Anyone keeping track of Chrysler's ongoing rebirth under Fiat control would do well to watch the Jeep Grand Cherokee. It's one of the automaker's bestselling vehicles — some might even say its flagship — and this redesigned version of the midsize SUV appears to be evidence of a new commitment to quality. Time will tell.
Appearance: The profile is a little less boxy than previous Grand Cherokees, but Chrysler's redesign is more evolution than revolution. The sculpted side panels with pronounced horizontal lines and muscular fenders simply highlight the iconic Jeep style. The double-circle headlights are now more streamlined and integrated under one lens, setting off Jeep's familiar seven-slot grille. The rear hatch is more sloping than in the previous model and the new horizontal taillights wouldn't be out of place on this SUV's stylish competition. Overall, the subtle changes give the Grand Cherokee — dare we say it — a slightly more European air. (That's a good thing.)
Performance: The new Pentastar V-6 didn't disappoint. The 3.6-liter, 290-horsepower mill was badly needed. But the 5-speed automatic seems dated in a 6-speed world. The carlike handling felt more precise than previous Cherokees we've driven, with little body lean. With the Quadra-Trac I 4-wheel drive system, going off road is easy. This high-range, all-time mode keeps the SUV planted in multiple conditions. One thing we didn't like: the estimated mileage of 16 (city) and 22 (highway) for the new V-6. You'd think Chrysler could squeeze a few more MPG out of the new engine. And with gas prices creeping up . . .
Interior: This is where the new Cherokee seems radically different. The automaker whose style once seemed limited to ill-fitting gray plastic has much improved its fit and finish. (Even Peter's wife, who has bad memories of rental Chryslers past, was impressed.) Sure, there's still plastic, but it's of better quality. We may be in the minority here, but we like the minimalist display and controls in Chrysler's audio and nav systems, which we find easy to use. Our tester had the panoramic sunroof, which can bring in a lot of light, but is also comes with a handy power retractable screen. There's adequate headroom up front, and the rear, while not expansive, offers adequate leg room. We also liked the backup camera with parking sensors.
Our 3 favorites
Overall vibe: It may be an elusive quality, but there really is a new feel of refinement.
Steering wheel: I'm a sucker for thick, leather-padded wheels.
Off-roading: If you need to veer off the blacktop, you can do it.
Power outlets: The 115-volt plug is handy to power our kids' portable games and players with a regular cord.
Panoramic sunroof: Makes for a bright and airy cabin.
Ride: Smooth, quiet and drives like a car.
The bottom line: Is this a glimpse of the new Chrysler? We hope so. The Cherokee seems to be on equal footing with the competition. If the long-term reliability is there, then the Cherokee could vault back to the head of the class.