Whenever it comes to reviewing Chrysler products I always have to keep something in the back of my mind. Tax. VAT and VRT to be more specific. You see, in America, Chrysler vehicles represent spanking good value. A 340 bhp 300C is an eye-popping $34,100 and this Jeep Grand Cherokee with that same 5.7-litre Hemi V8 is only $36,000, which represents a whole lot machine for your wonga. Bring it to Ireland, though, and after the government has worked its financial magic a 3.0-litre diesel version ends up costing around €60,000, or roughly twice as much as its American counterpart.
Therefore, I have to step out of my cowboy boots and back into my wellies to look at this vehicle from a very different perspective. For that kind of cash you deserve a much, much nicer interior than the Grand Cherokee offers – something along the lines of the Touareg, for example. Although it’s pretty well made the design is very basic, almost as if this was the interior designer’s first assignment and he’s simultaneously reading a ‘How To’ book as he works.
On the plus side, everything is where you expect it. On the minus side, it feels as special as a potato. It’s the same story with the material: the plastics are hard and not very posh and there are workman-like moulding seams all over the place. You feel the interior is only there to keep the nasty bits from public view, rather than trying complement or enhance the car. Interior plastics aside, the Grand Cherokee is blessed with a very comfortable interior.
The seats are excellent and the driving position is marvellous thanks to multi-adjustable seats and a telescoping, tilting steering. The rear is no less commodious and comfortable and the boot is huge making it an excellent family or business conveyance. It’s reasonably quiet in there too, with hushed cruising and decent ride quality, though the live rear axle does get knocked around a little bit on the rougher stuff. Our sporty V8 version still isn’t as firmly sprung as the Euro-version so it’s probably a little more comfy than you can expect in Ireland. My wife likes the Grand Cherokee so much, in fact, she put it on her ‘Top Five’ vehicles she would buy if money were no object. She prefers the looks of the Range Rovers, she concedes, but can’t justify spending three times the price of the Jeep on the sluggish, lumbering Land Rover.
Practical lady, my wife, and not your typical ditz when it comes to cars, either: Other vehicles on her top five include the Pontiac GTO,SLK 55 AMG and Nissan 350Z. The Jeep’s most impressive attribute by far is its handling. It steers better than most of the cars I’ve had the misfortune to navigate and it’s not at all like a big, tall SUV, with crisp turn-in and genuine steering feel telling you exactly what the tyres are up to all the time. It responds fairly quickly to throttle inputs, too, meaning you can lean it hard into a corner and adjust your line on the throttle if the need arises. Body roll is well contained so reasonably aggressive driving isn’t met with projectile vomiting from the back seat and squeals of protest from the tyres, despite our test car being a softer US version. Europe get sportier rubber and more aggressive springing and damping, which might make the ride a little jigglier but will up the grip and feedback levels a little, making it even more fun. I fairly thrashed a Limited Hemi model in the mountains above San Diego at the launch last year and came away terribly impressed, though there was no diesel model for me to try out.
The only transmission available is a five-speed automatic that shifts smoothly and fairly quickly even if it’s not terribly responsive to nudges of the ‘Autostick’ lever. Mind you, because the tight mountain pass was mostly a second and third gear affair, its leisurely shifting wasn’t much of an issue. Of more concern were the brakes, which more or less gave up about half way down the mountain. So spry is the JGC that I threw it into hairpin after hairpin as if it were a little sports car, forgetting that it weighs 2100kg, and I pretty much toasted the brakes.
The pads glazed over and the pedal went to the floor and even stopping to let it cool down didn’t restore full brake function. Jeep would be well advised to upgrade the brakes for European buyers, particularly for those living near autobahns or the Alps, though I will concede I was driving it much harder than most people in their right minds ever would. What’s even more amazing is what the Jeep will do off road. With its Quadra-Drive II four-wheel-drive system and electric locking diffs, the big Grand Cherokee can perform absurd feats of climbing and rock hopping, despite riding on street tyres and with no complex air suspension or fancy electronics. The corners are susceptible to damage, though, and the undercarriage doesn’t have a lot of protection either so you’d need to watch the ground clearance or approach angles if you don’t want to leave parts of the Jeep behind. Most Irish buyers are going to opt for the new (ex-Mercedes) 3.0-litre V6 diesel which should be a decent power plant and well suited to the JGC’s lively chassis, producing 215 bhp and a stonking 510 NM of torque, hitting 100 km/h in around 9 seconds before running out of puff at 124 mph. If you can stomach the insurance and additional tax costs as well as the likely savagery of its depreciation, the 5.7-litre Hemi is the best power plant in the range.
Pumping out 322bhp at 5,000rpm and 500 NM of torque at 4,000rpm the Grand Cherokee Hemi can scorch to 100 km/h in 7.1 seconds and go on to 129mph.The engine incorporates Chrysler’s cylinder shut-off system, which vastly improves fuel figures although it’s still no lettuce-munching eco-freak. Expect an average of around 15 mpg compared to more than 30 mpg for the diesel. So we arrive back and where we started. Price. At American prices the Jeep Grand Cherokee is about the best value SUV on the market and the ride and handling compromise is perfectly resolved. In fact, I absolutely love driving it. It’s almost as much fun as a BMW X3 and much better to drive than the over-hyped Range Rover Sport. However, at Irish prices the Jeep Grand Cherokee just doesn’t feel special enough inside or out. The styling is so-so and the interior is fairly grim which is a terrible shame because otherwise it really is an excellent machine.
It can stick with the best road-only SUVs across any mountain pass, yet chase the best of the bog-trotters across the very roughest terrain. For the money, the quality of the engineering is beyond reproach, which makes it all the more frustrating that the quality of its finish is so sub-par.