First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee jeep first drives
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Click image to enlarge

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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

San Francisco, California – At the media launch of the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee last week, the Chrysler folks were pumped. That’s usual for most other automobile launches, but it hasn’t been the general mood at this company for quite a while. After all, with its new Fiat affiliation, Chrysler is on its third knight-in-shining-armour. This time, though, the enthusiasm is genuine, and for good reason: they’ve nailed it.

The reps are talking head-to-head competition with high-end 4x4s such as Land Rovers and the Porsche Cayenne, and it’s not just hype. The Grand Cherokee may not have the prestige nameplate those two enjoy, but it can do everything they can, and at about half the cost.

First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee jeep first drives
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Click image to enlarge

Making its way into showrooms right now, the 2011 model is pretty much fresh from the ground up. That includes an all-new platform developed by Mercedes-Benz under a deal inked while Chrysler and Mercedes were still linked together under DaimlerChrysler. You’ll also see it underpinning the redesigned ML350 which, surprisingly, trails the Grand Cherokee to market. There is also a completely new V6, a new Selec-Terrain system that mimics the dial found in Land Rover, new available air suspension, and a level of interior quality that finally brings this model up to snuff.

The new Grand Cherokee comes in four trim lines: the base Laredo E at $37,995, the Laredo X at $42,995, Limited at $46,995, and Overland at $49,995, priced with V6 engines – a nice touch in that you don’t have to move up to a larger powerplant to get the fully-loaded version. The optional V8 engine can be added to everything except the Laredo E for an additional $1,900.

First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee jeep first drives
First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee jeep first drives
First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee jeep first drives
First Drive: 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee jeep first drives
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Click image to enlarge

Chrysler calls it full-size, but “large midsize” is really more accurate: it’s marginally larger than the model it replaces, but its wheelbase is stretched by 134 mm (5.3 inches). That not only gives it a smoother ride, but provides an additional 113 mm (4.4 inches) of legroom. That, along with a reclining feature on the seat, solves the previous issue of cramped quarters for rear-chair passengers, as well as bringing cargo volume to 994 litres (35.1 cubic feet), up from 835 litres. Despite the longer wheelbase, the approach, departure and breakover angles are also improved, especially in vehicles with the air suspension. The company opted not to squeeze in a third row of seats, and Grand Cherokee remains a five-seater. There will be a new seven-passenger model coming to replace the aging Commander, which will continue on until then, but unlike the Commander, it won’t just be a longer version of the Grand Cherokee. Instead, it will be an all-new model based on Mercedes’ GL-Class platform, and if hints from Chrysler Canada’s president are accurate, expect it to be a sister version of a model that will revive the Dodge Durango nameplate.

Body stiffness is essential for both off- and on-road performance, and this new version – still a unibody, of course – is almost one and a half times tighter than its predecessor, primarily due to more welds holding it all together. For the first time, the suspension is independent at all four corners, and on the road, it feels more like a full-size sedan than an SUV.

The all-new V6 engine, named Pentastar for Chrysler’s historic five-pointed logo, displaces 3.6 litres, making 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. That’s better than the 210 horses and 235 lb-ft made by the outgoing 3.7-litre V6, yet the new engine offers better fuel economy. The 5.7-litre Hemi V8 is carried over; it received variable valve timing a couple of years ago, and uses a multi-displacement system, or MDS, to shut off half the cylinders at cruising speeds for better fuel economy.

Missing in action is the six-cylinder diesel, last used for 2009, a victim primarily of high diesel prices in the U.S. and that country’s overall lack of interest in oil burners. The new 3.6-litre doesn’t match its torque, but it gets a tick better on the fuel economy scale. The 6.1-litre SRT8 has also disappeared from the line-up, but company officials say there’s a “strong possibility” it will be back within a couple of years, since it maintains a tight hold on go-fast fans.