A rejuvenated Jeep is offering something for everyone, from the premium Grand Cherokee L to the rugged Wrangler, and soon including the upcoming plug-in hybrid Grand Cherokee.
CONQUERING THE SUMMIT
Jeep’s new Grand Cherokee L is the finest four-wheel drive it has ever produced for the road but there is a lot more substance to its abilities than obvious on-road panache.
All of the best brands have a following. A people, if you will. Ferrari famously has its tifosi. Porsche fans might be a touch more subdued, but they are equally passionate about the brand from Zuffenhausen. And then you’ve got the flamboyant Lamborghini followers. If your brand doesn’t have a fan base, you’re at the risk of losing customers to conquest sales. In its homeland, Jeep has a following to rival that of the abovementioned sports car brands and it’s a following that’s started to spread throughout other markets.
Since AMC’s takeover and makeover in the late 1980s, Jeep has really harnessed its reputation as a premium SUV maker with rugged roots. It all kicked off with the spectacular launch of the first-generation Grand Cherokee which was driven from its Jefferson North assembly line and up the steps of Huntington Place convention centre before crashing through a pane of glass onto stage. While the link between luxury and rugged in that example is a little creative at best, the later advertising of an SUV parked next to a mansion with a driveway made from rocks proved true – it was a car fitted with all the bells and whistles expected from a Range Rover buyer and it could also tackle trails on the weekend… and at a better price than the British maker could ever muster.
This fifth-generation Grand Cherokee L that I’m driving before the crack of dawn to our vantage point in Victoria carries the same bloodline, although, for the first time in Grand Cherokee history, it has a third row of seating (the ‘L’ signifying an extension of the wheelbase). I don’t love early winter starts like this because I live outside Melbourne in the mountains where it gets cold and icy and there’s plenty of wildlife on the road. But this ultimate Summit Reserve specification, which is the only Grand Cherokee L priced a lick over $100,000, comes thankfully equipped with quickly heated seats, a warmed steering wheel and, most importantly for my pre-dawn drive, night vision from the optional front infrared camera (although it works equally well in the daytime, too).
The specification list alone shows that this new Grand Cherokee is competing against the best in class, just like when that first ZJ model signalled the launch of a capable 4×4 that could compete in the realm of prestige. Today, the Grand Cherokee L lands bang in the middle of a pack of mostly European wolves. BMW has the upsized X7, and Land Rover has finally released a new-generation Defender which is far more premium than its old off-road boots. Likewise, Mercedes-Benz with its GLS and Audi with its Q7 both throw their hat in the ring, but there’s no denying this new Jeep has the right to compete with the best. Quilted leather seats and panels are fitted from front to rear, and the electrically controlled adjustments inside the cushions move to a better ergonomic mould than most. The quality of the timber grain that spans the dash and door panels has a lovely wax-smooth finish that’s nice to touch, and there’s polished metal striping but only just enough that it craftily blends cowhide and panels together. Higher up, the whole upper dash is clad with a darker stitched leather in contrast to the suede upper lining. Each piece feels meticulously placed to emphasize the premium ambience, and nearly all of the cabin’s special material elements feature on the steering wheel as a reminder.
Technology is not let down by the focus on comfort and for the first time in the Grand Cherokee is a digital instrument cluster in front of the driver which shows, among many settings, vision from the optional infrared camera. Adaptive cruise control and automated steering assist functions also pop into the display, while digital speed remains a permanent fixture. Between driver and passenger is a 10.1-inch infotainment display running a fast Android operating system, and if that’s not enough screen for the front there’s also a 10.25-inch display that can be slotted into the front passenger-side dash. And as standard, the entertainment system is hooked up to a thumping (but hi-fi-quality) 19-speaker McIntosh sound system – another quintessential American company.
