When the current generation of the Jeep Grand Cherokee launched in 2010, the original press materials made reference to the car’s “Mercedes heritage.” An annoyed letter from Europe quickly iced that phrase, but while the statement may have been questionable from a trademark standpoint, it was certainly true from a technical one. When Daimler sold its Chrysler holdings, the Grand Cherokee was well into development.
So with the 2014 model, which celebrated its first drive last week in Austin, you now have an American brand, owned by an Italian corporation, which features residual German styling and engineering. Even in the contemporary car business, where nameplates change ownership more often than minor-league baseball teams do, that’s some significantly muddled DNA. Six years later, the GC is still supported by the same suspension and air suspension as the M Class. It’s a secret Mercedes.
But just like with human genetics, all that mixing actually makes the product better.
The Grand Cherokee delivers solid on-road performance, top-notch offroad capability, unspectacular but solid exterior styling, and a reasonable amount of comfort. Little about it feels cheap or out-of-place. However, it’s hard to present a complete summary judgment, because like a lot of contemporary vehicles, the Grand Cherokee comes with so many different packages, engines, and trim levels, that it’s actually several cars in one. Jeep even offers three different four-wheel drive systems.
At the very base, the “Laredo” trim with 4X2 capability and a V-6 engine sells for $28,975, putting it in the same league as higher end Subarus and Mazdas. All the way up the scale, the fully-tricked-out “Summit” version, with a V-8 and four-wheel drive goes for $50,995, which means it’s competing with low-end Range Rovers. Starting in the second quarter of the year, Jeep will be offering a 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V-6 engine, which would add between $4,500 to $5,000 to the price and making it even harder to pin down. You could drive a dozen Grand Cherokees and not get the exact same car twice.
Those salad-bar-like elements aside, this is a mid-life refresh, not a completely new car. Most significantly, the Grand Cherokee now features an eight-speed automatic transmission, and in every trim level except the Laredo, an 8.4-inch touchscreen display that’s of a piece with other contemporary shipboard computers. There are also significant upgrades to the interior styling, which ostensibly draws its inspiration from the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders. At the press launch, the Grand Cherokee’s lead interior designer said, with a bit of pretension, “We take our customers not into a dishwasher on wheels, but into a real vehicle that reflects their dreams and aspirations of travel.” Perhaps not surprisingly, he’s another leftover from the days when Mercedes owned the brand.
In this case, though, the result actually more or less matches the marketing-speak. The first vehicle I got into was a Summit model, the highest trim level, and it had a relaxed, dark, muted color palette, beautiful wood trim, a cozy soft-touch interior, and an inside roof made of synthetic suede that looked and felt like the real thing. It also had a double sunroof, and a simple to understand but technically sophisticated dashboard. The whole package looked and felt like a high-quality entry-level luxury car.
On the other end of the scale, the Laredo felt very pleasant on its own terms. It had a smaller touch screen, canvas seats, and fewer wood accents and not as much softness, but it hardly felt dumpy. At every trim level, the Grand Cherokee has done a winning job on its interior refresh.
The new eight-speed transmission also accomplishes its job nicely. I drove the V-6, V-8, and diesel models. On the latter two, the transmission served up an experience that was smooth, intuitive, and, with the use of steering-column paddle shifters, really fun. The V-6 offered plenty of power at 290 hp, but I drove that in the Laredo trim, without the paddle shifters, and the transmission felt a little sticky. We got good gas mileage with the diesel, averaging 30 mpg on the highway and in the low 20s on other roads. The V-6 and V-8 offer up more typically unappealing mpg for this weight class, below 20 in the city and mid-20s on the highway.
But since this is a Jeep, after all, its real test comes off-road. I drove the diesel two-and-a-half hours through the Texas Hill Country to a private ranch, where I disembarked and almost immediately got into a beefy V-8 Overland with 360 hp to join a line of other Grand Cherokees on a trail drive. We followed the lead car like a gaggle of luxury ducklings.
It was a tougher trail than I’d expected, full of dips and bumps and divots, Underneath the car, there were grinding and scraping noises that would have made me nervous if I’d been an owner, but as I moved the car back and forth between its “Sand” and “Rock” setting, the air suspension raised and lowered accordingly, escaping every situation, no matter how rough. It spun hard on the rocks, but never stuck.
We drove up and over a boulder-strewn formation, which seemed tough enough. Then we arrived at the coup de grace: A smooth, sheer rock incline, at least 60 degrees. The Jeep Wrangler that had been serving as our de facto pace car went first. It looked like he was driving straight up a wall. The idea of taking that rock ramp in a much larger vehicle made me nervous, but two cars later, it was my turn. A representative from the company waved me forward. I rolled down my window.
“I don’t know if I’m comfortable with this,” I said.
“Well, sir,” he said. “No one is holding a gun to your head. You could always turn around.”
I’ve lived in Texas long enough to know a passive-aggressive Man Challenge when I hear one. Wrapped in 5,000 pounds of steel, I screwed my courage to the sticking place.
“Oh no,” I said. “I’m doing it.”
He nodded his approval. I punched a button by the gearshift. This activated the Hill Assist system. When these were first introduced into off-road vehicles a few years ago, they were used to help cars glide down steep inclines. Now, though, they’re also supposed to get you up the hill as well. They told me to use the paddle shifters and keep it on the “1” setting, which I did, but as I went up the incline, I needed more power. So I nudged the accelerator.
The Grand Cherokee rock-crawled. They’d warned us that there’d be “hopping.” The car shook so violently that I thought it was going to pop its wheels. That’s just something it does, apparently. But after a couple of minutes, I’d scaled the wall, and then there was nowhere to go but down, on setting “2,"
This time, I took my foot off the gas. I wasn’t going to give a drop like that the gift of extra acceleration. Every 50 or so feet, a guy in a Jeep golf shirt and baseball cap showed us which way to steer. I appreciated the gesture. Mercifully, the Grand Cherokee didn’t hop on descent. I carefully steered it down the rock face, trying to imagine that I was facing lunch, rather than certain death.
When I reached the bottom, my former Man Challenger said, “nice work.”
Whether or not he meant it, I’d survived, and had never felt truly at risk. After all, Jeep has a history off-road, but Germans know a little something about mountaineering too.