If the success of the Porsche Cayenne and the BMW X5 has taught us anything it’s that most SUV buyers aren’t one bit interested in going near a blade of grass. They like the elevated driving position; the ease at which you can load and unload all your junk; the misplaced sense of safety and above all, the prestige that SUVs bestow upon their drivers. For most buyers, 4WD is useful to have when the roads get icy and it makes for a nice badge on the back, but most of these offroad vehicles are traded in with pristine low-ratio gears and an unmolested underbelly.
They’ve been utilised as someone’s two-tonne, polluting and commuting tool and little else, which is why Porsche and BWM just dropped the pretence, fitted proper performance tyres and tuned the suspension for onroad performance. They opted to let the off-road nonsense to the likes of Land Rover and Jeep and the public just snapped their vehicles up. Except that Land Rover and Jeep weren’t about to let these upstarts make them look like know-nothing bog trotters.
For years they’ve been successfully honing the on-road/off-road balance to produce some of the most useful and versatile vehicles in the world, so eliminating any element of off-road ability and focusing on pure dynamics should be a walk through the daisies, right? Actually, that is right. The 400 hp Range Rover SC is an astonishingly fast and agile vehicle for its size and weight but with active air suspension and a €110,000 price tag that’s not that surprising.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8, however, stomps even the blown Range Rover in terms of performance and in the US it’s little more than half the price of the Range Rover. You’d better be sitting down for this. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is about to rock your SUV-loving world. Let’s get the ugly business of numbers out of the way first, shall we? Under the ‘hood’lies Chrysler’s versatile new SRT-8 V8,which is based on a reinforced version the pushrod, iron-block, Hemi V8 that powers everything Chrysler does these days, including their coffee machines and elevators, I suspect.
The engine is bored out to 6.1-liters and uses a fully revised induction and exhaust system to help it rev to 6,000, a full grand more than the regular Hemi. It does without the Hemi’s displacement-on demand technology, however, so it is a bit thirstier than before if you go by the official figures. In reality, it’s a whole lot thirstier because you’re always going like the clappers. Power is pegged at 420 bhp @ 6,200 rpm and torque is an equally impressive 569 NM @ 4,800 rpm though you don’t need much more than tickover in any gear to turn the approaching horizon into a streaky blur. Behold the 0-100 km/h time of less than 5 seconds, the 0-100-0 time (mph) of less than 19 seconds and a top speed so high Jeep won’t tell us what it is (I personally saw 210 km/h before I ran out of track).
The Grand Cherokee SRT-8 is fast, people; faster than the Cayenne Turbo and X5 4.0iS that used to mock its mountain-goat gait. In fact, it’s about as quick to 100 km/h as a Porsche 911.You may gasp when ready. The only transmission available is a five-speed ‘autostick’ unit that is reasonably responsive when left to its own devices but considerably more entertaining when used as a manual. The shifts are quicker than you usually find in the Grand Cherokee but the vague left-right motion of the gear-lever in manual mode is (as it is in all Chrysler products) very counter-intuitive and the display telling you which gear you’re in is no bigger than the odometer digits so it’s as useful as a seconds set of earlobes.
The addition of steering wheel-mounted paddles and a bigger gear display would take a lot of the guesswork out of using the transmission but even if you do happen to miss a down-change it’s not the end of the world. The Grand Cherokee’s got enough grunt and grip to force its way through any corner unless you’re really, really spanking on and the road does something very unexpected. Yes, the Grand Cherokee SRT-8 is 4WD but it’s the first ever Jeep to boast permanent all-wheel-drive and we’re only sorry Jeep never developed such a system before.
Though it ambles along in RWD mode most of the time, the electronically controlled, clutch type centre differential can channel all the torque to the front or rear as is needed, making the Grand Cherokee SRT-8 extraordinarily forgiving when you throw it around. The suspension is fully revised with new Bilstein dampers, anti-roll bars, springs and bushings, while the four-piston Brembo callipers fitted to each corner each clamp hard on 360mm front and 350mm rear rotors to haul it all down from big speeds.
To complete the dynamic package, the SRT-8 rides some 2.5 mm lower than a regular Grand Cherokee Hemi, the ESP has been recalibrated to allow the SRT-8 to slither around a little more than normal and 20-inch SRT wheels with Z-rated, Goodyear, run-flat tyres are also fitted as standard. On the track, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is hopeless because the ESP (which can’t be turned off) is too intrusive and the sluggishness of the transmission combined with the sheer size and 2171 kg bulk of the thing makes it very difficult to sling around. On the mountain roads that brought us to the track, however, the SRT-8 was a hoot! You just don’t expect a big SUV to go and stop with this kind of ferocity and with abundant grip from those enormous 255/45ZR20 front and 285/40ZR20 rear tyres you can really whip it into corners without fear of coming unstuck. The work that Jeep has done on the suspension is just remarkable because it combines the sporty firmness you need to ‘feel’ the SRT-8 through corners with a reasonably compliant ride that is more than acceptable for daily commutes and family use. (Honest, Darling!) Indeed, thanks to a steadfast refusal to lean over, pitch or dive, I would argue that the upscale leather and fake-suede interior stands a better chance of not having to endure the contents of little stomachs than a regular Grand Cherokee.
But what really sets the SRT-8 apart is its steering, which is not only sharp and direct (even by big car standard) but also full of feel. When you push close to the limits of grips it starts to jump around in your hands quite significantly, relating the behaviour of the front tires directly to your hands and letting you know it’s time you backed off, mate. It could almost be described as kickback, but because it only happens at the absolute limit and is caused by the movement of the tires rather than any slop in the steering mechanism, I’m more inclined to call it ‘extreme feedback’ than ‘kickback’, to be honest. Lest anyone be in doubt as to the potential of your Grand Cherokee, Jeep has tarted up the exterior in simple but meaningful way.
There’s a new front fascia, new side skirts, a new rear bumper, dual, centrally mounted 10cm tail pipes, as well as the afore-mentioned 20-inch wheels and lowered ride height. Inside, there are front bucket seats, aluminium and carbon-fiber effect trim (here comes little Johnny’s lunch again), sports dials and some SRT-8 monikers here and there. The over effect is a little cartoon-ish, perhaps, but I for one like the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8’s muscular aggression. Were the vehicle itself not so impressive I might be less enamoured with the brash styling enhancements, but because it goes so fast, corners so well and is so much fun to drive, I think it deserves the right to brag a little bit.
Factor in a ridiculously low $39,995 price tag, folks, and you have yourself the best performance SUV around. Light-headedness and shallow breathing is normal at this point, by the way. It’s a big shock, I know. The only thing that might ruin this car for Irish buyers is the price. The current 4.7-litre Grand Cherokee is already more than €65,000 and that’s not even the Hemi-powered model, so the SRT-8’s going to be close to €100,000, I would guess. At that kind of money you’re better off in the Range Rover Sport SC so unless Jeep realigns its prices to more realistic levels I’m afraid the only SRT-8s you’ll be seeing will be on the pages of magazines.
Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT-8
Engine 6,059cc V8, 420bhp, 569 Nm torque
Boot Capacity 1,140 litres (seats up)
Acceleration 0-100km/h 5.0 secs
Top speed 230 km/h (est)
Price €90,000 (est)
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive