Almost everyone knows that Jeep builds some of the most capable off-road rides around, and has in fact been doing so since its inception in 1941. What fewer people understand, however, is that even Jeep’s most family-friendly and luxurious models are cut from the same mold as the iconic Wrangler when it comes to their all-terrain prowess. This includes the recently-revised 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee, the flagship model from the domestic SUV producer that squashes preconceptions about what a full-size sport-utility vehicle can accomplish when put to the test far off of the beaten path.
I was recently given the chance to pilot several models of the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee on a trail outside of Austin, Texas that offered obstacles ranging from dry, sandy river beds to nearly vertical cliff faces. The experience was a definite eye-opener, and the Grand Cherokee’s dual personality as a comfortable daily commuter and rugged rock-crawler was underscored by its impressive performance on the drive to and from the trailhead.
Jeep hasn’t dramatically re-sculpted the exterior styling of the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee but the subtle changes that have been made manage to set it apart from the 2013-and-earlier editions of the vehicle. Grand Cherokee fans will pick up on the fact that the front grille has seen its top chopped and its headlights trimmed to match, providing a sleeker appearance and also visually widening the SUV’s front fascia. Harder to pick out is the font change for the Grand Cherokee’s name spelled out on its side, as well as the revamped JEEP identifier embossed below the rear hatch’s glass. Pushing the Jeep’s ‘start’ button, however, ignites the front LED running lights (Overland and Summit trims) and rear LED (across the board) tail lamps, which are easily the most identifiable elements of the made-over Grand Cherokee.
The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee’s cabin now features an expanded palette of browns, blacks, and open-pore wood trim, and each of these new-look packages improve on what was already an enticingly-styled cockpit. Jeep designers and product managers are quite serious about taking on luxury competitors such as the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and the BMW X5 – two of the bogeys identified by name in a presentation given the morning of my ride – and part and parcel of that aggressive strategy has been to match the German premium brands note-for-note when it comes to the Grand Cherokee’s passenger experience. The effort is certainly there, as the fit and finish of the automobile has reached a level never before seen in a Jeep, but the real story is found in examining the window stickers of comparably-equipped editions of the Mercedes-Benz and the BMW. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is priced at many thousands of dollars less, even in its top trim levels, which significantly underscores the vehicle’s value proposition.
From a convenience standpoint, Jeep has also outfitted the 2014 Grand Cherokee with a new version of the excellent Uconnect entertainment and communications interface (an option which features a larger 8.4-inch touchscreen) as well as well as a seven-inch TFT screen directly in front of the driver that replaces the traditional gauge cluster. The latter can be configured to display all manner of vehicle information readouts, graphical representations of the SUV’s speed and engine speed, as well as the details of its off-road systems, accessible via simple (and larger-than-last-year) steering wheel controls.
The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee carries over its base 290 horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 and its available 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 (360 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque), but it also gains a brand new 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6. Although not the first diesel engine to appear in the Grand Cherokee, this Euro-sourced unit is by far the most modern, making use of dual overhead cams and direct-injection technology to push out 240 horses and a whopping 420 lb-ft of torque. These figures allow the turbodiesel (referred to as the EcoDiesel in Jeep nomenclature) to match the Hemi’s 7,200 lbs of towing capacity, but even more important is its 30-mpg EPA rating on the highway – a figure we were able to match during a two-hour stint along Texas back roads. It’s important to note that both the M-Class and the X5 also offer turbodiesel variants, with the new engine finally making the Grand Cherokee a player in that market niche. Cost for the diesel option ranges from $4,500 to $5,000 depending on which trim level it is added to.
A good portion of the diesel Jeep’s real-world efficiency can be attributed to the second major mechanical upgrade afforded the SUV: an eight-speed automatic transmission. It is impossible to overstate the impact that this fresh gearbox has on the Grand Cherokee’s drivability and overall character. Available with every one of the vehicle’s three drivetrains, each of which I had the opportunity to sample, the eight-speed is not only infinitely smoother than the now-departed mix of five and six-speed autos, it also provides precisely the correct amount of power at the exactly the right speed when the gas pedal is depressed. The overall effect is to make the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee feel lighter on its feet than ever before, which is no small accomplishment in an SUV that tips the scales at over two tons.
