.

The new Grand Cherokee is Tom Brady-like — Euro-grizzled, New England tough, equally at home on dirt roads or crashing in the Back Bay, and equally comfortable when its driver is wearing jeans, designer jeans, or a tux.

This was a huge product launch for Jeep, the first major one with the Chrysler family seeking to reestablish its identity after being separated from Daimler. Because it was the Grand Cherokee that first took the Jeep-tough brand upscale, that market share was at stake, too. Four million Grand Cherokees sold says there are a lot of loyal owners out there looking to see what the new model was all about.

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Click photo for larger version.

Normally, this is the part where we start talking about the price, options, driving experience, and accoutrements of a vehicle. So, for starters, after driving it, we think the Jeep folks did a terrific job. But there's a convergence of events going on here that make you feel something special is happening, too. For example:

  1. The Grand Cherokee was named Internet Truck of the Year by both online voters and a panel of online journalists.
  2. It's also one of three finalists — with Ford's new Explorer and the new Dodge Durango — for the prestigious North American Truck of the Year Award.
  3. The man in charge of designing it — Ralph Gilles — did such a good job, in the eyes of his bosses, that he's since been named CEO of the company's Dodge brand. He's also an unabashed "car guy" who loves styling, performance, and luxury interiors.

The hope here is that the buyers and bean counters can make this Grand Cherokee work because, product-wise, it's an impressive start.

In Gilles words, "Our 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is much more refined, focused and sportier than the model it replaces. It has classic Jeep Grand Cherokee styling with sculpted athletic exterior refinements."

He's right, but the most important refinement may be that this Grand Cherokee has a first-class ride on paved roads to go with a choice of three 4x4 systems, five terrain settings, and a new "Quadra-Lift" air suspension system that raises and lowers the vehicle as needed for a variety of conditions — either automatically or manually.

Making it work with a vehicle that's longer (1.8 inches) and wider (3 inches) is an achievement, and maybe a carryover benefit from collaboration with Mercedes in the early design stages (it's based on the current-generation ML platform).

Our test vehicle was the base Laredo, which starts at $30,995 (including destination) for a 4x2 configuration. Our 4x4 started at $32,995, added a $4,000 "X" package, a $2,125 off-road Adventure package, $1,495 5.7-liter V-8 upgrade, $1,195 panoramic sunroof, and $50 engine block heater for a final total of $41,860. The V-8 was a terrific engine, putting out 360 horsepower delivered through (only) a five-speed automatic transmission. We'd have liked to try one with the new 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 that promises better fuel economy than the 14-19 range we got with the V-8.

This redesign still looks like a Grand Cherokee with the seven-slot grille, round headlights, and trapezoidal wheel openings. In this case, it's a pleasing meld of the traditional and contemporary styling.

Inside, the same held true. It looked like a Grand Cherokee that had hit the lottery and redid itself with an upscale look. We liked it, other than the Chrysler-based audio system, one that is workable but not as user-friendly as some we've seen.

Those looking for a big-family hauler will have to go elsewhere. The Grand Cherokee is a five-passenger vehicle, period. You can increase the adequate cargo space by folding second-row seats for lugging, but there's no third-row seating.

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Mrs. G, not always a Jeep lover, surprised herself by becoming a fan. "I didn't expect to like it, but I really did," she said, citing the ride, seats, and legroom.

It's been our experience that the TPMS (tire pressure monitoring systems), besides being a good warning and safety device, can be problematic with sending wrong signals and difficult to reset. Not so in this case. One extremely cold morning one tire was deflated just enough to trigger the system. A quick five pounds of air with a portable air compressor (one of my must-have tools) put it to right, and the system reset itself after a few miles of driving over 15 miles per hour.

The Grand Cherokee seems to be that kind of vehicle, turning out positives for the company.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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