Words and pictures by Grant Spolander
Can this game-changing feature restore the Grand Cherokee’s former glory?
I own a Jeep but that doesn’t mean I’m biased. To prove my objectivity I’m going to quickly share my views on the Jeeps I’ve tested to date.
’09 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon: Hugely capable off -road, compromised on-road, fun for a weekend getaway but not really suited for overland use. The fact that it’s not available in diesel form makes me want to tap Jeep on the forehead and shout: “Heeeelloooo, is there anyone in there?” That aside, I love the Rubicon, it’s the most capable OE-spec 4×4 in the sub-R500k sector. If I had the bucks, I’d buy one in a heartbeat.
’08 Jeep Cherokee 2.8 CRD: An ergonomic disaster, as ugly on the inside as it is on the outside. Off -road abilities are pathetic thanks to non-existent ground clearance. An embarrassment to the Cherokee name. (Ed: Don’t hold back mate, tell us what you really think.)
’09 Jeep Commander 3.0 CRD Extreme Sport: A better vehicle than the Cherokee but not by much – it’s ugly as hell and dimensionally incapable off -road, which is a shame seeing as how Jeep took the time to install Quadra Drive 2 in it. Overall it’s a let down and not surprisingly it’s been dropped from the Jeep production line.
’09 Jeep Patriot 2.0 CRD: The cabin isn’t made for human beings – I refuse to believe that anyone can find it comfortable. The diesel engine revs like a petrol version but it’s got aeons of turbo lag. With so many great vehicles in the compact SUV sector the Patriot would be one of the last vehicles on my list.
That just about sums it up. So while I’m a fan of the brand, its image and heritage, I’d be lying if I said my expectations were high. The newer Jeeps are mostly soft , frilly, poorly-designed vehicles that fail to live up to their ancestors’ off -road legacy. And we’re not talking about a brand like Daihatsu who make one 4×4 model, we’re talking about Jeep – off -road is supposed to be their forte. However, without giving too much away, the new Grand Cherokee is a ray of hope lancing its way through some pretty dark clouds.
Jeeps are notorious for their poor cabin ergonomics. What’s more, as they’re designed predominantly for the left -hand-drive US market, they oft en come with quirky features, like the weird location of the handbrake lever and bonnet catch.
In a number of newer models I’ve found that the transmission tunnel encroaches on the footwell area, and the styling of the dash is sometimes too square and impedes on driver knee room.
The new Grand Cherokee is a completely different vehicle; admittedly, I haven’t spent much time in the previous model to effectively draw comparisons between old and new, but I can confidently say that this is one of the best interiors you’ll find below R900k. Not just in terms of comfort and layout, but on the feature front too.
If you can’t find a comfortable seating position in the new Grand Cherokee, there’s something wrong with your body. The steering wheel is fully adjustable and power assisted, both front seated passengers get power seats with lumbar support, and there’s loads of head, shoulder and leg room all-round.
Storage space is unmatched: you’ll find a spot for your sunglasses, keys, cellphone, bottles, cups, maps and more. Plus, boot capacity is more than generous – 1 030 litres behind the second row and 1 930 litres with the seats folded. (Not quite as good as the Disco 4’s 1 192 and 2 558 litres, but still very good for its sector).
But when it comes to value for money the Jeep’s interior wins! At R637 990 for the flagship V8 Overland model the Grand Cherokee boasts features previously only found in the R1m+ category; things like heated seats all-round, an onboard tyre pressure monitor, heated steering wheel, power assisted tailgate and the option to blow cooled air through tiny holes in the leather seats – that’s Range Rover league.
Of course, you still get the more mundane items like a built-in DVD player, satnav, reverse camera, park distance sensors, individual climate control, steering wheel audio controls, Bluetooth, a designated iPod jack, and multiple 12 V plug points – including one in the boot.
There really isn’t much to fault here – the new Grand Cherokee’s interior is spacious, comfortable, feature-filled, ergonomically sound, well put together and perfect for those long-distance trips. If I was forced to nitpick, I’d point to the fake wood grain trim, which looks nice from far but up close is far from nice.