It is the sort of cabin that journalists, drivers and photographers enjoy having on a cold day shooting, making getting out to survey a river crossing a sad affair. So far, the 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol has proved surprisingly flexible in power delivery and economical on the road. The 210kW at 6400rpm and 344Nm at 4000rpm figures are not going to challenge a V8 or the old diesel six on paper, but in the real world it responds with some proper shove when you put the boot in and its 2270kg mass is impressively hidden. Equally impressive is the overall refinement inside – it’s a seriously quiet cruiser. It’s comfy, too, majoring on a plush ride with its air suspension rather than firming things up for a bit more agility. Similarly, the steering is set up more for ease of use than feedback. Over pretty horrible-looking lumps, bumps, holes and ridges the Grand Cherokee L remains composed and carries on its way serenely.
Where that also pays dividends is off-road and the Grand Cherokee L lives up to the expectations you have of a Jeep, with a huge amount in reserve. Again, tech plays its part here with Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, Quadra-Lift air suspension and Selec-Terrain traction management all combining to enable the Grand Cherokee L to go farther than its predecessors and you would probably ever want to go. The large 21-inch rims suggest discerning owners won’t push hard on rough trails, but 275/45 Continental Cross Contact rubber finds great grip when it gets a little more slippery and the smarts of the traction control system spring to life.
As the biggest SUV in Jeep’s line-up, the Grand Cherokee L is the pick of the litter for a family that needs room and appreciates the finer things, while the Grand Cherokee (not L, and not seven-seats) is soon arriving in Australia and offers much the same for less money.
There is a change of coordinates with the Compass – a much more compact SUV that has undergone considerable cosmetic surgery to elevate it up the ranks towards the premium end its larger siblings occupy. The interior is endowed with the same feel and some similar materials as the Grand Cherokee – the leather heated steering wheel (optional on the S-Limited variant), a familiar design and also sitting in front of a fully digital dash.
Upholstery throughout is a tight black leather with good adjustment on the seats, which also feature heating and ventilation functions. A 10.1-inch infotainment screen with the same wireless Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and very crisp graphics as the Grand Cherokee booms out of the narrower dash. The rear seats are of course a touch shorter for legroom and shoulder space, but it’s a spacious cabin considering the urban-friendly size. In fact, it serves as the photography car with all the tripods and gear that take up space quickly packing in neatly – the 438-litre boot is comparatively huge in this segment.
Pigeon-holing the Compass as an urbanite SUV with the rest of ’em isn’t entirely fair, though. We’re driving the S-Limited that majors on comfort and premium appointments and its 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder mated to a nine-speed automatic keeps up the pace well. A short wheelbase and pointy steering make it much nimbler over twisting roads, which the four-wheel drive system grabs a good grip on despite slimy conditions left over from the morning dew.
More notable though is its willingness to adventure farther than expected, following the proper four-wheel drives through a water crossing and onto muddy trails. The limiting factor here is ground clearance and tyres, which are adequate for going off the beaten path but prevent us from exploring where the toughest of Jeep can go.
However, sitting alongside the S-Limited in showrooms is the Compass Trailhawk with a diesel engine for long-haul remote driving, increased ground clearance for scrambling rocks, and tailored 4WD modes including low range which circumvents a traditional transfer case but works quite well. The system even includes an additional Rock mode for those who are extra adventurous.
Like the Grand Cherokee, the Compass takes on more upmarket rivals with confidence and again it has that unique Jeep USP. It’s the right accompaniment for the urbanite who appreciates touring and venturing farther than just the winery carpark.
CROSSING THE RUBICON
Jeep took a military vehicle and gave it to the world to enjoy, producing one of the most capable off-road toys you can buy off the showroom floor.
The seven-slotted grille on the front of every model that the American car maker builds all started with the Willys Civilian Jeep. While it has transformed over the decades, the Wrangler quickly became a cult car in four-wheel-driving circles.
Rubicon lettering down the flanks of our test car’s bulging bonnet is testimony to the off-road development which occurs on the USA’s Rubicon Trail – rated one of the world’s most difficult trails to cross in any vehicle. The Rubicon River in Australia we’re visiting isn’t going to challenge that track, but it’s the type of place a lot of weekend warriors come to play.
