It looks like every Grand Cherokee before it – a little more square in some parts, angular in others, with odd-looking headlights – but it’s surprisingly different. Electronic front and rear differentials lock or unlock instantly, and a new independent front suspension feels equally at home off road and on. The interior is a bit more luxurious looking, the ride rather different. The ancient engine choices – the AMC-era straight-six, the early-60s 318 – are gone, and a new engine with far more power than anything ever to be used in a Jeep is optional, coming with something else never before seen on a Jeep – an active suspension. (The independent front suspension, amusingly, has indeed been used on Jeeps – the very first four wheel drive vehicle with an independent front suspension was a 1962 Wagoneer!) The Hemi provides a whopping 320 horsepower, with a penalty of just one or two miles per gallon, and the active suspension helps that power to be manageable in what is at heart an off-roader. Our only gripe is that the heavy weight of the Grand Cherokee makes gas mileage less than it should be, and that the steps taken to increase economy make the vehicle seem less ideal.
Overall, the 2005 Grand Cherokee has a smoother ride and better on-road handling than past models, yet is more capable on the trail. It feels nimble around paved turns but can still cross a stream; it can outrace some sports cars, but can also go into low-gear four wheel drive for 5 mph rock climbs.
With Hemi models, a hydraulically controlled active stabilizer reduces body roll while smoothing out the ride when travelling straight by decoupling the front and rear stabilizer bars when they are not needed. The active suspension and fast-acting automatic four-wheel-drive were very helpful in keeping the Hemi tamed around corners, where normally we’d experience considerable skidding and a swing-out tail; but even without the electronic doodads, the Grand Cherokee handled surprisingly well. Ride is not bad, smooth on smooth roads, able to deal with nasty cement and dirt surfaces, but it is still firm and you feel sudden shocks if they’re large enough.
Even though there are lots of electronics to keep the Jeep stable, it seems to do just fine on its own, despite big off-road tires. The heavy vehicle feels fairly nimble around sharp turns and can handle curves at surprisingly high speeds, doing well on emergency maneuvers as well.
The Hemi is rapidly becoming legendary in its own right, achieving as much as its original namesake in the 1950s. The multiple displacement system works imperceptibly, shutting off or activating cylinders in .04 seconds; even so, the Hemi Grand Cherokee only manages 14 city, 19 highway. That’s only two miles per gallon less than the 3.7 V6, which produces a respectable 210 horses (235 lb-ft). The poor gas mileage across the board is the Grand Cherokee’s achilles heel; a Chevrolet Suburban actually gets about the same mileage. On the lighter side, when equipped with the Hemi, the Grand Cherokee is a lot quicker, more nimble, and fun to drive.
We could ramble on for hours about the Hemi, but the long and short of it is that it’s an absolutely wonderful engine for everything other than gas mileage. It makes just the right noises when operating, is silent when cruising and has an appropriate, deep vrooming noise when acceleration, and provides instant, smooth acceleration at any speed. The Hemi has gobs of torque as well as real, usable horsepower, but it’s civilized enough to quietly carry your in-laws around. Or, at least, it would be, except that the transmission on our vehicle dropped a gear just about every time we touched the pedal while cruising, causing a slightly jerky ride exacerbated by the seat design; holding the transmission in gear helped, but you can’t hold the transmission in fifth gear. The problem appears to be programming that keeps the engine coasting in as high a gear as possible in order to maximize economy and compensate for the excess weight of the new Jeep. We found ourselves wishing for a “gentle” or “city” setting on the electronic throttle, just as some automatic transmissions have a snow and sport setting. You don’t always want to experience awesome Hemi power; sometimes you just want to gently inch forward.
The 545RFE five-speed automatic used with V8s is smooth and responsive, striking a perfect balance (to us) of speed, downshifts, and gentle transitions (except as noted in the last paragraph). It has partial engagement in third, fourth, and fifth gears to help with shifting feel and economy. It’s also now quieter when shifting – no more solenoid noise – and has a tow/haul mode. The transmission accentuates the strengths of the hemi engine, and almost reads our mind.
The 545RFE’s Electronic Range Select lets the driver manually pick a gear by moving the shifter left or right, and after some time shuts itself off (you can also deactivate it by knocking the shifter to the right repeatedly). The gear shows as D in the PRNDL (gear indicator) until you use the manual override; then the D turns to a number to show what gear you’re in. Unfortunately, you can’t lock in fifth gear, and every time you activate it, you start in fourth, and it just seems to ignore your input until you get one gear below where the transmission is. Perhaps there’s a logic we’re missing on this one.