I promised to dazzle you with details of the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee’s off-road acumen, a star performance that amazed me given the full-size SUV’s relatively unassuming unibody platform and fully-independent front and rear suspension. These features are necessities when delivering around-town comfort but typically stand at the opposite end of the ruggedness spectrum when compared against the solid axles and body-on-frame construction that define a traditional off-road vehicle. In fact, the latter are the exact specifications of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited that broke trail for us throughout the day, carving a path that the Grand Cherokee matched note-for-note when met with even seemingly impossible-to-surmount obstacles.
What is the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee’s secret? In a word, technology. As in years past the Grand Cherokee is available with three different four-wheel drive systems: Quadra Trac I (similar to a full-time all-wheel drive setup), Quadra Trac II (true four-wheel drive with a low-speed transfer case) and Quadra Drive II (low-range with an electronically-locking rear differential). All of the vehicles I drove on the Texas trail were outfitted with Quadra Drive II.
The Jeep Grand Cherokees that I sampled also featured Selec Terrain traction control (provided free-of-charge with Quadra Trac II and Quadra Drive II) and Quadra Lift air suspension. Selec Terrain offers four settings (Sand, Mud, Rock, Snow, and Auto), each of which coordinate the vehicle’s traction control, electronic stability control, transfer case, throttle response, and suspension in order to best handle the surface that the SUV is about to tread. Selec Terrain also comes with a extremely useful hill descent control and Select-Speed Control feature. Quadra Lift provides an adjustable ride height for the Grand Cherokee, allowing for the easy clearance of taller rocks and ditches while preserving the handling and aerodynamic efficiency of a lower stance out on the pavement.
Of course, technology can only take you so far, as approach and departure angles are also crucial elements of any trail-ready SUV design. Fortunately, the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee also comes with the stubby front and rear overhangs that allow it to hurdle, climb, and descend even ridiculously steep grades and uneven terrain. This was amply demonstrated throughout the day, with our line of Grand Cherokees (with Selec Track set to Sand and Ride Height Level II selected via Quadra Lift) effortlessly paced the Wrangler at the front of the pack. Barring occasional wheel spin, which was quickly dealt with by the vehicle’s traction control and Quadra Drive II, there was nowhere that the Jeep felt out of its element.
This remained true even when dealing with the most cowing challenge of the day, a sheer rock face titled at a steep, superhero-taunting 70 percent grade. Watching the Wrangler Unlimited crawl up this slick barrier through my windshield, it seemed incredible that the big Grand Cherokee could accomplish the same gravity-defying feat. Yet there I was mere minutes later, coaxing the Jeep up the incline with the Select-Speed Control system fully engaged. By tapping the automatic transmissions steering-wheel mounted shift paddles up or down, I could advance the Grand Cherokee at a pace approaching five miles per hour without having to touch either the gas or the brakes. The same logic applied to the hill descent control system, which had both myself and my drive partner hanging from our seatbelts as we faced the ground head-on, inching towards the flat land and praying that the stock rubber wrapping the Jeep’s 19-inch rims would maintain their spider-like grip. They did.
A Detroit Army Knife
The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a vehicle that truly straddles two distinct segments of the market. The Grand Cherokee is no faux-roader, as it made short work of the kind of tough trail that would have had almost any other SUV in its class quaking in its elegantly-chromed boots. At the same time the Jeep delivered a quiet, comfortable ride on both secondary roads and interstate highways that would be the envy of a number of family haulers available at its price point. We’ve come a long way from rattle-and-tumble, wood-paneled Wagoneers.
Is the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee legitimately capable of stealing sales from bona-fide luxury contenders like the M-Class and the X5? There’s no question that the Grand Cherokee is now at least as nice – and as practical – on the inside as either of these models, and the much lower cost of entry is a huge mark in its favor. In a world where companies like Hyundai have cracked the premium nut it doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch to at least consider that Jeep might be able to redefine SUV luxury, a feat which would give parent company Fiat a formidable wedge for opening up market share around the world. Either way, the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee is an excellent and surprising family conveyance that finally deserves mention in the luxury conversation.