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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Review

We tried to get the new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee stuck. No, really: We moved it onto a snow bank, tried to bury it in 8-inches of snow, drove on a farm road that’s shin-deep in mud and snow. We’ve all seen those cryptic commercials showing the newly re-designed crossover snaking over rocks and crushing everything under its path, but we wanted to verify some of those claims, especially in winter conditions.

The good news for those who want to make sure they can travel over any tundra, especially if that tundra includes snow and ice: the Grand Cherokee is pretty much unstuckable. As long as you know the right settings to use, this is the one vehicle that can handle multiple terrain conditions. (Now, for those who plan to buy the car and drive it through four feet of mud, you might have us there.)

Slinging mud the smart way

In most conditions, the Cherokee is a 4×4 marvel, and one of the most amazing features is that you can raise the height of the vehicle just by pressing a button. There are three levels: aerodynamic mode for the best miles per gallon on the highway and fairly low-profile; mid-level for light off-roading so you don’t ding the underbelly too much, and a rock-defying third level that raises the car high enough that, when you step out after driving, you might actually have to grab a side rail and lower yourself down. When you press the button, the car visibly changes height, and it’s rather amazing to see.

Like the upcoming 2011 Ford Explorer, which is also a re-design, the Grand Cherokee has a dial that you can use in a standard auto setting, but you can also switch to the snow or rock modes. There is also a true 4×4 Low mode, which you use by switching into neutral and pressing and holding the button. This might not be intuitive, but it prevents someone from accidentally locking into that 4×4 mode, which provides power to all four wheels to get you out of a tight jam.

That’s the setting we used on a snow bank. The vehicle easily gripped into about eight inches of snow and lurched forward without a whimper, up an embankment, and onto flat ground. For most of our testing, we switched into either snow mode or used the auto setting. On a farm road, we used every setting as an experiment, and never had any trouble with swerving, spinning tires, or undercarriage dings. One of the main points to make about the Grand Cherokee, which most people will buy primarily for these road-hugging features and not necessarily for the Bluetooth or the stereo, is that you do need to know a bit about which setting to use for the current conditions. The Explorer uses a similar dial (we will be testing that in a few weeks) that is much better than the typical low-high settings.

However, in testing the Cherokee, we set the mode to snow and then drove on an icy highway. In these tests, the car actually slipped a bit at times because it was constantly trying to provide extra power. Switching back to Auto mode, which senses the power you need for each tire, the slipping ceased.

Actually, the Grand Cherokee does some pretty interesting calculations related to off-road handling. For example, on the snow setting, the electronic brake system changes to prevent slipping so that the wheels are always moving you straight and not yawing left or right. With mud and sand, these settings change so that there is more power in the drivetrain, actually allowing more slippage. The vehicle also measures how hard you are pushing down on the gas pedal, monitors gears, and compares wheel speed. Chrysler did not, in all honestly, disclose as much information about how the sensors work in the Grand Cherokee, and Ford was much more willing to release details about how the multiple accelerometer and gyroscope sensors work to make sure you are going straight. We don’t know if the Grand Cherokee has as many sensors as the Edge, but we do know both crossovers performed well on the exact same farm road, that the Grand Cherokee tended to slip a little more if it was in the wrong setting, and that only the Grand Cherokee has a 4WD low mode for getting you unstuck.

Meanwhile, on dry roads, the Grand Cherokee handled like a solid crossover – not as sporty as the 2011 Ford Edge, not as dirt-flinging and rugged as the Nissan Rogue, but with good, tight steering. You always feel like you are in control of the car, and driving is never mushy or loose. For acceleration, the Grand Cherokee will not win any drag races from zero to 60, but thankfully it has power where it counts – in upper gears for passing a vehicle on a two-lane road (this was actually amazingly speedy) and for off-roading. Anyone who knows cars will recognize that the optional 5.7-liter V8 is not just about acceleration speed, but torque and power in mud and dirt, and this car beats any crossover for raw dirt-flinging power.

