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.