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Grand Cherokee wins NEMPA winter test

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  February 28, 2011 05:15 PM

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(Chrysler) Click photo for larger version.

A year ago February, when the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) selected the best winter vehicles for 2010, I was dead bored over the lack of snow. For me, there's no point freezing your face off for four months without some beautiful, treacherous storms in return.

"Winter is supposed to be a challenge," I whined on this website, "but we're sitting here idling."

Boy, do words have a tendency to snowball.

Since December, two-foot-high snow piles have turned Boston's two-way streets into games of chicken, won only by fearless drivers with poor depth perception. Busted side mirrors, a natural consequence, still dangle from cars left for dead in the ice. I've heard the sounds of screeching axles as drivers spin their wheels in vain, desperate to escape the snow's choke hold. I've heard myself swearing at my super, who considered my parking space a dumping site for his plows. As far as journalists and school children are concerned, winters don't get much better.

All that snow, ironically, forced NEMPA to postpone its winter vehicle test. Not that it mattered to me. I was trucking two of the toughest four-wheel-drives on sale: a Jeep Wrangler Sahara on the original date, and a Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen the week after.

But when the storms cleared and votes from more than 50 journalists were tallied, the Wrangler's larger, plusher cousin stole the day. We named the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee our "Official Winter Vehicle of New England" for its rigorous redesign and improved on-road manners. While the Grand Cherokee has always been a serious winter performer, it's never had the amenities or refinement to call it an "American Range Rover," as auto writer Keith Griffin did.

Straight out of the Rover's high-end playbook are height-adjustable air suspension and a "terrain response" dial that optimizes the suspension, drivetrain, and throttle to different road conditions. Leather covers the dash and doors, a huge panoramic moonroof lets the sky shine down, and the entire cabin is quiet and aglow at night. Even the thick, gorgeous wood rim on the steering wheel is heated. Granted, we were testing the loaded $45,000 Overland trim, but there's magic wax rubbed all over the Grand Cherokee lineup. When the rude-and-crude Wrangler relaxes you on a long drive, you know Chrysler's really paying attention to quality.

Further proof came from the 2011 Dodge Charger R/T AWD, which won the all-wheel-drive sedan/wagon segment up to $35,000. "The Charger feels like it was designed just for New England winters," said AAA "Car Doctor" John Paul. "Oh, and by the way, it has a Hemi!" This is the Charger's second regional award since appearing on the Globe's "Top Drives for 2011" list in November.

The Hyundai Tucson took the compact SUV category for the second year, reveling in its value, packaging, and style. The brand-new 2011 Ford Explorer, intended as a revolution for the once-famous SUV, ditches the body-on-frame chassis and big V-8s for better handling and fuel economy. It won the standard SUV segment up to $35,000. Two pampering heavyweights, the kingly Range Rover HSE and lavish second-generation Infiniti QX56, shared the luxury SUV award.

Some winter-ready vehicles are practically invisible. At just under $18,000, the subcompact Suzuki SX4 Crossover has won NEMPA's "Yankee Value Award" for the last few years. It's the most affordable all-wheel-drive car on the market, yet few people realize Suzuki makes cars.

Looking for an all-wheel-drive minivan? The new Toyota Sienna is the sole offering — and a competent one at that — but you'll have to skip out on 8-passenger seating to get it. If you skip a few more seats and can afford to add a couple hundred horsepower, the Porsche 911 Turbo will do the trick as our "Best All-Weather Sports Car." I might be laughing with you if I hadn't seen dirty Turbos cruising downtown with icicles on their air vents.

It's cars like the Turbo and the SX4 — not tall trucks and crossovers — that have converted me to the righteousness of all-wheel-drive. For the longest time, I didn't think a negligible increase in traction was worth a couple thousand extra, especially with the added weight and fuel consumption.

But while snow tires can make most two-wheel-drive cars behave admirably in winter, most drivers don't swap them, and most manufacturers stick with all-season rubber geared for the drier summer months. So we get great-handling cars, like the Acura TSX Sport Wagon and Jaguar XJ, that can't get up a plowed driveway. Some cars handicap themselves further, like the Toyota Prius and Ford Fiesta, by refusing to disable the traction control.

Then you fire up an Audi S4 sitting in a foot of snow, throw it in "D," and scoop right out. Or you take a 12-year-old Volvo S70 AWD on unplowed highways, like my parents did coming back from the emergency room one early morning, and arrive home completely convinced. All-wheel-drive won't make you invincible — inexperienced drivers may believe the contrary — but the security and confidence are enough to keep you from turning back.

As far as gas mileage goes, I haven't noticed a real change versus a comparable two-wheel-drive car, especially with less efficient winter-grade fuel and constant cold starts. In warmer months, that gap will widen a bit.

But in winters like this, the premium for all-wheel-drive is worth its weight in the snow I'm not shoveling.

Go here to see the full list of NEMPA winners.

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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Boston.com reports the latest trends, auto shows and wrings out the newest cars in our city's hellish maze — and across the great roads of New England.
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Contributors

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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