Born from the same lineage and tested to the same Rubicon standard as the Wrangler is the latest Gladiator ute which rides on a stretched version of the wagon’s ladder frame chassis with some extra parts borrowed from the larger RAM 1500 pick-up truck. These include rear upper and lower control arms in a five-link coil suspension setup supported by Fox shock absorbers (on all four points) that the Wrangler misses out on. There are other improvements such as dynamic engine mounts, hydraulic body mounts, and high-strength alloys for decreased lateral movement.
There’s an underlying subtle, smooth ride that’s head and shoulders above the usual jittery ride an unladen leaf-spring ute emits. Reaching almost two metres tall the Gladiator has some body roll when turning, although it settles quickly, and the extra-long wheelbase underneath helps with the comfort and compliance when cruising.
Jeep’s stalwart 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine makes another appearance here, this time producing 209kW at 6400rpm and 347Nm at 4100rpm. Hauling a couple of hundred kilos less than in the Grand Cherokee L, there’s a sharp response from the engine on full throttle. The eager V6 makes the big ute a lot more fun than it should be over dirt tracks, helped also by a relatively quick steering rack and good feel through the wheel on loose surfaces. Revvy and spirited, the go matches the show which is not so common in the ute world since the departure of the Commodore and Falcon.
But of all the Gladiator’s features, the most unique and entertaining is the ability to transform into a strippeddown Jeep. Roof panels over the front seats pop out with Above and right: finished in a modern take on ‘army green’, the Gladiator Rubicon has just the right amount of Arnie vibes. It drew universal appreciation from onlookers wherever we drove it. just a few clicks of the locking levers which give the same drop-top feel of a roadster.
Further, a four-piece toolkit is used to remove the rear main roof so the entire cabin is open to the elements with only rollbars above you. For a real military-vibe Willys experience, the doors can be removed by unclipping the wiring harness and popping them out of their hinges, and for the brave-faced, the windscreen can be folded down on the bonnet. What other car in the world can you do that in?
There is one, actually – the Wrangler. The similarities between the vehicles are evident the moment you step inside. Unique to Rubicon variants are red dash panels shared by both Gladiator and Wrangler, and all the switchgear, upholstery, dash design and small details are pretty well mirrored between them. The 8.4-inch infotainment screen is clear and bright – great for roofoff driving – and has off-road-centric sections such as pitch and roll gauges plus off-road pages that display numerous screens of information to help you get off the beaten track and back again. There is extra leg space in the rear of the Gladiator though, and there’s an optional wireless speaker available that clips in underneath the driver’s side rear seat and self-charges for that impromptu tailgate party you didn’t know you needed.
What’s unique to the Wrangler are the differences underneath, doing without the ute’s extra parts to settle out the ride which is already quite good for a serious four-wheel-drive wagon. In terms of motivation, the Wrangler also uses a Pentastar V6 petrol engine with the same outputs, but coming in a good 200kg lighter than the Gladiator, the engine shines in a straight line getaway.
As per Rubicon standards, it has off-road gear including Dana 44 axles, Tru-Lok front and rear locking differentials, electrically operated front sway-bar disconnect, and 17-inch alloys with 32-inch 255/75 R17 BFGoodrich tyres. Low range is accessed by way of proper 4:1 transfer case with a 77.2:1 crawl ratio, which is brilliant for slow going. Driving into the bush we take both Rubicons onto some very slippery terrain with technical rock crawling and water crossings with varying approach angles. Both excel once the going gets tough with all of the capabilities easily accessed via toggle switches, gear levers and buttons.
There is no doubt that the Grand Cherokee and Compass have become premium SUVs with credible off-road ability that will get you into plenty of remote locations, but for those who want to have fun and really push the limits, both Gladiator and Wrangler are as unstoppable off-road as you can get from any showroom car.
The flagship Grand Cherokee SUV will arrive in Australia with plug-in hybrid power for the first time ever.
Boosting its environmental credentials, 4xe (pronounced ‘four by e’) plug-in hybrid powertrain in Australia early next year, signifying the brand’s next steps when it comes to electrification.