Curvaceous fender flares and trapezoidal wheel arches… it ain’t easy combining sharp, square lines with rounded edges but the Grand Cherokee pulls it off beautifully, projecting a look that says macho but sophisticated, traditional but contemporary, menacing but in control. To me, it’s absolutely gorgeous and a vast improvement over the previous model. But I have to confess that I’m less than fond of the highly polished alloy rims and the 30” tyres that look a little small in the Grand’s large wheel wells.
The Grand Cherokee currently sports two engine variants: the 5.7-litre V8 – retained from the previous model – and the all-new 3.6-litre V6. Both versions come equipped with Jeep’s Quadra Trac 2 drive system – a full-time 4WD system that functions in all-wheel-drive until additional traction is needed, then reacts by electronically engaging the clutch pack to transfer up to 100 percent torque to either axle. This system also features low-range gearing with a ratio of 2.72 to 1.
However, buyers seeking additional off-road performance can opt for the Off-road Adventure Group 2 package which is available as a R12k upgrade on the V8 Overland model. This package incorporates Jeep’s highly acclaimed Quadra Drive 2 system; it’s like the Quadra Trac 2 but with the addition of an electronically controlled limited-slip diff at the rear as well as a heavily fortified undercarriage – steel plates guard the sump, front diff, centre diff and fuel tank.
To further add to the Grand Cherokee’s off-road abilities, Jeep has added two new features as standard fit: Selec-Terrain and Quadra-Lift.
The Selec-Terrain system is much like the Discovery 4’s Terrain Response; in the Jeep’s case this system provides five drive modes: Auto, Mud / Sand, Rock, Snow and Sport. The last-mentioned lowers ground clearance and deactivates traction control so you can have a sportier time. Once an appropriate mode is selected the vehicle makes adjustments to its traction control system to ensure optimum performance and response times for that particular terrain type.
Altogether, the Selec-Terrain system works very well. There’s no “Gravel” setting – so I left it in Auto mode assuming this was the best mode for the task.
As mentioned before, the Grand Cherokee is now equipped with an all-round air suspension system, dubbed Quadra-Lift. This closed-type air suspension system features several ride height settings: Normal, Off-road 1, Off-road 2 and Park, which lowers the vehicle 40 mm below normal ride height to facilitate easy ingress / egress and roofrack loading.
When raised to its maximum off-road height the Grand Cherokee boasts a ground clearance figure of 270 mm. With that comes approach, departure and break-over angles of 36, 29, and 25° respectively. That’s a touch behind the Disco 4’s figures of 36, 30 and 27° respectively. But the D4 easily wins the ground clearance title with a massive 310 mm.
The Quadra-Lift system is probably the biggest improvement to the Grand Cherokee; like most Jeeps the previous model lacked useable ground clearance with the added hindrance of extra spoilers / scoops on the front bumper which did a lot to make the Grand Cherokee look like a sporty SUV but little to improve its off-road abilities. Granted, these plastic items could be easily removed, but even then, the Grand Cherokee lacked the necessary clearance to put it back in the game as a competent off-roader.
The large SUV segment faces many challenges; vehicles in this category have to juggle several key attributes: comfort, on-road performance and off-road ability. Unfortunately, the latter two often conflict with one another as high-speed on-road performance generally requires a firm independent suspension (compromises wheel articulation), excellent braking times require large brake discs and these callipers increase wheel diameters and reduce tyre profiles, and minimal body roll means low ground clearance. But air suspension combats these conflicts, providing a versatile solution which bridges the gap between on- and off-road requirements.
Our test trail (Leeuwenboschfontein) is riddled with rocks, ditches, dips, cross-axles and steep ascents / descents; here your 4×4’s clearances are put to the test time and time again. Of all the vehicles I’ve driven on this trail not one has made it through without picking up some degree of bumper / nudge bar damage. Well, the Grand Cherokee made it through without a scratch.
There were times when we had to take it slow but on the whole the Jeep completed the trail with ease. Cross-axles? Never! The Grand Cherokee’s combined systems (Selec-Terrain and Quadra-Drive 2) are exceptional and, dare I say, the closest thing you’ll get to old-fashioned driver selectable diff-locks. In fact, because the electronically controlled rear limited-slip diff can transfer up to 100 percent torque to just one wheel, in some ways it’s better than a diff-lock which will only split the torque transfer 50 / 50.
The Grand Cherokee’s off-road abilities were very surprising, not just to me, but to my co-driver and the trail manager who was doubtful of the Jeep’s abilities and warned us against certain parts of the trail; in the end we drove everywhere, right to the point of no return when wheels were in the air and rocks just about brushed the Grand Cherokee’s side panels.
