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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee: Power and poshness

Implausible as it sounds, Chrysler, a perennial also-ran in quality surveys, is boosting the precision of its new models thanks to the boys at Fiat.
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Our reviewer says the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, pictured here, returns the poshness to the appointments of the Chrysler SUV.AFP/Getty Images

Implausible as it sounds, Chrysler, a perennial also-ran in quality surveys, is boosting the precision of its new models thanks to the boys at Fiat.

The 2011 Grand Cherokee, base priced at $32,215, is the first all-new model to launch from the new Fiat-led Chrysler, so it provides an early glimpse of whether the company will be able to produce competitive products. The verdict is positive, which considering the companies’ respective histories, may be a surprise.

Many expected that when Mercedes bought Chrysler in 1998 that the German company’s vaunted engineering prowess would rub off on Chrysler’s products, which historically demonstrated the dependability of a reality show contestant.

Instead, Mercedes raided Chrysler’s checking account, leaving Chrysler not only feeling cheapened, but its products looking it too. Inside they bore the visible scars of sloppy fiscal surgery.

The outgoing version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee was a prime example. Used to be that sliding into the Grand Cherokee’s cabin produced the disappointment of opening the door to your room at the Westin and finding Motel 6 furnishings. That would be OK if you paid Motel 6 rates, but when you’ve paid for and expect a Westin, Motel 6 appointments don’t cut it.

It might even be tolerable in the wash-and-wear Wrangler, but it alienated pampered customers in the Grand Cherokee’s luxury segment. Thankfully, the new Grand Cherokee returns the requisite poshness to the appointments.

How can Fiat help where Mercedes failed? It is a matter of priorities.

Mercedes bought Chrysler anticipating it would serve as a cash cow based on the profitability of its trucks and SUVs, but sales in those segments declined shortly after the purported “merger of equals.” When Chrysler proved to be a money-loser rather than the anticipated piggy bank, German overseers carved the maximum savings out of every model under development, and it showed.

Grand Cherokee chief engineer Phil Jansen proudly points to innumerable improvements in the 2011 model, while being careful to avoid indicting the outgoing version. Demonstrating media savvy that would have benefited Gen. McChrystal, Jansen suggests that we draw our own conclusions when asked what effect the departed German management had on the old Grand Cherokee.

Fiat, by contrast, brought in new processes to measure quality and new factory tools to ensure precise manufacturing. “The tools let us measure fit and finish to a greater degree than before,” said Mike Manley, president and CEO of the Jeep brand.

The Jeep’s all-new 3.6-liter V6 engine is the most critically improved ingredient because it will be the company’s mainstay across its product lines in coming model years. It will replace a variety of coarse, unrefined and inefficient V6 engines used until now.

The engine, which boasts fully contemporary specifications such as an all-aluminum design and double-overhead cams, delivers on the promise of those specifications with smooth, quiet power. The 290 hp powerplant provides an 11 percent improvement in fuel economy, with highway mileage reaching 23 mpg and a driving range of more than 500 miles per tank for the two-wheel-drive model popular in Sunbelt states.

The other key component underpinning the Grand Cherokee and contributing to its success is an all-new chassis derived from the one Mercedes-Benz uses to make its own ML-Class and GL-Class SUVs. Mercedes did not skimp when developing this hardware for its namesake brand, so the foundation Chrysler inherited is sound. Significantly, it is 146 percent stiffer than before, which will minimize shake and rattle while letting the suspension work to absorb bumps.

A cushy ride
The Grand Cherokee now enjoys the ride and handling advantages of independent rear suspension in place of the old solid axle. And the electronic gadgetry that has become rife in the industry reaches Jeep, with an available air suspension system that varies the ride height depending on conditions.

In urban and highway driving the Grand Cherokee possesses the cushy ride that crossover SUVs have made mandatory, even for off-road capable machines, and its steering is both communicative and responsive. Earlier models, like most Jeeps, placed an emphasis on giving drivers the leverage needed when wheeling over boulders on the Rubicon Trail, which lent those vehicles the steering characteristics of a city bus. No more.

There is an available dial-a-ride system like those we’ve seen previously in Land Rover, Volkswagen and Audi SUVs that lets the driver set all the Jeep’s systems to match the situation. Selec-Terrain has five settings; automatic, sand/mud, sport, snow and rock.

These settings alter the ride height, differential lock-up, throttle response, transmission shifting, traction control programming and other settings to best suit the expected traction under each circumstance.

A test at an off-road park with a hill climb in the kind of baby powder dust that probably buried the Mars rover showed that with its various locking differentials, traction control and hill descent control, the Grand Cherokee further extends Jeep’s marriage of comfort with authentic off-road capability.

It is critical to confirm this capability to verify that Jeep is remaining true to the promise of its brand, but in fact, few Grand Cherokee buyers will ever take their vehicles off-roading. The Jeeps are bought mostly for on-road practicality and image, along with a dash of just-in-case capability in snow or the ability to reach a vacation cabin.

“One hundred percent of Grand Cherokee customers go off-road,” crowed Jeep’s head of marketing, Jim Morrison. “But most of them just do it in their minds.”

And now those drivers’ minds will be unburdened by the reliability concerns and dissatisfaction with unsightly materials and thirsty, unrefined engines intruding on their fantasy.

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4x4

  • Base price: $32,215
  • As tested: $38,785
  • EPA fuel economy: 16 mpg city/22 mpg highway (4x4), 17/23 (4x2)
  • Pros: Impressively quiet inside, well-executed details, finally has a modern V6 engine
  • Cons: Windows 95-grade nav screen graphics, looks a bit too much like the previous model.
  • Verdict: Grand Cherokee regains its title as champion of vehicles that can go from the fishing shack to the ski lodge to the country club without ever being out of place.
  • Standard equipment: 290-hp, 3.6-liter V6, 5-speed automatic transmission, full-time four wheel drive.
  • Major options: Media center CD/DVD/MP3/HDD/Sirius Satellite system with Bluetooth, dual-pane panoramic sunroof.
  • Safety equipment: Electronic stability control with roll mitigation, hill start assist and trailer sway control, front air bags, front-side air bags, side air curtains for both rows, active head restraints, antilock brakes with rough road detection, brake assist.