- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

The 2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee can still wear a mackinaw and hang out with the hunters at the deer camp. But with more muscle and buffed in its new duds, it has other aspirations as well, perhaps to crash the classy soiree where Land Rover, Lexus, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz gather.

The Grand Cherokee has always stood for outstanding off-road capabilities, as well as decent handling and comfort on paved roads. But it’s mainly been an upper-middle-class vehicle, at home with blaze orange or a sport coat and tie, but not a tuxedo.

That’s changing. The 2005 model has a more up-market look and feel, with enhanced on-road capabilities and a price tag that moves inexorably upward.

Much of it has to do with the melding of engineering and design from the Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz groups of DaimlerChrysler. The heating, ventilation and air-conditioning controls, for example, mimic Mercedes-Benz design, and the new Grand Cherokee, for the first time, can be ordered with Chrysler’s famed Hemi V-8 engine, which has been propelling sales of the new Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Magnum.

The Grand Cherokee retains the off-road capabilities that have made the Jeep nameplate unique, including three different four-wheel-drive systems.

Obviously, none of this can come cheap, which is another reason to start thinking of at least the Limited model in luxury terms. The tested Limited had a bottom-line sticker price of $41,485, including more than $9,500 worth of options.

Though that sort of spending is not unusual in SUV land these days, it approaches the price-tag territory of some luxury SUVs.

The options on the test vehicle included the Hemi engine, with 330 horsepower and Chrysler’s multidisplacement system, which shuts down four of the cylinders at highway speeds, and is said to increase fuel economy by as much as 20 percent.

It’s a good thing, because even with the MDS, the Hemi-powered Grand Cherokee gets 14 miles to the gallon on the EPA’s city cycle and 19 on the highway.

What you gain is rocketlike acceleration if you punch the pedal — just over seven seconds to accelerate from zero to 60 mph — as well as brute-force torque that enables the tested Grand Cherokee to tow up to 7,200 pounds. But you have to be careful. If you get your foot in it with the transfer case in low range, the Grand Cherokee feels as if it wants to leap into the nearest tall tree.

The 5.7-liter Hemi works in concert with a five-speed automatic transmission, with a manual shift mode, an electronic stability program and Jeep’s top-of-the-line Quadra-Drive II all-wheel-drive system. It uses limited-slip differentials front and rear to distribute the engine’s power to the wheels that can make the best use of it.

The Grand Cherokee also sports a new independent front suspension system and rack-and-pinion steering for improved on-road handling and ride. It also makes it marginally less capable off road. But the idea is to compete more directly with the luxury SUVs and crossovers, which emphasize the on-road aspect of the driving experience.

Though Jeep owners, as a group, are more likely to take their vehicles off road than members of the general motoring public, the majority still do most of their driving on the paved highways and byways.

Previous Grand Cherokees always have had decent highway manners, but the new suspension system ups the ante. The tested Limited ran true on the freeways, with a grooved tracking feel, and even managed twisting roads with little body lean.

The new Grand Cherokee Limited also came equipped with new exclusive features, as well as others that are increasingly in demand. In the latter category was a rear-seat DVD entertainment system to keep the youngsters contained on drives to the Jeep Jamborees. But because the system has been added on rather than designed in, rear vision is blocked when the screen is lowered.

Moreover, the DVD slot and controls, mounted on the rear of the console, wipe out what little foot space there might have been for the passenger in the center-rear seating position. There’s also a big hump for the driveshaft and other mechanicals. Obviously, the Jeep designers cared little for that middle-seat passenger because there isn’t even a headrest there.

Luxury touches included memory settings for the power driver’s seat and an information center that includes a tire-pressure monitoring system, as well as a number of settings that can be customized for individual owners. However, the steering wheel tilts but does not telescope.

A practical new wrinkle, not available anywhere else, is a reversible cargo floor out back. It’s carpeted on one side, but turn it over and it becomes a waterproof plastic tray that can hold wet towels, dead pheasants and other sloppy stuff.

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