The shifter itself is gated, but the gate is mellow and you can just zip all the way back to Drive without any gymnastics.
While the Quadra-Drive system on our test model reacts quickly to traction loss, those who go off-road or need extra low-speed traction use low-gear four wheel drive, where a lot of engine revs translates to a small amount of wheel movement, maximizing traction. In some Jeeps, moving to low-gear four wheel drive requires a great deal of strength; on this one, it simply requires going very slowly, under 3 mph, while pulling up on a chrome T-handle to the right of the gearshift (see image). A quick pull toggles the system between low and regular ranges. Pulling at a higher speed (or from a full stop) brings up an error message. A similar system is used in Quadra-Trac II-equipped vehicles; Quadra-Drive I doesn’t come with a low range. The primary advantage of Quadra-Drive over Quadra-Trac II is the use of electronic limited-slip differentials, which respond in fractions of a second for quicker response; they also have higher torque capacity than the previous Vari-Lock axles.
Visibility is good in all directions, with powerful headlights (that can be set to automatically go to high beams when possible, and can be put into either manual or automatic mode), good mirrors, and no major obstructions (when the video system is folded away, at least). The instruments are always easily readable and visible. We’d like to see a windshield wiper defroster and perhaps a washer-defroster, as old Caravans used to have, but that’s no more.
Controls are generally logical, particularly the climate control, which is about as good as they get. Driver and passenger side dials are used to control temparature, while the fan speed and vent mode are separately controlled, both with automatic settings. The fan has both high-speed and low-speed automatic positions, ideal for those who don’t like the noise of fans on their highest setting. Separate buttons turn on the rear window/mirror defroster, air conditioner compressor, and recirculation. The system worked flawlessly, and vast amounts of heat are produced fairly quickly. The air circulation is quite good; it’s easy to set up airflow so a large amount of heat or air conditioning can be blown in without, for example, unwelcome breezes into the driver’s eyes or at the back of the neck.
Another line of buttons underneath the climate control handles extra features, including the heated seats (with two levels), rear park assist deactivation, pedal fore/aft movement, the tow-haul mode, and stability control shutoff. Blank buttons looked natural – as opposed to some cars, including fairly expensive ones, which have somewhat obvious blank plates. Above the climate control are the buttons for the trip computer, with the familiar Chrysler controls: compass/temparature (C/T), Reset, Step (for going through the various information types), and Menu, which is used to set up features (automatic headlights and high beams, door locking, light delay, and the like). We appreciate the easy way these options are set up, especially now that the trip computer has roughly 24 characters to play with (and can form any letters). Information on our test car included average gas mileage, distance to empty, two trip odometers, elapsed time, tire pressure, and miles to service (service intervals are customized via the Menu button).
Our test car included rain-sensing wipers, which, surprisingly, worked exactly as they should. The feature can be shut off via the menu system.
The instrument panel itself is quite classy looking, with dull chrome rings around the main dials (big ones for speedometer and tachometer, and smaller ones for gas and temparature; sorry, no transmission temparature, oil pressure, voltage, or the like). The speedometer goes up to 140, which would normally be a bit silly, except that you can quickly change it from English to metric; then 140 is about 85 mph and no longer excessive. The markings look moderately elegant, and only improve when the white-on-black backlighting is turned on. Overall, it’s a good-looking instrument panel which tells its story simply and easily.
The key goes right into the instrument panel, which is easier than the steering column and no doubt cheaper to fix if it goes wrong, but the lock stuck out a little, making the assembly look a bit cheap. That was probably the Grand Cherokee’s only real cosmetic slip-up.
Our test car also included a navigation system, like many integrated with the stereo, but using real knobs and buttons for the stereo nonetheless. (It does not have a touch screen, so knobs and buttons are used for everything, but some use “menu type” buttons whose function change according to the legend on the screen.) The stereo had excellent sound in all four seats, with clear stereo separation – quite a feat, really. Often what sounds great to the driver is muffled to the rear-seat passengers. The system integrated CD, satellite, and video system using the mode button (a separate button cycled through AM and FM); the song and artist are displayed where possible and appropriate, including on the Sirius satellite radio screen. The video system can be controlled to a degree from the stereo when in video mode, (though the movie can’t be seen up front), allowing quick fast-forwarding past annoying or scary bits. Audio quality is controlled by pushing and rotating another knob, which is not our favorite system, but we can understand not using separate knobs for bass, treble, balance, and fade when space is needed for a big screen. The system allows for control of midrange as well as bass and treble.
