On the Road Review: Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit EcoDiesel

In January 1992, Jeep and Chrysler executives drove the all-new Grand Cherokee right through the glass doors of the arena for its debut at the North American Auto Show in Detroit. A unibody, midsize SUV built to compete with Ford’s Explorer, the Jeep’s fully independent chassis design was shared with the then new Mercedes ML wagon.

In some corners, pundits could say that the Grand Cherokee helped to save Chrysler — back then, and in 2009 when the economic collapse almost consumed Chrysler. Yet the promise of the next generation Grand Cherokee loomed on the horizon and in late 2010, the fourth generation GC debuted to raves. Sales managers have not looked back as the latest Grand Cherokee has been the brand’s top selling product until the Wrangler and the new compact Cherokee overtook its larger sibling in 2015.

Grand Cherokee sales continue to expand, part of Jeep’s worldwide growth. Last year, Jeep sold over 1.2 million vehicles worldwide, 70 percent of them in the USA. Not too shabby for a “niche” automaker that started in World War II, 75 years ago.

We have been fortunate to sample multiple Grand Cherokees through the years, including several diesel-engined versions. This latest Summit-trimmed (one of nine trim levels currently available) Grand Cherokee with the 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 engine remains one of my favorite SUVs. Testament to the inherent virtues in this design, this six-year-old wagon still impresses despite the onslaught of newer, more expensive rivals.

One, the engine.

The Jeep’s Fiat-designed V-6 turbodiesel spins out 410 pound/feet of peak torque, power that is available very low on the tachometer right up to the artificially low speed-limiter. Acceleration is earnest, smooth yet robust at highway speeds. It is all too easy to be traveling at 20 mph over the posted limit and have no sense of your velocity — that kind of smooth. There is no clatter heard, never any obnoxious smells, and fuel stops would average out to barely one-two per month for the average daily driver who travels 12,000 miles a year or less — given the GC’s range of over 650-miles per tank. Of course, that driver may not be too inclined to pay the extra cost of the EcoDiesel ($5,000, with additional hardware and creature features) whereas a high-mileage traveler like myself (40-45,000-miles a year) would be.

The Jeep’s efficiency is inescapably brilliant; tow up to 7,400 pounds, carry tons of gear inside, and achieve higher mpg than the EPA estimates. It’s true; my first road trip from Auburn, Maine, to Springfield, Vt., and back — fast highway travel, long two-lane stints, urban grinding for 585-miles — resulted in 29.1 mpg, one mile per gallon better than the Fed’s highway economy guess. Second tank, 330 miles locally and up and down the Maine coast — 30.7 mpg. I believe this is RAV4 Hybrid territory — with full-time four-wheel drive, 5,000 pounds and that high tow capacity.

Two, the chassis

Since day one, the Grand Cherokee has been a uni-body design (like a car) that uses a fully independent suspension front and rear, again, like a car. Yes, the GC is taller, and heavier, but its handling and ride dynamics are predictable smoothly comfortable, and without the head-toss and rocking motions that several rivals render on less than perfect road surfaces. Add the new Quadra-lift air suspension, with settings for Park, Aero, Normal, Off-road I and Off-road II, and the Jeep handles as well as any other midsize wagon that stretches out to 190 inches. Key, besides the long-travel suspension — the elongated wheelbase of 115 inches.

Three, the interior

Jeep Grand Cherokee pricing starts at under $30,000 for rear drive Laredo models and escalates to over $70,000 with the new SRT Night 4X4 Edition. That is a big consumer range.

Summit trim pulls it off handsomely. Materials are soft-touch and complement the added components that make this a semi-premium environment. Semi-premium because the price (almost $60,000) is steep, however the value is apparent when compared to premium vehicles that offer less for much more money.

Big points makers here; the feel of the cabin and how everything works, well. The heated and cooled seats; very nice. The thick-rimmed leather steering wheel, heated of course, has fingertip audio controls that are simply the easiest, most efficient and safest way to make volume and preset selections. The U-Connect entertainment and information panel — still huge, still simple and intuitive, still among the very best. While others fumble with make-believe mouses and misconstrued hand motion sensors, the Jeep’s controls are elegant in their simplicity and help the driver remain in control — instead of vice-versa.

Add a dual-panel panoramic sunroof. Include heated rear seats. Add parking assist systems and forward braking assist. Keep one of the most driver-friendly dynamic cruise systems, augmented by blind-spot and cross-traffic assist programs. The GC’s dynamic cruise is a marvel; it never rushes to make hasty changes in speed, but never allows you to lose momentum as the gaps in traffic shift, with vehicles moving in and out of the detection zone of the forward radar beam. You can, very literally, follow cars through tollbooths without touching a single pedal, the Jeep slowing and accelerating with other traffic as well as seemingly detecting the actual tollbooth structures. Who doesn’t like a smart car that helps you drive better, without taking over control?

Four, the Jeep Factor

Without a doubt, Jeep has been the savior for Chrysler and is now the cash-cow for FCA as it weathers the storm of bad small car decisions and poor overseas sales results from the other Italian-based operations. The Jeep mojo is in high gear; Wrangler sales are still hot, the compact Cherokee is overtaking previously established rivals, while the sub-compact Renegade is saving FCA’s assets in some low-performing markets. Throw in the growing sales of the Grand Cherokee, with 10 percent take rates on this efficient diesel powertrain, and it is good to be a Jeep brand dealer.

Coming: the Wrangler redesign is slated for 2018 on-sale dates. Jeep also promises a Wrangler pickup, finally, as production moves to a remodeled Toledo factory. AER currently makes a Wrangler Brute pickup, for just $41,000 — plus the cost of your Wrangler Unlimited. That is a very steep Wrangler, no matter how beautiful the sample truck looked at the Jeep dealer in Keene, N.H., during my Grand Cherokee drive-through.

Shortly after you read this, you will (perhaps) be able to order the newest Grand Cherokee model: the Hellcat-engined Trackhawk. A 707-hp supercharged Grand Cherokee 4X4 is just what every lobsterman’s wife in Stonington is going to want to shoot over the Deer Isle causeway when the surf is up. Sure sounds appealing to me.

And finally, Jeep suggests that the three-row Grand Wagoneer will debut in two years as well. This long overdue Dodge Durango derivative should also have an EcoDiesel option, because the newest Wrangler will too.

As I said, it has to be good to be a Jeep dealer today.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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