First drive: Jeep Grand Cherokee 2011 in the UAE
Chrysler held a two-day media event for the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee in the UAE. And by “all-new”, we really do mean all-new. Now based on a Mercedes-Benz M-Class platform, that’s where the similarities end between the former siblings, as the Jeep is a completely unique vehicle.
The trip started off from the Al Badia Golf Course in Dubai. There, we got an eyeful of an entire row of new Jeeps, with both the 286 hp 3.6-litre “Pentastar” V6 and the 352 hp 5.7-litre “Hemi” V8 versions made available.
A walkaround of the 2011 car revealed a much more high-quality product that the awfully-built 2005-2010 one, and indeed also better than the 1999-2004 model. I should know, considering they had a few outgoing 2010 cars on hand, and I drove up there in my 2002 one. Chrysler’s quality had taken an embarrasingly major dip in the last few years, but they now seem to be on par with the “new” Chevrolet and Ford too.
With some keen observation, we determined that the V6 models have a single exhaust tip, while the V8 ones have a dual setup and larger wheels. All trim levels look pretty similar on the outside, even though prices range from Dhs 125,000 all the way beyond Dhs 175,000.
The interior is the best that Jeep has ever had. My 2002 had a soft-touch dash and hard-plastic upper door sills. The 2010 had a hard-plastic dash and soft-touch door sills. Chrysler has finally ditched the accountants and stuck soft-touch materials on both the upper dash and the door sills. Some hard plastics remain in the lower dash and bits of the doors, but these are minor concerns, considering the overall cushiness of the new trim as well as nicely-padded armrests and door inserts.
The only quality flaw we found in here was the finishing where the cloth headliner meets the windshield, which seems to be an issue in Chevrolet and Ford models too. They all do it in the same unfinished way. Ignore that, and the whole interior is pretty damn good in leather, with the top Overland trim level even getting stitched leather on the dash and doors. It is now a larger, more spacious SUV with good cargo room.
On the trip from Dubai to Al Ain, we drove the V6 Limited. The engine feels like any other V6-powered offroader, which is to say generally good as long as the engine is revved enough, but not offering the kick of a real V8. It will satisfy anyone used to Prados, Pajeros and Pathfinders. However, it doesn’t feel as quick as some would hope, no doubt weighed down by all sorts of new offroading tech.
On the highway, ride quality is good but not as smooth as, say, a Ford Edge crossover. Even with four-wheel-independent suspension and a unibody platform, the Jeep lets a bit of its truckishness show, but it is arguably a bit more refined than any of the Japanese “P” offroaders. Road noise is unnoticeable, but wind noise makes itself know at highway speeds on open roads.
On the way, we all took a detour through some severely rocky terrain that really put the Jeeps to the test. This bit was especially interesting because we did it all with street-biased tyres at full inflation. Setting the fancy new “TerrainSelect” system to ‘Rock’, we were climbing up and down cliffs, some at as much as 35-degree angles, as well as driving through extremely narrow trails with rocky walls just an inch away on both sides. The Jeep’s bottom hit the ground at some points, but the belly is protected by standard steel skidplates. Tyres burst on two different cars in the convoy, but they continued easily after slapping on a spare. The V6 did fine as it was, but we could see that those with the V8 Overland had an easier time thanks to jacking up the ground clearance using that model’s air suspension system. Either way, it was a gruelling yet easy exercise.
We headed back on the road, with the convoy speeding through the city of Al Ain playing catch-up with each other. Hopefully we didn’t get flashed by any radars, but the prognosis isn’t good. We reached the Al Ain Rotana hotel for an all-expenses-paid overnight stay, had a good time and headed out the next morning for a jaunt in the desert.
Heading out again in a V6 Limited, we briefly got lost on the streets, but found our way again using the navigation system which, incidentally, even has a trail-marking system so you know where you’ve been if you ever get lost offroad.
We reached the desert, somewhere near a camel racetrack, deflated the tyres and set off in the soft sand. The marshals actually asked us all to set the “TerrainSelect” system to ‘Sand’ and also to shift (using a button) into low-range gear. This would be overkill in normal circumstances, but we guess they didn’t want anyone to get stuck.
The V6 did exceptionally well in the sand, likely helped along by the low-range, and we never felt like the trucklet would bog down, even when climbing seriously steep dunes or traversing over soft sand. We were all following a marshal’s lead car, and while the route we took didn’t involve extreme stuff like sliding down sideways along slopes, we were still surprised that they chose certain pointy dunes and even a steep sand climb that was probably as tall as a four-storey building. Expectedly, various people got stuck on these, even when driving the V8 Overland, but considering we had absolutely no issues with the more “basic” V6 Limited, it was all obviously novice-driver error.
All the cars we drove had the lower part of the front bumper removed to avoid damage during offroading. The plastic lip piece, fitted for better onroad aerodynamics, can be removed by simply unscrewing a series of clips.
After lunch and check-out at the hotel, we drove back to Dubai, this time in a V8 Overland. Buyers of the lower Laredo and Limited trim levels will be happy to note that the ride quality is pretty much the same even with the Overland’s air suspension system. The Overland also handles pretty much like the Limited, as far as we can tell, which is to say, class-leadingly well for an offroader, and closer to a premium German SUV in feel than a lumpy Japanese 4×4 around turns. The steering was a bit firm though, even while there was precious little feedback, but juggling the not-too-big Grand Cherokee in tight areas is a piece of cake, with help from the optional rear camera.
Those thinking the Hemi-powered Overland is a rocket will be disappointed. Being a car engine fitted in an SUV that has gained weight over the years, the Hemi felt more like a powerful V6 engine in this application. It is still a quick truck, but that initial low-end kick expected of a torquey beast is just not there, building up power smoothly into the higher revs instead. And we couldn’t find the manual-shift capability on the 5-speed automatic.
To make things even more interesting, somewhere between Al Ain and Dubai, it started raining heavily, cutting down visibility and slowing down traffic on the road. After the initial shock of the sudden downpour, I flicked on the wipers and the headlights, then slowly started gaining speed, ending up cruising at 120 kph again on the fast lane as if nothing was amiss. Needless to say, I was glad I was in a shiny new Jeep as puddles formed on the highway. We didn’t lose time reaching Dubai, which happened to be as dry as a bone, the dirty cars being the only proof that we drove in rain.
After the event, I hopped into my 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee to go home, and felt good and bad at the same time. Good because my much-lighter Jeep has the decommissioned 235 hp 4.7-litre “Powertech” V8, which has more low-end kick than either of the newer engines I just tested, making it more entertaining on take-off. Bad because the new Jeep is a much nicer overall vehicle that is now a class above what I own.