Pressing Nav brings up the navigation system menu; but then you have to press Enter to agree not to be distracted, and, if you want a map rather than a menu, Cancel. The system works via a dial (see illustrations), and was easy to use as these systems go, providing the usual feature set. The one oddity was that the zoom dial, which is also used to select letters when choosing an address or location, can be pushed in, but it doesn’t do anything; you have to select things by rotating the knob, then press the Enter button, just below. That proved to be a little awkward, but so was the old system of rotating and pressing; it was too easy to rotate a little while pressing and select the wrong thing. A little more resistance on the knob’s rotation would have helped more than moving the Enter button.
The interior includes a good variety of cargo bins and such, with an overhead sunglass bin, a glove compartment that can actually hold move than the owner’s manual, a center covered console, and a couple of padded ledges; all doors have map pockets. The center console in our test car had a well-designed integrated coin holder (no pennies) and netting on the top to hold DVDs, CDs, or tissues. It was deep enough to hold two sets of headphones and a remote control for the video system. The front cupholders in the center console can be removed, with some difficulty, for cleaning.
There aren’t many annoyances in the interior; the sun visor doesn’t cover all the area it could, and when pushed to the side to block sun coming in from the driver’s door window, it doesn’t go back all the way, which takes some getting used to. That pretty much sums it up for us.
The cargo area, which seems larger than on the prior generation, includes a power outlet, netted side bin, and reversible load door panel is carpeted on one side has a large shallow tray which grips boxes and such on the other. With the rear seats folded flat down, there’s quite a bit of room. Even without them, you can store a sizable amount of stuff in the cargo area; there’s also good room for passengers in the rear seats. A folding console comes down from the middle of the seats, and dual cupholders fold out from underneath them.
The optional rear seat video is well integrated, with the controls and CD loading in a floor-mounted console that is well protected from youngsters, yet easy enough to reach and use for those mature enough to do so safely. It’s easier to deal with there than up in the ceiling, where the screen itself is. Unfortunately, when the screen is down, the driver’s rear view is badly obstructed – a problem with nearly all such systems. Two sets of wireless headphones and a remote control are included, along with a movie, Brother Bear, that seems to have unnecessary amounts of trauma dumped in with an old, old plot and Great White North skits. On the lighter side, the movie was free, and you can always toss it out.
The sunroof control is very convenient, with single-push opening and closing (saving the driver from long periods with a finger on a button), and a separate button for venting (just lifting the back). Not having a Bluetooth-enabled phone, we could not test the clever UConnect system, which not only lets you use the internal mic and speakers for phone calls, but even automatically transfers calls to and from your phone as you get in and out – if you have Bluetooth.
The rear park assist system is also quite nice, providing both visual and audio feedback when reversing. It’s definitely worth the money – it can prevent and accident or save a life (you’d be surprised how many people are run over when people are backing out of driveways).
Overall, the Grand Cherokee is almost an ideal vehicle for those who spend much of their time on the highway but also go off-road; it is more off-road capable than most competitors, including the Volkswagen Touareg, Ford Explorer, and Mitsubishi Montero (according to a magazine’s tests), yet is quite nice on-road. The Hemi engine provides boundless power and excellent acceleration, and the 545RFE automatic keeps things civilized. (The heavy Touareg’s V8 produces about the same power as the Hemi, from a considerably smaller engine, but it doesn’t feel as strong.)
Wind noise is lower than in the past model, and ride is often better, with nasty concrete roads being straightened out even if sudden shocks and such aren’t as well filtered. On the other hand, gas mileage is fairly poor regardless of the engine – a problem with the entire class, but still, if you’re looking for something to move people around in safety and comfort, the best bet is still a Grand Caravan, which has surprisingly good handling and decent acceleration, a huge, comfortable interior, and an unbeatable price given the whole package – with over 20 mpg to be expected in mixed city/highway driving, compared with about 14-15 on the Grand Cherokee (real-world numbers in both cases; EPA ratings are higher). No, Grand Caravans don’t come with Hemis – but the 300C and Magnum do, and they do a bit better in gas mileage, too – but no off-roading in those!
If you want a similar vehicle but believe you should pay more for it and bring it in for more frequent repairs, you may want to look at the new Mercedes M-Class, which is based on the same platform, but uses Mercedes engines and transmissions.
If you need to carry seven people and do go off-roading or need towing ability, the Grand Cherokee’s stretched sibling, the Jeep Commander, will be available soon – with that third row of seats. So don’t go reaching for an Explorer or a Tahoe. We know the price is attractive, but we think you’ll be happier waiting for the new Jeep – or picking up the current one.