Deep down, there's something inside all of us that wants to ride around in a big, giant SUV. Admit it, their high, commanding driving position and solid construction make you feel like a driving immortal.
Sadly, society at large tends to frown on such vehicles. Many regard the Range Rover, for example, as the poster boy for inefficient motoring, while many believe SUVs from the BMW or Mercedes-Benz stables to be gas-guzzling fashion statements.
It's a good job then that the world has been blessed with the Jeep Grand Cherokee -- a good, old-fashioned American SUV whose iconic image could just help it sneak under the radar of the SUV-hating masses. We recently went hands on with the new, top-of-the-range £43,995 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland and the entry-level £30,113 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited models to see whether they made us tingle and fizz inside.
Big is the new small
The Grand Cherokee is difficult to miss. It's a big, imposing son of an SUV, but is surprisingly handsome. This 2011 model has an even more pronounced, Hummer H3-style chrome-finish front grille, but gains a more sinister-looking set of rectangular headlamps. Its bodywork is altogether more athletic than the models that came before it, giving it a sleek yet muscular appearance.
The Grand Cherokee's sheer size gives it plenty of space for the family and a good chunk of their belongings. It has room for five passengers -- the same as any normal large family car -- and offers boot space of 782 litres with the rear seats in place, or 1,554 litres with the rear seats folded down. That's slightly more than you'd get from most large family cars, but many family estates, such as the Hyundai i40, can offer up to 1,719 litres.
And all that jazz
If you were of the belief that big American SUVs lacked the luxuries of their more exotic European counterparts, you'd be mistaken -- the Grand Cherokee packs plenty of toys in the cabin. At the centre of the entertainment package is a 6.5-inch touch screen display, which provides access to a host of audio and video features.
Alongside the de facto AM and FM radio receivers, Jeep has thrown in a 30GB hard drive onto which it's possible to rip up to 6,700 songs from your audio CD collection. Doing so is easy and requires just a few taps of the screen. Sadly, the CD drive is pretty slow. It took us approximately 12 minutes to copy 10 tracks from a disc and the system doesn't allow you to listen to CD audio while copying is in progress.
The Alpine audio system in the Grand Cherokee consists of a mere nine speakers and one subwoofer and, while it isn't too shabby, Jeep doesn't offer a high-end audio system to match the 15-speaker setup provided by Mark Levinson in the Lexus RX 430h or the 19-speaker Harman Kardon arrangement in the 2011 Range Rover.
Talked into it
The Grand Cherokee's hard drive is also used to store its satellite navigation data, which is provided by Navteq. It's far from perfect, however. The screen resolution is very low, meaning maps look slightly blurry and the mapping data in our test car seemed to be several months, if not years, out of date, with some major roads unlisted. The system only accepts postcode entry in a five digit format, meaning you'll often have to waste time entering a street name as well.
Thankfully, you don't have to enter addresses by tapping the screen -- it's also possible to do so using the Grand Cherokee's voice recognition technology. The system is not the most intuitive we've ever encountered -- you have to speak the name of the country you're in, the city, a street name, and wait for the car to confirm (in a slightly terrifying, very robotic delivery) whether it understood you correctly at each step. We can't knock it though, it understood almost everything we threw at it and the process took only about as long as it would if we were giving another human being directions to a street address.
The Grand Cherokee only comes with a
single engine choice -- a 3-litre V6 diesel with 236bhp and 550Nm of
torque. These aren't mind-blowing figures, but on the road
it acquits itself very well. The engine pulls the car's bulk with
conviction (Jeep claims a 0-62mph time of 8.2 seconds), sounds very
refined at low speeds and cruises along motorways with surprisingly
little noise from either the tyres or its enormous wing mirrors.
Emissions and economy are rarely impressive on an SUV, so it's no surprise to learn the Grand Cherokee only returns 34mpg on the combined cycle, which is only 4mpg more than the 4.4-litre engine inside the Range Rover TDV6. That said, the Grand Cherokee emits 218g/km, which is significantly less than the 253g/km spewed by the Range Rover TDV6.
Spring is in the air
There are two suspension options available for the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The entry-level Limited edition features bog standard suspension, whereas the top of the range Overland model uses fancy Quadra-Lift air suspension. This swaps old-school springs, which are usually pressurised by fluid, for air springs, which are pressurised by air from a central reservoir that is constantly topped up by a motor-driven compressor.
This not only gives the Grand Cherokee a smooth ride, it also gives it the ability to dynamically adjust itself depending on the terrain and your driving habits. Level sensors on each corner constantly monitor the suspension travel. Should the vehicle dip at one corner -- to the left during a hard right-hand bend, for example -- the air reservoir will pump extra air to those springs it in order to help keep the car level.
On the road, the action of air being pumped to different corners of the car is fairly subtle, but off road, the car is all farts, whooshes and puffs as it rides rough, uneven terrain.
When off-roading, Quadra-Lift also makes it possible to pump or remove air from all four corners off the car simultaneously, manually raising or lowering the suspension as required. When cruising on the road, the car hunkers down for better aerodynamic efficiency. Turn a switch on the centre console to the 'off road 1' or 'off road 2' positions while off-roading and this will raise the vehicle 1.3 and 2.6 inches respectively to help you negotiate giant boulders.
With the air springs fully inflated in the latter position, the Grand Cherokee has a total ground clearance of just under 11 inches -- only slightly less than a Range Rover.
It's difficult to fault the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It isn't quite as advanced as the Range Rover at the top of the food chain, but it drives well both on the road and off, has some clever technology and is beautiful to look at. If you're after an SUV that'll stand out from the European crowd, we'd recommend it highly.
Edited by Jennifer Whitehead.