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Grand Cherokee has 'go anywhere' toughness

December 27, 2004|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

On-road or off-road? It's a wide divide, requiring very different skill sets. Most sport-utility vehicles specialize in one or the other. To do both is a tall order. Few brands have stepped up to the challenge and succeeded. One that has is Jeep, and for 2005, Jeep brings out an all-new version of its most successful dual-duty sport utility - the Grand Cherokee.

This is the third-generation Grand Cherokee; the first made its debut in 1992. That was just about the time when SUV popularity started to explode. Jeep, of course, is no newcomer to this market. Introduced in the 1960s, the Wagoneer series was arguably the prototype for the modern, dual-role SUV.

The latest Grand Cherokee is also the best Grand Cherokee, for a couple of reasons. First, the engine choices have been expanded. In addition to the base, 210 horsepower V-6, Jeep offers an updated 4.7-liter, 230-horsepower. V-8. Also available is the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. In the 1950s, Chrysler built its first engines with hemispherical combustion chambers in the heads. As these Hemis evolved in the 1960s, they became renowned in performance circles. The modern Hemi is far more technologically advanced, but still capable of stirring performance, and as it has spread throughout the Chrysler family lineup, so too has its popularity. How popular? The engine even has its own Web site (www.hemi.com).

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The 5.7-liter Hemi adds $1,245 to the Grand Cherokee's bottom line, and considerable force to the Jeep's bottom end. Rated at 325 horsepower and 370 lbs.-ft. of torque at 3,600 rpm, the motor is enormously responsive, and offers up to 7,200 pounds in towing capacity. To improve fuel economy, a Multi-Displacement System selectively deactivates cylinders, trimming back to four while cruising or in city stop and go.

However, any time you're accelerating hard or the engine is under load, the HEMI is (literally) hitting on all cylinders. In practice, the process is instantaneous (it switches back and forth in just 40 milliseconds), transparent to the driver, and it generates 10-20 percent gas mileage savings. However, even with MDS, gas mileage is typical, SUV dreary - EPA rates a Grand Cherokee Hemi at 14 mpg city/19 highway. The fuel economy difference between the V-8 and the V-6 is so small (3 mpg city, 2 highway) that many buyers may well be persuaded to step up the Hemi's added performance and pulling power.

Grand Cherokee has an all-new front suspension and a well composed ride, with none of the bob and weave over bumps that large SUVs are prone to.

Three 4x4 systems are available. Quadra-Trac I is all-wheel drive, all the time. No switches, no levers and a nearly even (48 percent front/52 percent rear) distribution of power between the wheels. Quadra-Trac II uses an active transfer case and sensor inputs to channel power front/back and left/right as needed to maintain grip. Quadra-Drive II takes it one step further, using electronically controlled clutch packs to automatically and instantly vary the amount of slip/lock in each axle. The second and third options are most suitable to off-road use, and the Grand Cherokee honors the traditional, Jeep "go anywhere" philosophy. There are 8 inches of ground clearance below, with generous angles of approach/breakover/departure (34.1/20.6/27.1 degrees, respectively). With Quadra-Drive II, you'd have to be trying awfully hard to get this truck stuck.

Grand Cherokee is all-new inside as well, and the makeover is handsome and comfortable, especially in a fully loaded Limited edition like my test truck (base price $34,690). There is a full complement of electronics available optionally, including a Navigation system with 6 CD/MP3 player up front ($1,200) and a video system with fold-down screen in back ($1,200).

Grand Cherokee's driving position is good, as are your sight lines. Rear seat headrests - usually the bane of backward visibility - bow forward and out of the way, when not in use. With six-footers in front, there is enough room for like-size folks to fit (just) behind them. Head and shoulder room is less the issue than leg room in back. The top-hinged liftgate opens to a wide loading area with a low-lift over height. Cargo capacity ranges from 34.5-67.4 cu. ft.

The latest Grand Cherokee steps up nicely from the former model, particularly when fitted with the Hemi V-8. If your lifestyle calls for dual-duty driving, on- and off-road, or if you need room for people and power to tow, the new Jeep should be on your short list.

Copyright Motor Matters, 2004

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