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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Wheelbase Communications

The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee represents a quantum leap for Chrysler’s ageless off-road brand.

The wholesale revisions, updates and numerous high-tech additions give this fourth-generation wagon more passenger comfort and carrying capacity, not to mention improved off-road prowess.

The Jeep lineup has thankfully been a dominant anchor — and just about the only bright spot — for the new Chrysler, which is now run by Italian automaker Fiat. The soon-to-arrive Grand Cherokee will continue to push Jeep sales, even if this rig isn’t the four-cylinder mid-size wagon that buyers seem to be clamoring for these days.

While Fiat could have pulled the rug out from under the new GC, it didn’t

The fresh-face styling is reminiscent of previous Grand Cherokees, but thoroughly reworked with cleaner lines, stylish body creases and a less upright windshield. Interestingly, the bulging wheel openings that were prominent on earlier GCs have been scaled back, making the vehicle appear smaller and narrower.

The reality is somewhat different. Overall length has been extended by nearly two inches, while three inches have been added to the width. Most significantly, the distance between the front and rear wheels grows by 5.3 inches. That means wider and taller front and rear door openings plus considerably more reclining rear-seat knee and leg space, areas that have required Jeep’s undivided attention since the first 1993 GC hit the trail.

Jeep says the platform is 146-percent stiffer, helping improve both ride and drivability characteristics. In addition, many of the various suspension components are shared with the Mercedes-Benz ML-class sport ute. You might recall that Chrysler was not long ago part of Mercedes-Benz juggernaut, which supplied the underpinnings for the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger sedans and Dodge Magnum wagon.

For 2011, Jeep replaced the Grand Cherokee’s base 210-horsepower 3.7-liter V6 with a 290-horsepower 3.6-liter unit. Torque is also up my about 15 percent. Despite the extra output, the GC’s fuel-economy rating remains at 16 mpg in the city while it improves by two mpg on the highway to 23, likely assisted by a more streamlined (by seven percent) body.

The 5.7-liter “Hemi” V8 carries over as an option with 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. It’s is the engine of choice for heavy hauling and towing up to 7,400 pounds. Both engines are equipped with five-speed automatic transmissions. The V8 version uses a secondary second-gear ratio for quicker acceleration when downshifting for passing. Interestingly, both fourth and fifth gears are overdrive gears.

As a proper Jeep, all three GC models — Laredo, Limited and Overland — are available in either rear- or four-wheel-drive. For the latter, you’ll have your choice of Quadra-Trac I with its single-speed transfer case, or the more off-road-capable Quadra Trac II and Quadra Drive II systems that feature two-speed transfer cases with a low gearset. Quadra Drive II includes an electronic limited-slip differential that will react to low-traction conditions quick enough to entirely prevent wheel spin.

Ordering Quadra Trac II or Quadra Drive II will get you Jeep’s new Selec-Terrain control with four separate traction settings: Sand/Mud; Snow; and Rock for off-road terrain plus a Sport setting for dry pavement.

Also available is Jeep’s Quadra-Lift air-ride suspension that can be manually adjusted over a 4.5-inch range to provide a maximum 11.1 inches of ground clearance.

As before, the Laredo’s equipment includes the usual comfort and power-operated niceties, while the top two trims include 18-inch wheels (17s are standard), remote starter and bright bi-xenon (high and low beam) headlights that automatically adjust their intensity according to ambient light and oncoming traffic. The option list includes a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, heated and ventilated front and rear seats, 20-inch wheels, premium audio system and a power rear liftgate, to name just a few of the biggies. These features are likely essential to the GC now that the posh Commander model has been deemed unnecessary to the brand.

However, what is actually necessary from the Jeep point of view is to maintain the notion of somewhat refined worry-free off-roading. It’s safe to say that the new Grand Cherokee was well under development before Fiat took hold of parent Chrysler. While another owner could have halted all spending and sent Jeep in an entirely different direction, at least Fiat allowed the new Grand Cherokee to get out of the gate to continue a seven-decade tradition. Time will tell, however, if Fiat really gets it.