12/01/04 — There’s more grand in new Grand Cherokee

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There’s more grand in new Grand Cherokee

Jeep Grand Cherokee (2005)

Our first drive was a long drive. We slipped into a 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited outfitted with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, and throughout our initial 100-mile jaunt we marveled at the splendid combination of exemplary performance, car-like handling and interior solitude.

Jeep Grand Cherokee, 2005

Chrysler, it seems, has hit the proverbial nail on the head in only its third complete redesign of the rugged Grand Cherokee since it was introduced in 1992 as Chrysler’s answer to the popular Ford Explorer.

As more miles and additional days passed during our test week, we did compile a short list of minor complaints and nitpicks.

But, the bottom line in our opinion is that the new mid-sized Jeep flagship is a giant leap ahead of the previous edition.

Depending on price — it ranges from under $27,000 to more than $40,000 — and engine — there are three to pick from — the new Grand Cherokee has, it seems, a configuration for nearly every pocketbook.

Most people never take their sport utility off a hard-road surface. And even if you occasionally venture far off the beaten path, most of your driving will be done on the blacktop.

So it behooves all sport utility manufacturers to provide the softest ride and the best handling package that modern technology can offer while retaining off-road capability.

The time has long past when the sport utility was no more than a rugged truck with a roof. The first Grand Cherokee fit into that category.

Jeep has come 180 degrees with its newest rendition. The live front axle has finally been abandoned in favor of independent suspension, and the old recirculating ball has been replaced with more modern rack-and-pinion steering.

This new combination gives the Grand Cherokee wonderful steering feel and superb tracking. And the suspension setup allows for a near-car-like ride on the road and a surprisingly composed demeanor on the twists and turns. The truckiness of the past has been engineered out.

For those serious off-roaders who may bemoan the new setup, thinking it has sacrificed rock-climbing ability, fear not. All reports from journalists who have been behind the wheel in mud and water, say the new SUV — particularly when outfitted with Jeep’s new Dynamic Handling System, which uses hydraulically engaged anti-roll bars — is every bit as agile as the previous edition.

A new 5-speed automatic transmission, standard on all trim levels, provides seamless shifts and gets the most performance from whatever engine you choose.

Blindfolded you might think you’re riding in a Mercedes product. And why not? Like most of the other new stuff to come from the Chrysler arm of DaimlerChrysler over the past year, there seems to be a lot of the German luxury automaker’s know-how built into this vehicle.

The 2005 Grand Cherokee retains many of the Jeep styling cues including the seven-slot grille, round headlights and trapezoidal wheel openings.

But the new version is more boxy with harder edges and flatter panels. Gone, thankfully, is the plastic side cladding.

The new truck looks larger and more aggressive. And it is larger, but only slightly. It’s about five inches longer, the wheelbase has grown about three inches and the width as gained an inch. Interior space has increased only slightly. And that has critics baring their teeth, snarling out diatribes as to Chrysler’s failure to add more significant size and a third-row seat.

But where is it written that every new iteration of a car or truck has to be bigger than the previous one? Bigger has become associated with better in automobile circles. When was the last time you heard an automaker brag that its newest edition is smaller than the previous?

And it seems every new mid-sized has to be outfitted with a cramped third-row seat to avoid criticism. We say, if you need to haul more than four adults or two adults and three kids, buy something that will accommodate your needs.

The third row seats in virtually all less-than-full-sized SUVs are worthless anyway except for transporting a couple of rugrats. And when the back seat is in use, cargo space is for all practical purposes eliminated.

Why take a well-balanced mid-sized SUV and make it into something it was never designed to be — a small bus capable of hauling the junior high basketball team.

This perhaps was the philosophy of the Chrysler folks who had the job of designing the newest Grand Cherokee.

Chrysler’s answer to the critics, is that next year a larger vehicle called the Commander will be built on the Grand Cherokee platform and it will have three rows of seats.

All that being said, we wish Chrysler engineers would have increased rear-seat legroom a few inches simply by pushing the seats back into the cargo hold. Sure, they would have been criticized for cutting out a few cubic feet from a storage area that is already one of the smallest in the mid-sized ranks. But that space would be regained when needed for hauling simply by folding the rear seatbacks down.

As it is now, rear seaters can be comfortable if the front seat occupants do not need their chairs far back on the tracks. A couple of other criticisms in that regard, the rear seat backs are perhaps too firm for long-distance comfort, and they cannot be reclined.

Fortunately, this does not carry over to the all-important front seats. We found the driver’s seat ideal for our needs and the driving position excellent, particularly with the optional moveable pedals.

The dashboard layout is pleasing to the eye with clearly marked gauges.

Our optioned-out Limited edition came with leather seating, nice-looking faux wood inlays and beige plastic surrounds that exhibited excellent fit and alignment. The climate controls are intuitive, cruise controls on the steering wheel are where they should be and door-mounted window and locking switches are well placed.

Our test car included the navigation system with embedded stereo controls. As is the case in most vehicles with navigation, it takes some time behind the wheel to digest the proper buttons to obtain the desired result. The navigation software is up-to-date and programming the system is relatively simple.

One of the more intriguing features of the nav system is something called the “bread crumb trail.” It can be displayed as a series of dots that appear on the map as you drive.

Jeep says this feature helps to log where you have traveled and is useful for off-roading where trails are not marked.

Our vehicle also came with Sirius satellite radio and the optional Boston Acoustics audio system. The combination was mind boggling.

This is only our second test vehicle with Sirius. We’ve driven perhaps 25 test cars with its only competitor, XM Satellite. We have been XM fans because of the exposure. But we were pleasantly surprised at the diversified offerings of Sirius including three or four classic rock stations that fit our needs perfectly. We’d rate the two services a toss-up.

The Grand Cherokee comes in two trim levels, Laredo and Limited. Standard features on all models starting at $26,775 include power windows and door locks, air conditioning, eight-way power front seats, reversible cargo floor with water-resistant storage and a stereo with CD player.

The Limited adds leather seating, 17-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, and a CD changer with MP3 capability.

Three engines and three four-wheel drive systems are available.

The base engine, new to the Grand Cherokee for 2005, is a 3.7-liter V-6 that produces 210 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. It’s the same engine as found in the smaller and lighter Jeep Liberty.

Although we haven’t driven a Laredo with the base engine, we are skeptical that it has enough grunt to move the over-two-ton Grand Cherokee in suitable fashion. We recommend either of the two V-8 engines.

The standard engine in the Limited is a 4.7-liter generating 230 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque. But the real deal is the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 330 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque.

Once you’ve experienced this engine’s smooth, exhilarating power you will be depressed to have to settle for less. Even pulling the 4,800-pound fully loaded Limited, it felt like gangbusters.

One automotive magazine measured 0 to 60 time in 6.9 seconds and a quarter mile in 15.1 seconds at more than 88 miles per hour. This engine is also ideal for towing with a rating of 7,200 pounds.

Three four-wheel drive systems are available including a simple all-wheel drive system on the Laredo called Quadra-Trac I. It requires no driver involvement. Quadra-Trac II has a two-speed transfer case and comes on the Limited edition.

The even more advanced Quadra-Drive II mated to the Hemi features a full-time two-speed transfer case with electronic limited-slip differentials which includes locking features on the front, rear and center differentials.

If you aren’t critical of the rear-seat space and the modest cargo area, the Grand Cherokee is indeed much grander than the previous model. And by all means worth a trip to your nearest Jeep store.

If price is an issue, you can sacrifice a few things and keep it under $30,000. A well-equipped model with a V-8 can be driven away for under 35 grand.

If your wallet can stand it, you can load up the Grand Cherokee with horsepower and options for just over 40 grand.

Estimated price of our loaded test vehicle was $42,000.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on December 1, 2004 10:52 AM