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.