But it’s not perfect. The Grand Cherokee’s suspension system frequently makes a knocking sound when traversing rocky roads. If you drive really, really, really slowly it’s undetectable but get up to walking pace and the thumping begins. The same sound can be heard when driving quickly over speed bumps – the suspension members make a horrible thumping sound on the rebound, almost like they’re hitting up against a hard bump stop. As far as I know, this noise wasn’t specific to our test vehicle because I drove two Grand Cherokees on separate occasions and they both made the same sound. It’s probably nothing to worry about, but the sound is disconcerting when driving off-road.
What’s more, just like the Disco 4’s traction control system, the Jeep’s Selec-Terrain works best when there’s no traction at all – when a wheel lifts off the ground – but when there’s a mild ‘tractional’ difference between two wheels, let’s say the front left wheel is up against a rock while the front right wheel is on a slippery gravel surface, the Grand Cherokee struggles to decide where to send the torque. In these instances the only thing to do is keep your foot on the accelerator so that the RHS wheel continues to slip and drive can then be transferred to the LHS wheel.
On gravel roads the Grand Cherokee’s suspension planes out most corrugated tracks, offering a comfortable, reassuring drive that leaves you feeling relaxed and in control. All in all, this is a highly capable rig that’s just as comfortable on a mountain track as it is on a back country road.
As mentioned earlier, the Grand Cherokee’s available with either a petrol V6 or a petrol V8, as of yet there’s no diesel model available in SA. Apparently, Jeep Australia has announced a 3.0-litre V6 diesel for their market. Locally, Jeep SA is concerned about diesel quality and they don’t want to release a vehicle with a Diesel Particulate Filter. But according to Jeep SA it’s not a question of if we’re gonna get a diesel model but rather when.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to test drive both petrol versions and I can confidently say, without any uncertainty, that the 5.7-litre V8 motor is the way to go.
But let’s begin with the Pentastar 3.6-litre V6 petrol motor. This is an all-new engine that’s slightly smaller than the previous model’s 3.7-litre V6. However, despite its smaller capacity the Pentastar motor delivers 33 percent more power (210 kW) and 11 percent more torque (347 Nm) than the previous generation’s 3.7-litre. Fuel consumption has also improved by 11 percent.
This may sound terrific on paper and in terms of peak performance the V6 engine revs like a race car, but as far as driveability goes this isn’t the best engine for the Grand Cherokee. For starters, the engine’s quick on take-off thanks to its over-square bore and stroke proportions (96 x 83 mm respectively) but this does little to help low-down torque, and although the V6 boasts some 347 Nm, much of this is delivered between 4 500 and 5 000 rpm.
Couple these characteristics with a poorly-matched gearbox and you’ve got a frustrating drive on your hands. Around town the V6 Pentastar doesn’t have a clue what to do with its 5-speed gearbox; on many occasions I’d coast up to a corner, make a turn and upon leaving the bend the gearbox would decide to up shift to the next gear, dropping the revs and leaving me with no power to exit the corner.
To make matters worse, the throttle has to be opened really wide for the gearbox to acknowledge your intent and downshift, and by that stage you’ve lost most of your momentum and because the throttle’s now fully open the gearbox kicks all the way down to first gear, giving you drag racer behaviour when all you wanted was a little briskness.
It’s no different on the freeway; you’ve either got no power to overtake the car in front of you or you’re screaming past with all six cylinders swearing in unison.
Oddly, it’s not a bad engine or a bad gearbox, just a poor marriage of the two. On the plus side, the 3.6-litre V6 does a great job at sipping fuel; on urban roads the Grand’s fuel economy metre read 12.5 l / 100 km and on the open road we recorded anywhere between 8.9 and 9.1 l / 100 km, depending on the gradient.
The Hemi 5.7-litre 5-speed V8 is a completely different animal and if I were faced with a decision between the two I’d opt for this model in a flash. With 259 kW @ 5 150 rpm and 520 Nm @ 4 250 rpm this engine is perfectly suited to the Grand Cherokee’s hefty proportions and 2 304 kg tare weight. Acceleration times from 0 to 100 km/h are pretty good (7.95 seconds) and the torque delivery is effortless and always available.
