By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
I think I know how they felt.
You know — guys like me, reviewing the final cadre of muscle cars some 40 years ago, back in the early 70s. They could feel the wind shifting, knew the show was almost over — the lights about to go out for good. Time for one final fling, a last dance. Within a year or two, they’d all be gone. No more really big V-8s; no more really high horsepower.
No more fun.
Power did make a comeback, of course. But big V-8s (and real muscle cars) never did. Six-something liters is about as big as it gets today — in a small handful of low-production, high-dollar models.
Most mass-market modern V-8s are in the 4-5-ish liter range — weensy (and torque deficient) little things compared with, say, a pushing 8 liters (and 500 lbs.-ft. of torque) big-block from 1970. And while new performance cars exist in abundance, there’s only one (the Dodge Viper) that’s even close to being the unchained animal those old muscle cars were.
Anyhow, I felt what those guys in the ’70s must’ve felt during the week I had the 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee — because it and its kind are as sure to be walking the green mile in the next handful of years as big-block muscle cars were fated to back then. And for the same reason:
Back then, it was Uncle’s Clean Air Act of 1970 — and subsequent to that, Uncle-created gas lines and price spikes. Today — tomorrow — it will be Uncle-mandated fuel efficiency edicts, such as the one that says all new vehicles, “light trucks” included this time, shall average 35.5 MPG by 2016.
The ’13 JGC gets 16 city, 23 highway.
With the V-6.
The V-8 w/4WD registers 13 city, 20 highway.
You can see where this is headed.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
WHAT IT IS
The Grand Cherokee is one of the few remaining mass-market, mid-sized, mid-priced SUVs that is emphatically not a “crossover” SUV. It is a real SUV — built on a RWD-based chassis (not a car-type, FWD-chassis).
It’s available with real 4WD with a two-speed transfer case and 4WD Low range gearing (not car-type and light duty AWD like the recently crossover’d Ford Explorer).
Also, you can still get a V-8.
You can’t in the otherwise similar Toyota 4Runner, which only comes with a V-6.
The closest thing to it is probably the larger (closer to full-sized) Nissan Pathfinder — which also offers a V-8. (At least, for the moment. An all-new 2013 Pathfinder will be be available shortly. It will be interesting to see whether it, too, gets crossover’d.)
Prices start at $27,495 for the Laredo with 2WD and 3.6 liter V-6.
A top of the line Overland with V-8 and 4WD stickers for $43,595.
There is also a high-performance SRT-8 version of the GC, which will be reviewed separately.
With the Ford Explorer now basically an AWD minivan in crossover SUV drag — and the Toyota 4Runner running on just six cylinders — the Grand Cherokee has few direct competitors left.
And probably, a short lease on life.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2013
The Grand Cherokee was completely redesigned in 2011, so changes for 2013 are modest. There’s a new Trailhawk package, which includes Kevlar-reinforced off-road tires, rock rails and unique exterior/interior trim. This model comes standard with 4WD (of course) but can be ordered with either the V-6 or the optional V-8.
It’s still a real-deal SUV — unlike the recently gelded Ford Explorer. You can go seriously off-road, do serious work and pull serious loads (up to 7,400 pounds) with it.
Standard V-6 is almost V-8 powerful but doesn’t drink gas like a Concorde with its afterburners lit.
Benz-sourced refinement (especially ride quality).
Base 2013 Laredo is priced almost $3k less for 2013 than 2011 Laredo was.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
$4 gas is back — and $5 gas is probably on the way, courtesy of either inflation or the loons in DC who seem determined to ignite another war in the Middle East.
Optional Hemi V-8 does drink gas like a Concorde with afterburners lit.
It’s not a Benz — or a Land Rover — and the economically impaired working and middle class is increasingly unable to afford (or afraid to buy) $30,000-plus 15 MPG SUVs.
Benz-sourced turbo-diesel engine that’s available in export markets not available here.
No third row.
UNDER THE HOOD
The ’13 GC has a mighty new powerplant — and an even mightier old one.
Standard is a 3.6 liter, 290 hp V-6 featuring variable valve timing. This is Chrysler’s new “Pentastar” V-6, designed to help resuscitate Jeep (and more so, parent company, Chrysler’s) fortunes. Though smaller than the GC’s previously standard (and massively out of date/massively underpowered ) 3.7 liter V-6, the new engine produces 80 more hp while also being a little bit easier on gas.
The 3.7 liter engine in the previous generation GC was rated 16 city, 21 highway — godawful numbers for a V-6 that produced all of 210 hp.