The move towards electrification is also a crucial one for survival as some countries (particularly in Europe) are forcing manufacturers to either go electric or get out. While that means Jeep won’t ever offer another pure-combustion engine car in those markets, Australia is getting both the V6 found in the Grand Cherokee L (later this year) and a new plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) drivetrain due to land mid-2023.
The American brand’s fifth-generation Grand Cherokee 4xe is based on an all-new architecture and features a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine driving an eight-speed automatic transmission, while a 17.3kWh battery feeds a pair of electric motors (one a motor/generator, the other a drive motor in the transmission), helping the hybrid Grand Cherokee retain the model’s off-road capability.
The petrol and electric motors produce a combined total of 280kW and 637Nm, while Jeep claims a zeroemissions range of 50km “in urban areas”. The 4xe actually completed the famous off-road Rubicon trail on electric power only.
The 4xe powertrain features three different E Selec drive modes: Hybrid, Electric and eSave. In Hybrid mode both power sources drive the wheels, with the car optimising battery and petrol power to best balance fuel economy and performance. Electric prioritises EV-only running, with the petrol engine only cutting in when battery charge is depleted or the driver asks for fullthrottle acceleration.
Finally, eSave will retain battery charge for use at a later point, for example in a built-up area with air-quality restrictions. Users can also choose a Battery Charge setting within eSave mode that sees the petrol engine actively charge the battery on the move. Regenerative braking also features, incorporating a Max Regen setting to further boost efficiency and all-electric running.
Due to the 4xe model’s battery pack, the Grand Cherokee features extra underbody protection in this area in the form of 3.5mm steel skid plates. These will help avoid rupturing the cells in the event of a knock during off-road driving.
Jeep’s Quadra-Drive II 4×4 system, with a two-speed transfer case and a low-range gear ratio mode will be offered, featuring selectable driving modes tailored for different terrains, including Auto, Sport, Rock, Snow and Mud/Sand. Jeep’s Selec-Speed Control hill descent function is included, too.
75mm of ground clearance, while the Grand Cherokee 4xe can wade through water up to 610mm deep in the suspension’s highest Off Road 2 setting – 100mm more than its predecessor. There’s also an easy entry/exit function that will reduce the car’s ride height to make it easier to climb in and out of, as well as load up.
The Grand Cherokee offers 1067 litres of load space behind the first row of seats, 40 litres more than the previous model, while a new interior architecture gives a more upmarket appearance, Jeep claims. The horizontal elements on the dash include contrasting wood and leather trim, while metal finishers and LED ambient lighting – plus double diamond-stitched quilted leather on top-spec models – complete the redesign.
The new dash layout houses Jeep’s new UConnect 5 infotainment system as the Grand Cherokee comes loaded with more technology than ever. A digital instrument panel is joined by a central screen running the new infotainment set-up, including wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, and over-the-air map updates. There’s also an interactive passenger display and a digital rear-view mirror available.
There’s more storage space, including a bin for two smartphones and a wireless charging pad, while the brand is claiming a boost in quality and comfort too, thanks to a new seat design. Heating, cooling and massage functions will be available.
Safety kit is also improved, with collision warning including pedestrian and cyclist detection plus autonomous braking. Rear cross-path detection, adaptive cruise, active lane management, lanedeparture warning and lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, a rear-view camera with parking sensors and tyre pressure monitoring are also offered.
Alongside the interior redesign, Jeep has also overhauled the 2022 Grand Cherokee’s exterior look, with a more sculpted, sportier look, retaining its trademark seven-bar grille layout.
This new design does have functional benefits too, with the car’s lower, more tapered roof helping improve its aerodynamic performance and therefore efficiency, while there’s also a lowered belt line that gives more glass area and lets more light into the cabin.
Grand Cherokee 4xe models feature blue accents for the badging reflecting the 4xe plug-in powertrain, including on the charging flap mounted on the car’s front guard. Blue tow hooks also feature to further differentiate the plug-in hybrid.
Jeep Australia is expecting to launch the new Jeep Grand Cherokee in 2023 with final pricing and specifications to be announced closer to the launch.