The Grand Cherokee is a Jeep: a big, American SUV, wearing an iconic American badge. Compared to rivals like the BMW X5, the Mercedes-Benz ML and the Land Rover Discovery, the Grand Cherokee looks bluff and almost utilitarian. But a recent makeover has added class and tech to this all-terrain stalwart, as DEON SCHOEMAN finds out.
Jeep. Now there’s a brand steeped in gung-ho Americana if there ever was one. Germany has its Geländewagen, and Land Rover is proudly British. But Jeep is as American as apple pie, turkey sandwiches and the Empire State Building. Or is it?
In the aftermath of the credit crunch and the economic meltdown that followed, the US auto industry went through some very tough times, and Chrysler was one of the hardest hit. Today, Chrysler LLC, of which Jeep is a subsidiary, is controlled by the Fiat Group, with the mercurial Sergio Marchionne at the helm.
Does that make the Grand Cherokee the automotive equivalent of a spaghetti Western? Hardly. Just look at rival Land Rover, which remains as pukka British as they come, despite the fact that it’s now owned by the giant Tata group.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee is the brand’s full-size SUV, and it’s just undergone what the folk back in Auburn Hills, Michigan would describe as a thorough makeover.
So, the ‘new’ Grand Cherokee isn’t really new. And indeed, much of the big 4×4 wagon’s silhouette and appearance has remained unchanged, a fact that creates a sense of easy familiarity when you approach the beast for the first time.
Perhaps it has something to do with the Grand Cherokee’s unassuming, pragmatic styling which, while not particularly innovative, at least seems to have been created with no-nonsense functionality rather than designer chic in mind.
The corners may have softened somewhat over time, but this is still a boxy, macho machine. Add the tall stance, the bluff surfaces and the big wheels, and you have a straight-shooter SUV with none of the haughtiness that earmarks so many of its European rivals.
So what’s different about this 2014 model then? Most of the real changes, at least in visual terms, are at the front. The seven-slot grille is squatter, and framed on either side by slimmer, headlights with a high-tech stare, thanks to their Xenon elements and daytime running lights.
This particular model of the Grand Cherokee is the 3.6 Overland, which means it gets lots of colour-coding, which tends to understate the ruggedness of the shape. It also adds some visual cohesion to the package.
The changes to the rear are rather more subtle. The large tail light clusters have become even bigger and are powered by brighter LEDs, while there’s also a more pronounced roof spoiler. Less apparent is the reshaped bumper, and a subtly redesigned tailgate.
The Grand Cherokee retains the nameplate’s traditionally high waistline and relatively narrow glass areas, while the wheels are handsome five-spoke alloys, shod with road-biased rubber. However, its relatively short overhangs and decent ground clearance suggest that off-roading is very much on the big Jeep’s agenda – despite a cabin that is lavishly appointed.
Jeep is particularly proud of the revamped interior, and indeed, it’s light years removed from the previous model. Of particular note are the two displays: an 18 cm TFT screen in the main instrument binnacle and a bigger 22 cm touch-screen in the centre stack.
The smaller display replaces the primary analogue instruments, and can be configured in different ways to suit personal preference. For instance, you can swap between an analogue speedometer or a digital speed display, or focus on a graphic depiction of instant and average fuel consumption.
In 4×4 conditions, you can switch to graphic depiction of the suspension to monitor articulation or front wheel direction. And in reverse, a reverse camera will provide a rearward view. You can also check tyre pressures, switch between trip meters, and more.
The touch screen provides an intuitive interface for the Jeep’s comprehensive infotainment system, which embraces the audio system, navigation and telephony. Whether you want to tune into your favourite station, make a hands-free call via Bluetooth, or play music from your iPod, the touch screen is where you find, access and control it.
The interior appointments are a lot more stylish than before, with a dash of European understatement that is almost Scandinavian in its elegance. The natural-grain wood trim’s finish is matt rather than glossily gaudy, and the leather upholstery features carefully executed stitching.
Because of the touch screen, there are far fewer controls, but having said that, the ergonomics are still on the fussy side. It takes a bit of time to familiarise yourself with the various control zones scattered around the driving position.
Interior space is adequate, but the bulky front bucket seats and the relatively narrow side glass can make the rear bench seat feel more cramped than it actually is. Fortunately a full-length panoramic roof adds welcome light and air when required.
Of the three petrol engines on offer, the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 fitted to this Jeep is the smallest – although it’s only small in comparison to the two big V8s also on offer. The V6 looks promising on paper: 210kW of max power, 347Nm of torque, and twin camshafts per cylinder bank.
The reality is not quite as rosy, however. With a kerb mass in the region of 2.3 tons, the Grand Cherokee needs every kiloWatt of the V6 engine’s urge, and it can feel wheezy and slow to respond. Shifting gears manually helps, but even so the Jeep feels as big and heavy as it looks.
You sit high and mighty in the embrace of the comfortable bucket seats, with a commanding view of your surroundings. But because you’re perched so high off the ground, the Jeep’s momentum is always understated.
The gearbox is an eight-speed, full automatic supplied by ZF. It swaps cogs smoothly and swiftly, but can be caught out by the initial inertia of the Jeep. Changing gears manually is either via the shift paddles on either side of the steering column, or via the shift lever.
There is also a Sport mode, which allows for a more reactive throttle response, and also chases higher revs, creating a more athletic demeanour. It’s certainly the setting of choice if you’re travelling cross-country, and is happiest used in full auto mode.
Jeep’s factory figures claim a zero to 100km/h sprint time of 8,3 seconds, and a 206 km/h top speed. Both stats seem feasible. The same can’t be said of the fuel consumption, though.
The claimed combined-cycle consumption figure is 10.4l/100 km, but in reality, 17 l/100 km is a more realistic expectation. Open road cruising should see that drop to between 11 and 12 l/100 km, depending on load and average speed.