Styling and amenities

It’s hard to imagine someone buying the Grand Cherokee without being first attracted to the off-roading potential. However, this crossover does provides quite a few choice extras, and the styling is now more rugged and less chunky than the older Cherokees models. In some ways, the design looks like a European sports car that has bulged out in every way possible, growing a beefy hood, plenty of exterior accents, and just a touch of curviness that you might not even notice from certain angles. In fact, in comparing a Cherokee that is about three years old to the new version, the 2011 model definitely has a more curvy look, but not nearly as aerodynamic or strikingly sleek as, say, the Nissan Rogue. There’s a hint of boxiness, but overall a rugged and appealing look to this off-roading monster.

Inside, the Grand Cherokee has a trim, professional look – not as sporty as any version of the Ford Edge, but with more refined appointments like a wood-and-leather steering wheel, and wood accents that stretch from the center consoles to the doors. Seating in the back is roomy, and everyone in the car gets a seat warmer on the model we tested. The stereo is boomy and loud, but not nearly as crisp as the top-of-the-line stereo in the Audio A8. If you care about stereo systems, the Grand Cherokee is a notch better than either the Ford Edge or the Lincoln MKX, but the Edge and MKX have much better touchscreen controls for setting audio options, navigation, and climate.

(Note that we tested the top-of-the-line Overland version of the Grand Cherokee, with leather interior and a responsive 5.7-liter V8 that’s $44,915, but there is also a 2WD drive that’s only $30,000.)

A dash of tech

Interestingly, while the plethora of settings for road conditions and the rugged styling are vastly improved, the tech features on this car are not that astounding. The Grand Cherokee does provide adaptive cruise control, which senses the car in front of you and slows your vehicle automatically. You can quickly set the distance between you and the car in front, but having just tested the Audi A8, which eases the car fluidly into a lower speed using adaptive cruise, the Cherokee is a bit more abrupt.

Speaking of adapting, there is one tech feature that worked really well: The high-beams can be set for adaptive lighting, so when another car approaches, the lights dim to normal automatically. This worked reliably, and did not seem to be triggered by houses or other obstructions.

Unfortunately, the Grand Cherokee did not work consistently well with an iPhone 4. We had trouble getting Bluetooth voice calls to work (they kept switching back to the iPhone speaker) and for much of our audio testing using the 30-pin connector, which is located in a compartment just below the stereo, there were times when a song would stop or stutter. Like the VW Jetta we tested recently, these bugs are actually due to a compatibility issue that Apple needs to solve, but they’re still annoying.

Some of the settings on the steering column are a bit hard to use as well. There is an up and down button, which controls the LCD above the steering wheel, but we first thought it was for volume. (Of course, anyone familiar with Chrysler cars will know that the track control and volume buttons are on the opposite side of the steering column, and easy to use once you find them.) When browsing through the menus that you control form the steering wheel, it seemed odd to press the forward arrow to advance through settings – it looks too much like a “play” button for audio control. Still, many of the settings for checking tire pressure, setting adaptive cruise functions, and seeing MPG rating are handy.

And we’re not going to say the tech features are atrocious – far from it. The main reason we’re even calling them out is that, as you are focusing on the off-roading features and gawking at the interior and exterior styling, it might be frustrating to realize that some of the tech features are not q uite as impressive. We think that might have something to do with how Chrysler focused mostly on getting the off-road options down and upgrading the styling, so maybe the next model year will be one that has worked out the technical bugs for some of the entertainment and phone options.

Rugged as ever

Overall, the Jeep Cherokee is more rugged and off-road capable than the Ford Edge or the Lincoln MKX. If you had to pick from those three, the Ford vehicles beat the Grand Cherokee hands-down for technical features, entertainment and navigation, and even in seemingly minor details like offering built-in Wi-Fi and 3G service. However, those crossovers are not intended as true 4×4 vehicles that can handle eight inches of snow and mud. We did not even both testing those scenarios, especially since there is no 4×4 low option to get us out of a serious jam. With the Grand Cherokee, we thought twice about it. We looked at the snow pile and the dirt, and wondered for a second if it was a wise idea. After all, the vehicle looks like an urbanized crossover for highway driving. But once we edged in to the snowbank, switched to the snow mode and dropped into 4×4 low, there was never any doubt.

The Grand Cherokee is more rugged than other crossovers, and it’s a powerful behemoth. One question is whether the upstart challenger, the new Ford Explorer, will dethrone this 4×4 crossover champ.

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