Jeep's Grand Cherokee can match the technical air-suspended excellence of its top luxury SUV rivals - but only in its plushest Overland and Summit guises. Jonathan Crouch reports
Jeep's Grand Cherokee is one of the few American imports to gain a foothold in the British market, in improved third generation form trying to offer something a little different to luxury SUV buyers who'd normally be looking at a Land Rover Discovery, a BMW X5 or a Mercedes M-Class. On paper, it looks like the brand's most credible car yet. If it is, then the top Summit version we're looking at here ought to be very good indeed.
Has Jeep ever brought us a fully credible luxury SUV really capable of worrying the prestigious German brands? The company's Grand Cherokee, first introduced in 1992, was always supposed to be that car, but never quite delivered on its promises. Here's a version that does - this much improved third generation version.
Leaving aside the SRT8 V8 petrol variant that almost nobody buys, the Grand Cherokee range, based around a 3.0 CRD V6 diesel engine, is divided up into two main parts: the Laredo and Limited entry-level models that substantially undercut BMW, Mercedes and Land Rover luxury SUVs but get limited ground clearance, coil springs and Jeep's older Quadra-Trac II AWD system. And top Overland and Summit variants, priced more closely to the competition, but also including Quadra-Lift air suspension and the more sophisticated Quadra-Drive II AWD set-up, complete with ELSD, a rear Electronic Limited Slip Differential.
That latter package is the one we're going to look at here with the Grand Cherokee Summit model we have on test.
The headline news with this improved MK3 design is the fitment across the range of an up-to-the-minute eight-speed ZF auto transmission to better manage the VM Motori 3.0-litre V6 diesel, which in its standard guise now features a slight power hike to 247bhp. Performance is acceptably fleet for this kind of car, sixty from rest appearing in 8.2s on the way to a top speed of 126mph, figures that may not quite match the German opposition but shame those of a Land Rover Discovery.
Top Grand Cherokee variants like the Summit model on test here exchange the older Quadra-Trac II AWD set-up and ordinary coil-sprung suspension for a more sophisticated Quadra-Drive II system, allied to Quadra-Lift air suspension that raises ride height from the relatively limited 218mm you get in cheaper Grand Cherokees to as much as 280mm, if you select the higher of the two off road settings. Quadra-Drive gets an inclusive rear Electronic Limited Slip Differential, which can switch torque from side to side at the rear to find traction if you're in a really sticky spot.
Like all versions of this Jeep, the Summit variant gets something German rivals can't offer - a two-speed transfer case with the kind of complete set of low range gear ratios that all committed off roaders will want. Plus there's Jeep's clever 'Selec-Terrain' system, which essentially copies Land Rover's Terrain Response set-up, enabling you to adapt the car to the kind of ground you're driving over across a choice of 'Sand', 'Mud' and 'Rock' modes, plus an 'Auto' setting that'll adapt the car to any on or off-road situation. It's like having an expert sat alongside you.
It biggest mistake any Jeep can ever make is to lose its sense of identify - the things that identify its design with a brand heritage remembered fondly for its famed exploits in World War II. So it is that even though this improved third generation model is now more sharply suited, it's still instantly recognisable as a Jeep, thanks to the way that the brand's two most recognisable design cues - the classic squared-off trapezoidal wheel arches and the traditional seven-slot front grille - are both present and correct. But they're now included as part of a far more contemporary look with smaller, meaner HID bi-xenon headlights leading off what the stylists hope is a more muscular, athletic look emphasised by a steeply raked windscreen and high waist line.
And inside? Well the dash of the original third generation model offered a big step forward from that of its predecessor but it still wasn't as classy as the German competition. So the designers in Detroit have tried harder and the cabin ambience you get in this improved version is much closer to the exalted class standard, especially if you choose the top Summit variant on test here with its stitched copper leather, careful use of wood and suede-style A-pillar and headliner covering. The interior's dominated by a couple of large TFT displays, the most eye-catching of the two being the 8.4-inch touchscreen that controls the latest Uconnect infotainment system. Ahead of you is another TFT screen, the 7-inch display replacing conventional instruments and driver-configurable to show everything from your sat nav setting to the Terrain mode you've selected, as well as the usual dials.
Jeep has pitched its top Grand Cherokee models, the 'Overland' and 'Summit' versions, to sell directly against top German luxury SUVs in the £45,000 to £50,000 bracket. As well as the enhanced technical spec we've talked about earlier on in this test, these top Jeep variants get an exhaustive kit list that really does create quite a desirable ownership proposition - for the price of something more ordinary: or less. After all, even if you choose the nicest Summit model we tried, you're still looking at a couple of thousand less than you'd pay for an entry-level Range Rover Sport.
The Overland and Summit variants are also the only Grand Cherokee models on which it's possible to enjoy what Jeep calls its 'Safety Technology Pack'. This includes a Blind-spot information system to stop you from dangerously pulling out to overtake in front of another driver, rear cross path detection to stop you from reversing out into the path of another vehicle, advanced brake assist to help in emergency stops, plus Adaptive cruise control that automatically regulates your distance to the car in front on the highway and can even slow you to a stop and start you off again if you come across a tailback. Cleverest of all perhaps, there's an FCW Forward Collision Warning system that uses a radar to scan the road ahead for potential collision hazards as you drive.
Jeep has gradually been driving down the running costs of this car - and has made another step forward here - if not enough of one to match the best of its German rivals. Still, at least CO2 emissions now dip under the important 200g/km mark, rated at 198g/km for the Italian-designed VM Motori 3.0-litre V6 diesel. That's been enough to drop annual road tax from £620 to £475. Every little helps.
The combined cycle fuel consumption is rated at 37.7mpg, which is about 10% better than the original version of this third generation model could manage. At motorway speeds, expect to get around 700 miles out of a thankful. Overall, in rough terms, you're looking at figures that are about the same as those of a rival Range Rover Sport 3.0 TDV6 and about 15% better than those of a directly competing Land Rover Discovery (not surprising since the Disco is about 300kgs heavier). In other words, Jeep is back in contention in this class when it comes to running cost returns.
All of the figures I've just quoted assume that you've been driving with what Jeep calls 'Eco Mode' activated. That's a setting added to this improved model that optimises the transmission shift schedule and tweaks throttle sensitivity to minimise fuel consumption.
Overall, this improved third generation Grand Cherokee is a much more credible rival to luxury Mercedes, BMW and Land Rover SUVs than it ever was previously. It's a pity though, that you have to stretch up to top variants to really enjoy all that it has to offer. If Jeep could have offered the Quadra-Drive II AWD system and Quadra-Lift air suspension package that characterises this Summit model on cheaper variants, then it would have created a proposition very difficult for buyers in this segment to ignore.
Even as it is, this Grand Cherokee has much to offer buyers who can be persuaded to try it. We think it's the best-looking car in this segment and it's now got a credibly upper class cabin that at last feels special enough to compete at this level. The running costs are also more acceptable than they used to be. Ultimately, if it's the little things that make life grand, then it's equally true to say that with this car, Jeep has got more of them right than ever before.