The Jeep Grand Cherokee
There are very few off-road capable SUVs being made these days. As practically no one takes their supposedly go-anywhere 4x4 onto terrain more challenging than a damp supermarket carpark, manufacturers long ago learned to prioritize comfort and convenience at the expense of actual rough-road capability. The modern SUV is all show and no go.
As a result, anyone wanting or needing to take their 4x4 off road has a very limited range of options to choose from. Ford makes the excellent F150 Raptor but if you don’t need a pickup truck it’s rather excessive. The new Ford Bronco promises to be a superb midsized true off-roader but is yet to hit the streets. Toyota’s venerable Land Cruiser isn’t quite as capable as it used to be and these days it’s so old and outmoded as to be hideously embarrassing, as is Toyota’s equally ancient 4Runner. Land Rover products are notoriously unreliable, so unless you enjoy getting stuck far from help or you only want one to take you to the shops there’s absolutely no point in purchasing what is little more than an over-priced British automotive liability.
In the USA, Jeep has long been known for its Wrangler range of vehicles but the Wrangler is very agricultural, though the new Wrangler is immensely better than all the previous versions. Even the new improved model is however too unforgiving to be a daily driver, unless you happen to be the sort of chap who pays leather-clad women in high heels to chastise you with a riding crop from time to time.
This means that in order to woo customers who want a bit more comfort and convenience than can be found in the Wrangler, yet who still want reasonable off-road capability, many years ago Jeep realized it had to create an offering that combines modest luxury features with some off-road prowess. The Grand Cherokee, which debuted in 1993, is designed to appeal to the person who needs a comfortable daily driver that on weekends can take them out into the wilderness and back again in time to watch the game on Sunday evening.
There’s a new version of the Grand Cherokee coming late in 2021 and it promises to be far more luxurious, but also far less capable off-road. This is due to the fact Jeep’s market research team has discovered that few Grand Cherokee owners really take their vehicles into challenging terrain because that might scrape the paintwork, which would embarrass the kids when they’re dropped off at the end of the school run. So the old Grand Cherokee, designated as the WK2 model, is the very last of the truly off-road capable luxury Jeeps. It will remain on sale at dealerships until around June of this year.
Now it has to be said that the Grand Cherokee, fully equipped, is around half the price of an equivalently optioned Land Rover Discovery or Defender, and this means it’s inevitably a bit cheaper as a driving experience. For a start, there’s no full-time four-wheel drive. Whereas all Land Rover products have a central differential that allows permanent four-wheel-drive, American 4x4s utilize a much cheaper and far less sophisticated central transfer case. This means that American 4x4s are essentially rear-wheel-drive all the time they are on tarmac, because engaging four-wheel-drive on tarmac would cause impossible stresses to build up between the shaft driving the front wheels and the shaft driving the rear wheels. So American 4x4 can only be used on slippery surfaces such as snow and ice, sand, gravel, mud and dirt, where the tires can slip enough to discharge the torque resulting from the fact that when the vehicle turns the front wheels rotate faster than the rear wheels.
Many American 4x4s claim to have “auto 4x4 mode” whereby sensors detect wheelspin and temporarily engage the front wheels until stability is achieved, but this is very much a second-best option. The Grand Cherokee does however have low range, which is essential for real off-roading. And if you buy the Trailhawk or the Overland or the Summit models, the Grand Cherokee follows Land Rover in using air suspension to improve ride quality and permit greater ride height when off-road. Greater ride height means greater ground clearance, which means rocks are less likely to break something underneath the vehicle as it passes over them. So the Grand Cherokee can hold its head, or at least its body, high alongside its British rivals so long as you include Quadra-Trak II with air suspension in the options list. And like the Land Rover, Jeep also uses the braking system to provide traction control and hill ascent/descent control.
The Jeep provides various modes that initiate changes in the traction control system, the transfer case, and the engine management systems. So if snow or loose gravel are a problem, there’s a setting for it. Likewise with rocks, and with mud. These systems work quite well, and the electronically-locking rear differential removes a lot of the braking that normally is used to provide traction in slippery conditions so the Jeep doesn’t grind and lurch quite as much as a Land Rover Discovery, for example. Nor will it completely give up when consistent traction is impossible, whereas Land Rover products will simply switch off after sixty seconds and leave you stuck in the mud wondering why you paid so very much for so very little.
Speaking of things switching off, if you option the Grand Cherokee with the agricultural 5.7L V8 you can avoid the infinitely annoying and infinitely stupid Electronic Stop-Start system that comes standard with the smaller V6 engine. ESS was invented by engineers to spoof the mandatory urban driving section of the fuel economy test (which isn’t actually conducted on real roads, but rather on a machine that’s supposed to simulate a standard urban route). ESS doesn’t actually save any meaningful amounts of fuel but it fractionally reduces outputs of combustion gasses during the test run. The downside: huge wear & tear on the battery and the starter-motor, both of which consume enormously more energy to manufacture and thus are enormously more polluting to keep replacing than the miniscule savings derived from a lifetime of ESS. But when government tests make stupidity mandatory, this is what we get.
Here we are focusing primarily on the Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland with the optional QuadraDrive II and the various luxury packages. If you go for the beige leather and wood interior you get a far more pleasant visual experience than the now-standard all-black-everything that automotive manufacturers seem to imagine is the height of stylish sophistication but which is in reality merely tediously dreary. Unfortunately Jeep, in its infinite (lack of) wisdom decided to use real wood that looks exactly like cheap vinyl. Which is, frankly, very disappointing.
When it comes to interior styling the auto industry hit a peak around the year 2000 and has been burrowing down toward the center of the Earth ever since. At least the Grand Cherokee doesn’t have its infotainment system designed to look like someone has accidentally glued an iPad to the dashboard, which is now de rigeur for seemingly every vehicle on the road these days. Automotive designers are such imaginative little scamps, and all so imaginative in exactly the same way!
Speaking of infotainment, the Jeep’s system is unfashionably easy to use. Everything works, except the road-ahead warnings from the navigation system which are both annoying and pointless. Why do people use a navigation system? Because they don’t know where they are going. So what is the point of a warning that appears both on the screen and via the audio interface that says “Accident ahead at Curtis Street?” By definition, the driver is highly unlikely to know where Curtis Street is. When I began to check on Google Maps, I discovered that the Jeep’s warning system was telling me about incidents 200 miles away, which obviously would be cleared long before I was anywhere near them. And, joy unbounded, there’s no way to turn off this feature.
Aside from this annoying quirk, the Jeep’s system is simple, quick, and accurate. Plus, for those who like their own music, there’s the obligatory interface for smartphones and a USB port if you’ve burned your favorite tracks onto a flash memory stick. You can also control audio features via two small controls hidden on the far side of the steering wheel, which are very convenient if you drive correctly using 9-and-3 hand positioning, but which will be forever out of reach if you’re one of those people who loves to lurch randomly down the road by draping one wrist limply over the top of the wheel while you pray to Jesus to keep you safe from self-inflicted incompetence, or, better yet, you clasp the right side of the wheel with your left hand, thus ensuring near-total lack of control and an early death for someone on the road.
Assuming you can stay alive long enough to appreciate the fact, Jeep provides heated front and rear seats, and the rear seats have three positions so backseat passengers can recline comfortably during long trips. There’s adequate trunk space, and the rear door is automatic. Plus there’s a full-sized spare underneath the trunk area, though the rim is cheap steel.
After the sun goes down the Jeep has hi-intensity discharge headlights that are auto-leveling and supplements these with bright LED driving lights. Unlike most US automobiles, the Jeep has proper amber turn signals so there’s no confusion between braking and turning for anyone following along behind. The interior materials are adequate if not opulent, and the center console is only just a fraction too plastic-shiny and low-rent. The instrument pod is LED and provides several modes, so the driver can choose what is displayed. There’s a rain-sensing wiper function but oddly Jeep doesn’t provide front windscreen defrost, so when things get really cold and icy all there is for the driver is the standard ventilation system, which is rarely adequate in really chilly conditions. In Land Rover products you can option a built-in window heater.
Land Rover products also offer front-facing cameras which are especially helpful when navigating difficult trails off-road without a spotter to provide assistance. As cameras are now a $30 item it’s absolutely astonishing that Jeep doesn’t provide the Grand Cherokee with such an aid, even in the supposedly off-road-eager Trailhawk variant. If you want to fit a supplementary front-facing camera system as an aftermarket improvement you’ll find the Jeep’s sloping contoured dash makes it exceedingly challenging to mount even a small monitor screen.
These flaws aside, mostly the Jeep makes its owner feel like the purchase money was spent wisely. Its quirks are often those found on other brands, such as puddle lamps that are mounted underneath the door mirrors. This means that when you open the door to step out at night, you can’t see what you’ll be stepping into because the light from the door mirror is blocked by the door. In the old days, manufacturers built puddle lights into the bottom of the doors, which made sense. Presumably it’s just cheaper to do it the wrong way so that’s what everyone does now.
In order to eke out a few tenths of a mile per gallon in the real world (as opposed to on the roller-bed government test route), the Jeep has little plastic spoilers that drop down in front of the front wheels. This diminishes the Jeep’s off-road ability by decreasing the departure angle, but they’re easy to cut off with a craft saw. The liner of the wheel arches is an odd fabric that is nearly impossible to clean, so if you get into mud you’ll be looking at hours of frustrating pleasure as you desperately attempt to de-mud your wheel arches. Why Jeep didn’t just use ordinary easy-to-clean plastic is a mystery.
The other limitation of the Grand Cherokee is its wading depth. This is the maximum number of inches of water the Jeep can pass through (very slowly) without the wet stuff getting into delicate parts and causing the vehicle to break. For Grand Cherokees with the air suspension, this is nineteen inches. By comparison the Ford F150 Raptor and new Bronco both have over a foot more capability than the Jeep, and the Land Rover Defender also beats it by a foot. This basically means that all those manful videos of Jeeps resolutely plowing through deep rivers are lovely for marketing but don’t try it with your own vehicle. The Jeep just doesn’t have what it takes here. Puddles are fine, deep water crossings are out unless you fit an aftermarket snorkel and waterproof the alternator (not easy, by the way).
For the most part, however, the Grand Cherokee will do sterling service as a daily driver and be equally benevolent when you take it out into the wilds on the weekend, especially if you live in one of the dry and dusty States.
And unlike the Land Rover Defender or Discovery, it almost certainly won’t leave you stranded far from home.