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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee: King of the hill

Redesign luxury CUV is also ready for rugged off-road adventures
by: NORTHWEST AUTOMOTIVE PRESS ASSOCIATION Deep mud was no problem for the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee at this year's Mudfest off-road competition.

In the TV ads for Jeep's remarkable new Grand Cherokee, the company evokes images of the original four-wheel-drive military Jeeps. Small, agile and powered by a reliable four-cylinder engine, they hauled troops and supplies across rugged terrain throughout World War II.

Jeep obviously wants to remind potential buyers of its long tradition of building go-anywhere vehicles. But a more appropriate comparison might be the larger four-wheel-drive Dodge WC Command Cars built and deployed during WWII. Based on a half-ton truck chasis, they also went everywhere but featured a full hardtop, a more powerful six-cylinder engine and much more interior room.

Jeep still makes a model that is a direct descendant of the small WWII models, the Wrangler. But the Grand Cherokee is much closer to the Command Cars that carried high-ranking officers to and from the battlefield - big, powerful and roomy.

And still capable of serious off-road driving. Jeep gambled when it came time to replace the last generation Grand Cherokee, the company's aging top-of-the-line model. Even though the company was facing declining sales and bankruptcy caused by the recession, Jeep decided to directly challenge the world's most sophisticated off-road vehicles, the Land Rovers, Range Rovers and G-Class Mercedes sport utility vehicles built for serious cross-country driving.

To accomplish this, Jeep outfitted the new Grand Cherokee with a range of heavy-duty off-road components, including skid plates, a four-wheel-drive system that can be customized for different terrains and a suspension that can raised for greater clearance. Jeep also offered a range of powerful engines, from the company's all-new 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 to a 5.7-liter V8 that cranks out 360 horsepower and 390 foot-pounds of torque.

But, because the Grand Cherokee is also intended to be a luxury vehicle, Jeep outfitted it with a premium interior, supple ride and such appearance options as 20-inch polished aluminum wheels. The company also redesigned the body to be more aerodynamic while still retaining the classic Jeep Cherokee lines.

The results have exceeded all expectations. Sales of the new version of the Grand Cherokee are running car ahead of the previous generation. It has also won numerous off-road vehicle awards, including winning both the Best Off-Road and SUV of the Year awards at the 2011 Mudfest competition staged by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.

At the 2011 Mudfest competition, the new Grand Cherokee proved its ruggedness by easily handling a muddy trail obstructed with large rocks and logs. Only a few other vehicles were even deemed capable of taking on the challenge, and none of them did any better then the Jeep.

But the Grand Cherokee also excelled on the road, where its pliable suspension produced a remarkably smooth and quiet ride for such a large and formidable vehicle. The rich leather seats, smooth-shifting multi-speed automatic transmission and premium stereo system also helped the miles fly by.

These impressions were reinforced by a week spent in Laredo version of the Grand Cherokee equipped with a number of option packages, including Quadra-Drive II 4WD, Quadra-Lift Air Suspension, Electronic Limited Slip Differential and Hill Descent Control. Such equipment made the test vehicle Trail Rated, meaning it is capable of going practically anywhere in the right hands. But it was also easy to drive around town and on area freeways. The steering was light and precise, while the suspension floated over potholes and broken pavement.

Of course, the Grand Cherokee isn't an economy car. Our test vehicle was only EPA rated at an average of 15 miles per gallon. Still, that's a nearly 10 percent improvement over last year.

With a starting price of $32,215, the Grand Cherokee is a real value compared to other large CUVs. The option packages on our vehicle pushed the price to $41,860, which is still less than most of the serious competition. That's why Consumer Reports has rated the Grand Cherokee as a Best Buy.

Jeep is the only American manufacturer still producing heavy-duty off-road vehicles. The two-door and four-door version of the Wrangler are equally capable, although not as luxurious as the Grand Cherokee. But General Motors and Ford have settled for CUVs with only mild to medium off-road abilities, at best, leaving it to Jeep to carry on the tradition that started in the heat of battle nearly 70 years ago.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Grand Cherokee.

• Manufacturer: Jeep.

• Class: Full-size Crossover Utility Vehicle.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Four door liftback.

• Engines: 3.6-liter V6 (290 hp); 5.7-liter V8 (360 hp, 390 ft-lbs, as tested).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with Sport mode and steering wheel mounted shift paddles.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 13/19 (as tested).

• Price: Beginning at $32,215 ($41,860 as tested).