The new 3.6 liter engine matches the old 3.7 liter engine’s city mileage and beats it slightly on the highway (23 MPG, with 4WD). It’s still not great on gas, but with 290 hp available (24 more hp than the current Nissan Pathfinder’s standard V-6; 20 more hp than the Toyota 4Runner’s 270 hp V-6) it’s now a class leader — which the old V-6 wasn’t.
The main thing is you don’t have to upgrade to the even hungrier 5.7 liter Hemi V-8.
The V-6 gets most jobs done. Though not a tire-fryer, it’s got enough gumption to avoid embarrassing its owner. And to make him feel better about his fuel bills.
But if you do need more, the 5.7 liter Hemi is still available. For awhile, at least. It rates 360 hp and 390 lbs.-ft. of torque, making it the strongest V-8 available in a $30k-ish, mid-sized SUV (the 2012 Nissan Pathfinder’s available 5.6 liter, 310 hp V-8 comes in second; the 2013 Toyota 4Runner doesn’t offer a V-8 engine at all).
But the Hemi is hungry: 13 city, 19 highway. That’s best-case, driven fairly gently. Drive it not-so-gently and single digits in city-type use will be your reward.
The Hemi makes up for its appetite with acceleration (0-60 in about 6.8-6.9 seconds, sports car-quick for an SUV). But the V-6-equipped GC isn’t slow by any means: 0-60 in about 7.5-8 seconds flat (2WD versions being quickest).
Both engines come with five-speed automatics and either RWD or (optionally) one of three different 4WD systems, including a full-time system without Low range gearing (Quadra-Trac 1), plus a Land Rover-like driver-selectable terrain-adjusting system with positions for Snow, Sport, Mud/Gravel and Rock Climb — plus 4WD Low range gearing (Quadra-Trac II) and, lastly, a hard-core version with the terrain-adjusting system, 4WD Low range gearing and a pair of electrically controlled limited-slip axles (Quadra-Drive II). If you go with the top-of-the-line Overland version of the GC, you’ll also get the Quadra-Lift suspension that raises or lowers ride height either automatically to suit conditions — or manually, by driver input. You can use this feature to “kneel” the GC for easier passenger access.
Max tow capacity is a brawny 7,400 pounds — significantly higher than the 5,000 lb. maximum rating of the current Ford Explorer and Toyota 4Runner.
It’s also 1,400 lbs. more than the Nissan Pathfinder can pull (6,000 lbs., max).
ON THE ROAD
It’s amazing that a vehicle this capable off-road is so nice to drive on-road.
I’ve been off-roading with Jeep and know for a fact that this thing can keep up with an old Bronco or International Scout off-road. Or an old Jeep, for that matter.
But those old 4x4s are as punishing on-road as a weekend in Abu Ghraib.
The GC, you can drive to the ravine — through the ravine — then back home again. And have the memories stored in your head — not in your lower back.
The reason? An all-new four-corner air suspension — and no more solid rear axle. The new set-up is similar to what you’d find in something much more expensive, such as the Land Rover LR4. It allows each wheel to articulate with the terrain — and absorb potholes — instead of transferring the shock and vibration to the occupants through the chassis like the ringing of a big brass bell. The track has been widened, too — another stability enhancer. The ’13 GC is 2.6 inches wider through the hips (76.5 inches) which for perspective is almost four inches wider than the close-to-full-size Nissan Pathfinder (72.8 inches).
It might not be able to squeeze through as many tight spots off-road as the Pathfinder could, but those are scenarios few owners will have to deal with. Meanwhile, in everyday driving on-road, the GC feels much less tip-prone when cornering and more sure-footed at higher speeds.
Meanwhile, you’ve also got more elbow room — both front and back.
Another stability-enhancer and on-road ride improver is the new GC’s longer, almost limousine-like wheelbase — 114.8 inches vs. 109.5 inches previously. That’s a 5.3 inch stretch job. For some perspective, the ’13 GC’s wheelbase is now only three inches less than a Lincoln Town Car’s (117 inches) but the overall length of the ’13 GC is only about an inch more than before (189.8 inches for the ’13 vs. 188 for the old model) and two feet less overall than a Town Car. A more apples-to-apples comparison is to park the ’13 GC next to the physically larger overall (close to full-size) Nissan Pathfinder. It is 192.3 inches long and has a wheelbase of 112.2 inches — 2.6 inches less wheelbase than the smaller (mid-sized) GC.
The wide track and generous wheelbase render the GC the best on-road riding/handling off-road capable 4×4 SUV that’s not also $50,000 to start.
It still has the same tight turning circle as before, too — just over 37 feet.
But it has more ground clearance: 8.7 inches vs. 8.2 before. If equipped with the auto-adjusting Selec-Terrain suspension, you can kneel it down 1.5 inches from the standard setting to clear low-hanging fruit (and ceilings) or jack it up 4.5 inches to avoid floorpan dents from big rocks in your path. There are five different terrain/driving condition settings: Automatic, Sport (lowered ride height), Snow, Sand/Mud — and Rock. You must engage 4WD Low before you can engage the Rock mode. Hill Descent Control is included, naturally.
