Pat Devereux25 February 2013

First drive: new Jeep Grand Cherokee

We drive the Freelander's competition. And it's impressive...

Jeep Grand Cherokee

This looks familiar...

It's the new for 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

New? But they only launched a new version a couple of years ago, didn't they?

Yes, but the whole Chrysler group is on a charge with new product at the moment so they are adding and refining content on their cars like crazy. Jeep included.

Is that because they aren't selling?

No, quite the reverse. Jeep had its best year ever last year. It sold more than 700,000 SUVs last year - that's more than double Land Rover/Range Rover's sales for past 12 months - so they are on a roll.

OK, that's enough business stuff. What's so new about this Grand Cherokee?

Lots. Outside it's had a face and tail lift, complete with a shorter grille, LED lights front and rear and some changes to the chrome work. Inside it's like a different car. It's got a new, configurable TFT screen for the essential dials, an 8.4-inch central nav and info display, an all-new three-spoke multi-function steering wheel, a new gearshift and...

OK, OK I get it. It's all new inside. What about the rest of the car?

The most fundamental change is one you can't see but which affects everything to do with driving the car - the new ZF eight-speed gearbox. Where the old five-speed box would fudge and delay changes, the new ‘box has the right ratio for every situation, which makes driving the new Grand Cherokee - on and off-road and on the track - a much smoother and altogether better experience.

Really, a few extra ratios can really make that much difference?

Yep. And not just to the speed with which they help the car accelerate or adapt to conditions. It also plays a key part in improving the economy, too. The '14 Grand Cherokees feature something called Eco mode which remaps the ‘box for economy and lowers the car on its air suspension, to reduce drag, above 52mph. Together they make around a six per cent improvement in fuel consumption. Apart from that, it also increases the towing ability by 44 per cent - yes, almost half again - to 7,200lb.

Hmmm. I never knew gears could be so interesting. (Not).

Don't start that. Because there's more. The new ‘box allows Jeep to fit a massively improved crawler gear system that controls not just hill descents, but climbs, too.

What? It will do the climbing for you?

In certain models, yes. You just press the button, aim it at the unfeasibly steep rock face and it chunters up without you having to touch the throttle once. You still have to steer in the right direction, but it does everything else. Clever, right?

Right. But that's it for the transmission now surely?

Almost. The last thing to report is that the ‘box - and the retuned diffs and four-wheel drive systems - make a big difference on the track, too. Driving the SRT - the 8 is dropped from the nameplate for '14 - at the Circuit of the Americas showed that the old car's tendency to get a bit wayward under hard braking and downchanges from high speed has all but disappeared.

Ah, the SRT at last. Tell me more about that. Please.

The news here, other than the raccoon-alike paint job, is all about the details. Apart from all the above benefits, the new-tech gearbox has also permitted the addition of a super simple launch control. Hold the brake, touch the button, floor the throttle, lift the brake and you are gone. That's it. Other than that, the only other major mechanical change is that more torque is sent to the rear wheels in Track mode.

Numbers, give me numbers...

OK. Despite weighing 2.5 tonnes it does 0-60mph in 4.8 seconds, the quarter mile in the mid 13s, has a top speed of 160mph, will do 0-100-0 in 16.3 seconds and can stop from 60mph in 116ft. What these digits only go some way to conveying is just how crazy you can get on the track with it. We have a pretty good idea about that as we spent half a morning on the COTA F1 circuit finding out.

And...?

It's as good on the track as the normal Grand Cherokee's are on the trail. Which is very. Once you get over the fact that you are in a big, heavy SUV and just start driving it as hard as you can, it all comes together and makes some kind of sense. You can hang it out into corners, out of corners, brake as late as you like (who needs run off in an SUV?) and generally abuse the laws of physics as we know them. If you want a car you can tow a boat with one weekend and do a track day the next, yet commute in during the week, have a look at one of these.

So am I to take that as a solid piece of consumer advice?

Yes. If you like the look of the Grand Cherokee, the ‘14 model year cars are the best ones the company has ever made. They are not as plush, smooth or capacious - there's no seven-seat option - as the Land Rover Discovery, but they beat the ageing X5, until the new one comes out at least, in terms of equipment and ability. The new diesel engine has more power and greater economy, but still isn't the most refined of units - certainly it's lagging the best from the German makes. But other than that, it's a fine choice if you like your SUVs with an American flavour.

Price (US): From $28,795

Words: Pat Devereux

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