Fuel use isn’t bad considering the V8’s 5.7-litre capacity; on urban commutes we were getting 15 l/100 km, on the freeway this dropped down to 10 – 11 l/100 km. Fuel economy figures will vary greatly depending on your driving style; with a partly open throttle the 5.7-litre V8 runs on four cylinders and will bring in the other four when more power is needed.
The Grand Cherokee’s suspension is a bit… well, American, meaning it’s somewhat soft and wallowy. Of course, this does provide for a very smooth and comfortable drive, but around high-speed bends the suspension doesn’t feel as sure-footed as it could. That said, bodyroll isn’t any more evident in this vehicle as it is in similar large-bodied SUVs and at no point did I feel nervous behind the wheel.
Altogether, I’m hugely impressed with the new Grand Cherokee, not just because of its rekindled off-road abilities but for its loooooong list of features, revamped build quality and highly competitive pricing. For under R650k you get comfort features only found in vehicles like the Ranger Rover and Merc GL (both these vehicle cost well over R1m), excellent engine performance (Hemi V8), extraordinarily off-road abilities (V8 Overland with optional off-road package), and from what I can tell, respectable build quality.
Granted, there are a few things that could be changed like the space-saver spare and the V6 / gearbox configuration but overall, the Grand Cherokee is the best thing to come out of the Jeep stable in a very, very long time.
Despite their price difference, I feel compelled to compare this vehicle with the Discovery 4 as they’re nearly identical in ability and offering, and, in this segment, the D4 had previously laid exclusive claim to my heart.
In terms of value for money the Grand Cherokee wins hands down with the top of the range V8 Overland model retailing for R637 990 – roughly the D4’s entry level model’s price. Add the optional Off-road Adventure package to that figure and you’re looking at R649 990 for a supremely comfortable and capable Jeep. In comparison, the top of the range Discovery 4 will set you back R765 995, and for that price your wife can’t even warm up her seat. Poor thing.
Which is better off-road? Well, only a head-to-head test could resolve such an argument; both vehicles boast an incredible traction control system, an electronically controlled limited-slip diff at the rear, an assortment of underbody protection and adjustable air suspension. However, the Jeep plays a major trump card that can’t be ignored… tyres.
We’ve said it a thousand times before and we’ll probably say it a thousand times more, the Discovery 4’s off -road strengths are considerably compromised by its poor wheel / tyre setup and the fact that it can only be fitted with a low-profile tyre size of 255 / 55/ R19. Plus, a smaller rim / larger tyre can’t be fitted due to the large brake disc / calliper setup. (Ed: Not entirely true, some Aussies have come up with an 18” rim that fits the D4. But it’ll cost you…)
The Grand Cherokee on the other hand can be ordered with a tyre size of 265 / 60 / R18, a profile percentage that’s really the bare minimum for proper off -road use. Total the sums and the Jeep’s tyre profile is roughly 19 mm larger than the Landy’s. What’s more, although we haven’t quite confirmed this, by the looks of it the Jeep could possibly accept a smaller rim / larger tyre size if a steel wheel was used rather than a thickset alloy rim.
So, with the tyre issue in mind I’d say the Grand Cherokee would possibly make a better trail rig, but for overland use the D4’s class leading boot capacity and easy-to-pack square proportions might make it the better travelling companion. However, the Grand Cherokee does boast a 93.5-litre fuel tank capacity versus the D4’s 82 litres, and the Jeep’s payload capacity is a commendable 645 kg versus the D4’s 473 kg. But we can’t ignore the fact that the Grand is a five-seater and the Disco’s a comfortable seven.
Ultimately, I think it’s going to come down to a diesel debate. Will Jeep introduce a diesel motor fit to rival the mighty TDV6? Sadly, as much as I want them to pull it off I don’t think it’s gonna happen. If Jeep wants to tackle Land Rover’s 3.0 bi-turbo motor they’re gonna have to source something pretty spectacular, because with 600 Nm @ 2 000 rpm, zero turbo lag and a respectable fuel consumption figure of 10.5 l/100 km, the TDV6 will laugh off anything that isn’t exceptional.
Which of the two would I rather own? It’s a difficult decision to make but if I absolutely had to choose, my justification would probably go along the lines of: “It’s a Jeep thing, you wouldn’t understand.”