The Pentastar 3.7 V-6 engine delivers a pretty good balance of performance and economy.
In the previous GC, the base V-6 was a disaster. It was ancient, underpowered — and it sucked gas. You pretty much had to upgrade to the V-8 to get a decent performing vehicle.
Now, you don’t have to buy the Hemi. It’s nice that it’s there, for those who want the booster shot — or need the maximum tow capacity. But the standard 290 hp V-6 should be sufficient for most buyers, especially suburbanites who spend most of their driving time driving in stop-and-go traffic. The Hemi never gets out of the teens — even on the highway. But if you drive the V-6 reasonably — keep it under 70 and don’t floor it all the time — low-mid 20s are doable. I did it.
At $4 per gallon, that matters.
If gas gets to $5 a gallon, it may prove critical.
AT THE CURB
The GC’s updated shape is more crossover-like than before, which you may like or not — depending on your tastes. Some may prefer the boxier, more rugged-look of the old model — but there’s no argument about the improved aerodynamics (and reduced wind noise at highway speeds) that the slick new bodyshell provides.
Inside, you’ll find a cabin that’s comparable to the best on the market in this price range (and then some) vs. noticeably below standard, as was the case with the previous GC. Top-of-the-line Overland models are draped in leather, with individual sections stitched together just as you’d find in $50,000 lux models such as the Land Rover LR4 or a Benz G-class. The door panels are sculpted out, with high-line-looking wood or graphite-style inserts that wrap-around the dash, continuing to the doors and tapering off toward the rear. The steering wheel’s finished in half wood (top section) and half leather. It’s heated, too (in Overland models). The leather features contrast-color piping; sharp-looking pewter-aluminum covers and trim plates finish it all off.
You can order a dual-section Panorama sunroof, heated front and rear seats and a Media Center package that bundles GPS navigation (with real-time traffic updates) and a premium audio system with 30GB music storage hard drive. The Overland Summit has 20 inch polished wheels, park assist, Blind Spot warning and “smart” cruise control that automatically maintains both your pre-set speed and a safe following distance relative to the speed of the vehicle ahead of you.
Trailhawk models feature unique exterior and interior detailing, as well as a meaty off-road stance courtesy of rock-crawl-ready 18 inch wheels with M/S rated (and Kevlar reinforced) tires.
But even the standard Laredo is handsomely fitted out with much-improved materials, fit and finish vs. the old GC. It also comes standard with dual-zone AC, keyless ignition, power driver’s seat, leather trim and a six-speaker stereo with Sirius-XM.
There is no third row option (there is in the 4Runner) but realistically, this is probably for the best. The 4Runner’s third row is all-but-unusable; there’s just not enough space inside to make it work. Jeep faced the same issue, and decided it makes more sense to have comfortable accommodations for five vs. torturous accommodations for seven. I am not merely being rhetorical here, either. Check the stats: The GC’s got 38.6 inches of second row legroom. The 4Runner’s got 32.9 inches. Business Class vs. Coach. The Toyota does have more overall cargo capacity — 89.7 cubes with the seats folded vs. 68.7 for the GC. But for people carrying, the GC wins if the measure is carrying them in comfort vs. seeing how many you can carry.
The only thing about the layout I could find to complain about is the placement of the two 12V power points. Both are hidden from view (one deep inside the center console storage area, the other deep within the storage shelf at the bottom of the center stack) which makes them awkward to use. Plugging an accessory in has to be done by feel — or with the GC stationary.
There is only one big thing wrong with the new Grand Cherokee: It is a vehicle that no longer fits the times. While there will likely always be a market niche for high-end SUVs (rich people don’t care about gas mileage — and can afford to pay $40,000 and up for a vehicle that gets 15 MPGs) the market for mass-market, real-deal SUVs is declining along with the middle and working classes’ ability to purchase (and feed) such vehicles.
As I write this review, in the fall of 2012, gas prices are back up to about $4 a gallon — and taking off my car test driver hat and putting on my consumer/potential car buyer hat, I’d be very reluctant to buy any vehicle that couldn’t give me at least 30 MPG — assuming I needed it for daily driving.
Who is going to buy vehicles that costs $120 to fill-up — and which need to be filled up every week, if driven regularly? That’s pushing $500 a month — just for the gas.
I’d be sweating if I were Fiat — Chrysler-Jeep’s new management.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s cruel and crappy that the best GC Jeep ever built got built at what may prove to be the worst possible time for a vehicle like the GC.