There's a new Jeep Grand Cherokee from Street and Racing Technology (SRT), which has become Chrysler's stand-alone branch as it soups up some other cars in the family. This Jeep is now the big, bad 470-horsepower bully on the block. SRT calls it the "ultimate performance SUV."
Appearance: As part of the facelift for 2014, the vertical-slat grille has been narrowed and set higher to give the Jeep a leaner and more aggressive look. Blacked-out Bi-Xenon headlights add to the menace and are rimmed by LEDs. The taillights get a similar treatment. Standard are 20-inch five-spoke wheels; the ones on our tester were Black Vapor Chrome. The raised, sculpted hood has two functional exhausters carved into it. A hatch-top spoiler is attractive as well as functional, creating more down force.
Performance: In addition to its 470 horses, the 6.4-liter V-8 HEMI puts out 465 pound-feet of torque and a pleasing exhaust rumble. It also has cylinder deactivation to save fuel when all eight are not needed, such as when you are cruising on the highway. The new 8-speed automatic is a big improvement — the previous model had an archaic 5-speed — and has rev-matching downshifts. It clicks off shifts so precisely that we were content to ignore the paddle shifters. The full-time AWD has five modes: Auto, Sport, Track, Snow and Tow. If you're lucky enough to find a long strip of vacant asphalt, there's even launch control. So how does all this performance technology drive? Besides its soothing HEMI rumble, the Jeep doesn't feel like a heavy 5,150-pounder. The handling is nimble, the acceleration is muscle-car impressive and there's little to no hint of body lean. Said Lyra: "I almost forgot I was in an SUV. It drives more like a sports car." The sport-tuned suspension does contribute to a stiff ride, but that's the price you pay for improved handling.
Interior: The cabin is Exhibit A in how far Chrysler has come to compete with its rivals. The seats — a combination of leather and suede — are plush and comfortable with lots of bolstering for speedy turns. There are plenty of stitched surfaces elsewhere, such as on the dash and steering wheel (which is one of the thickest we've ever used). Chrysler's UConnect Infotainment system, with its 8.4-inch touchscreen, is easy to use and has large icons on the main menu and voice command functions. Overall, it's intuitive. Some other luxury automakers who overcomplicate interior controls could learn a lesson here. The crisp and colorful 7-inch screen in the instrument cluster gives you performance (including 0-60 time and G force) and fuel-efficiency information in addition to the speedometer.
Our 3 favorites
Sound: The Harman Kardon audio system has 19 speakers.
Fury: It's tough to beat the rumble of a V-8 HEMI.
Build: Time will tell, but this Jeep feels as solid and well-built as any of its rivals.
Front design: Sharp look with blacked-out grille and lamps and LED running lights.
Safety: Lots of features, including my favorite: rear cross-path detection.
Power: A "ute" with attitude.
The bottom line: Who needs a $70K SUV that has lots of horsepower and towing capacity, yet pampers the driver? Probably not many of us. If only it wasn't so much fun.