Before my nose dive down the cartoonishly steep and rocky grade of the Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area in Monterey County, my impression of modern Jeeps was that the "S" had been stripped from these SUVs — that there was little sport involved in these supposed utility vehicles. Jeep may have been bred for war, but the only thing resembling military action I'd seen involving the five-seat Grand Cherokee was the mobilization of soccer moms shuttling their kids to practice and hauling rations from Costco.
Having received a taxpayer loan in 2009 and emerging from bankruptcy later in the year, Chrysler has a lot on the line with its Jeep brand. The Grand Cherokee is the Jeep flagship.
With its first update in 5 1/2 years, the Grand Cherokee is hitting the market with its six cylinders firing and its four-wheel drive fully engaged. It's an impressive machine inside and out. A steel uniframe shell protects a pampering, leather-trimmed cabin with enough technology to appeal to Silicon Valley CEOs, while under the hood, the all-new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 boasts an 11% improvement in fuel economy (22 highway/16 city for the four-wheel drive version), an 11% increase in torque and a 38% upgrade in horsepower over the 2010 model.
According to Jeep, just 10% of Grand Cherokee owners will ever pop the curb and take their rides off-road into the untamed and thoroughly brambled outdoors. But it's the technology designed to appeal to that minority that is this Jeep's most impressive feature.
New to various versions of the $31,000-plus 2011 Grand Cherokee is an optional Quadra-Lift air suspension system, which I had on the Limited 4x4 version I tested. At the push of a button, the chassis lifts 1.3 inches for light off-roading and doubles the lift for more challenging tasks, such as fording streams and clambering over boulders. It also drops down in park mode, so passengers, after a long day of into-the-wild hoots and hollers, can step out without breaking a leg.
With the previous three incarnations of the Grand Cherokee, the strategy had been to hide the car's technological trickery from the driver. For 2011, there's a more hands-on interface. The Quadra-Lift accommodates a suspension range of 4.1 to 10.7 inches in five settings and works in tandem with a new Selec-Terrain traction system, which lets drivers set the vehicle to certain driving conditions. Traversing snow, rocks or sand is managed with the simple turn of a knob that electronically coordinates the powertrain, braking and suspension systems, as well as the throttle, transmission shift and stability controls, among other things.
The Grand Cherokee's Quadra-Lift Selec-Terrain system is very similar to the four-corner electronic air suspension used by Tata Motors' Land Rover brand, which caters to an even more rarefied if equally off-road-unlikely clientele. But all's fair in love and war, it seems, especially in today's automotive climate. I've taken both the Land Rover LR4 and the Jeep Grand Cherokee off road, and I'd say the systems are equally impressive, though they operate slightly differently: the Land Rover with air from the atmosphere and the Jeep's from a sealed tank. With both SUVs, I half-expected to see legs, rather than tires, propelling me as I scaled boulders and climbed railroad ties, powered through sand and descended hills so steep that at times I couldn't even see where my wheels would catch.
In addition to the terrain drive modes, Jeep has followed Land Rover with yet another piece of high-tech wizardry — a hill-descent control feature that relieves drivers of the need to use their brakes since the car does so automatically when needed. Heading downward, on steep grades, it applies the brakes to each wheel individually, preventing the SUV from succumbing to gravity's mercy.
Urbanites who have no intention of heading off road will also enjoy this Jeep, which has creature comforts for "glampers" who'd never think of roughing it in a tent.
I'd spent the morning hours of my day with the Grand Cherokee driving it through San Francisco and the canyons just south of the city, enjoying its leather interior, heated wood steering wheel and other amenities. The tactile nature and attention to detail displayed in the Grand Cherokee interior were far more elegant than I expected from a brand originally designed for the military.
Even the standard equipment was an elevation of the norm. The adaptive cruise control decreases the vehicle's preset speed when it's closing in on another vehicle, or when a car pulls in front of it. It then returns to the preset speed when the coast is clear. The vehicle wasn't merely equipped with Bluetooth but also with Uconnect Web, a dealer-installed option that turns the SUV into a Wi-Fi hot spot, and Flo TV, a mobile live TV option offering 20 channels of programming, including ESPN, NBC and Fox.
I found the power delivery satisfying, the five-speed automatic transmission smooth, the handling precise and the ride surprisingly quiet. Brief as Chrysler's involvement was with Daimler, from 1998 to 2007 when the two were partnered, the Grand Cherokee has clearly benefited from its brush with Mercedes-Benz, which had a lot of input into the SUV's road-going dynamics.
By the time I got to Hollister, my suspicions that the Jeep was a cushy mom mobile were more than confirmed. That is, until I strapped myself in to the bucket seat and headed into the hills. Soccer moms take note: Leave ball at home. Take the kids to Moab.