Comebacks don't usually work out very well.
Mike Tyson didn't win another belt. He just bit a man's ear and got a face tattoo.
Bret Favre this season? Are you serious?
So when Jeep announced plans to breathe new life into the Grand Cherokee – the vehicle that kicked off the SUV craze long ago, but had faded into a middle-of-the-pack contender built by a company perpetually on the edge of collapse – well, frankly, we expected the Michael-Jordan-in-a-Washington-Wizards uniform of SUVs.
But this thing? This is the sequel that beats the original. This is Jordan's first un-retirement. The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee, left for dead, has been training hard, and come back as perhaps the best midsize SUV on the market.
We're tempted to say the exterior is a leaner version of the classic shape…but it isn't, is it? Somehow there's a big more Jeep in this Jeep. It's bigger than the classic Cherokee that was one of America's best selling cars in the early 90's, but somehow manages to look smaller and more balanced.
The wheels, pushed out to the four corners of the chassis, give it the extreme approach angles off-road enthusiasts crave, but they also serve to visually connect this model to the classic Wrangler in a way the old Grand Cherokees could never quite pull off. This truck knows its heritage.
But it looks, at the same time, modern. Its corners are softened, but still not the curvy-soft, flabby lines of so many of today's crossovers. The 20-inch wheels don't hurt. This looks athletic and capable, and that classic seven-slot Jeep grille up front won't let you forget that this isn't a pretender, but the newest version of the original.
Inside, though, there's little to remind you of classic Jeeps – and that's a good thing. This is, simply, the finest interior we've ever seen out of Chrysler. Maybe Italian ownership will pay off in the long run.
Our tester, a top-of-the-line Overland model, has contrast-stitched leather seats that Range Rover probably wouldn't hesitate to put its name on. They're heated, and adjust eight ways. It has dual-zone climate control, a crystal-clear nav screen with live traffic updates, a pair of sunroofs, and a 505-watt 9-speaker stereo system with a built-in subwoofer that makes the most out of the satellite radio service. Hell, it even has a heated steering wheel – something we expect only when the price tag starts to push nine figures. And this thing runs just about $41k.
But the interior succeeds because of something more than just a long feature list. It's designed thoughtfully. When you drive dozens of cars a year, you start to detect subtle details that tell you how hard the manufacturer worked…and this cabin is just more, well, thoughtful than anything any Chrysler unit has ever designed before. There are reading lights aimed so precisely that, when the passenger turns hers on at night, it doesn't affect the driver's vision at all. Someone spent time on that. There's a standard electrical outlet on the back of the console – another thoughtful touch.
Where engineers spent most of their time, though, was under the hood. The Grand Cherokee is one of the first vehicles to carry Chrysler's new Pentastar V6, and there is a lot riding on the success of this engine. Under its previous owners, Chrysler had let its engine development lag way behind the competition, so that, one year ago, there wasn't a single Chrysler-built mill that really held its own against the competition. The Pentastar is the first new motor out of the company's new partnership with Fiat, and it's a very good sign.
The engine puts down 290 horsepower – not bad at all for a V6 – but it's how it puts it down that matters here. This thing is so smooth, you'd think it was a Honda product. Power is constant, steady, and builds urgently. Accelerating on the highway is a pleasure in this thing.
The one problem? The same owners that failed to develop a new engine for all of those years also let the transmission program waste away, and Jeep engineers haven't had time to fix that. The Grand Cherokee carries a five-speed auto in an age when six-speed autos are standard even on cheap cars, and most manufacturers are working on seven. Chrysler engineers tell us they've got an eight-speed in the works, and we think this car will get a lot better when it gets here – you can feel the five holding back that refined engine.
The handling, however, doesn’t hold this big thing back at all. Steering is crisp and responsive. There is some body roll – after all, you're up high in this thing – but the suspension absorbs urban potholes well. If you find it too pillowy, there are two things you can do about it.
One – lower the vehicle at the touch of a button. Yes, it's an adjustable suspension. You'll even feel it hunch down for a lower profile and better fuel economy at highway speeds.
Two – select a new terrain. The 2011 Grand Cherokee has a dial in the center console, just like a Range Rover, that allows you to adjust the suspension for snow, sand, mud, or rock.
And, of course, it's a Jeep, so there is the little matter of four wheel drive. The Quadra-Drive II 4WD system on our tester sends 52 percent of its power to the rear wheels on smooth pavement, but in a worst-case scenario, it can actually send 100 percent of its torque to just one wheel. This thing can get out of almost any situation. In daily driving, it feels grippy and solid. In rough conditions, you can trust it more than you can the AWD on any other midsize SUV.
So, it's smooth, refined, and capable. It looks tough and sophisticated at the same time. It's the most luxurious thing Jeep has ever built. Call it a comeback? Hell, yes. Considering the conditions Chrysler has been working under in recent years, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a hero-left-for-dead-comes-back-to-save-the-world triumph. We'll take ours in red.