"Grand Cherokee: Refining the Rugged"

The New York Times November 20, 2005 Sunday SECTION: Section 12; Column 4; Automobiles; Monumental Expansion for the Empire of Jeep; Pg. 1
Grand Cherokee: Refining the Rugged
REMEMBER the 90's? Is it too soon to be nostalgic for the quaint era of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, Whitewater and Y2K, impeachment hearings and Internet stock bubbles, George Costanza and the Jeep Grand Cherokee?
For much of the decade, ''Seinfeld'' dominated the airwaves, and starting in 1992 Grand Cherokees seemed to shade every suburban driveway where a Ford Explorer wasn't casting its shadow. Jerry Seinfeld described his show as being ''about nothing''; likewise, from today's perspective, the sport utility craze of the 90's, like most fading fads, seems like much ado about very little.
Many S.U.V. haters fervently believe that the 4x4 mania has cooled because they turned public opinion against the notion of using off-roaders as family cars. Yet the shift has surely had as much to do with the short shelf life of fashion as with the sudden arrival of environmental consciousness (or consciences) among Americans.
Mr. Seinfeld put his TV schtick on mothballs because it wasn't fresh anymore. So it may be with plastic-cladded vehicles that let suburbanites pose as crocodile hunters.
The challenge then, was to make the latest Grand Cherokee seem relevant and appealing to consumers no longer in thrall to Jeep's reputation for ruggedness. Against a wave of decidedly more carlike competitors, Jeep's decision makers opted to make subtle improvements that enhance the vehicle's road-going appeal.
The result is a vehicle that, since a redesign for 2005, is much more refined, sophisticated and comfortable than its predecessors. Still, while each previous generation of Grand Cherokee reasserted class leadership, the field is much tougher now.
There has been no doubt about the Grand Cherokee's off-road prowess, but many of the factors that helped to make this Jeep such a mountain goat also made it somewhat beastly on paved roads.
Thus, the solid front axle has been replaced with an independent axle that gives a much smoother ride. The old recirculating-ball steering, with its considerable free play, poor on-center feel and slow response -- not necessarily bad things when crawling over boulders -- has yielded to a quick and accurate rack-and-pinion system.
Powertrains have also been upgraded. With three available engines, potential buyers are likely to find one that feels just right, from the more affordable, less thirsty V-6 (rated at 22 m.p.g. on the highway) to a 4.7-liter V-8 and a higher-performance 5.4-liter Hemi V-8, which cranks out 330 horsepower.
The 3.7-liter V-6 replaces a hoary, coarse in-line 6. The Hemi can run on four cylinders when cruising, so it barely burns more gas on the highway than the smaller V-8.
And if you want a Grand Cherokee quicker than a Porsche Cayenne Turbo (or so Jeep says), stay tuned for the 420-horsepower SRT8 that goes on sale early next year.
The V-6 is matched to a lighter-duty transmission than the V-8's. Both are five-speed automatics.
If this array doesn't cover enough possible customers, consider the drivetrains. While Jeeps are renowned for their four-wheel drive, plenty of people are happier with a plain old rear drive setup -- those who live in the South, for instance, or tow trailers long-distance -- so two-wheel drive versions are available.
If you choose four-wheel drive, your job still isn't done, because there are three ways to send power to the wheels. Both Quadra-Trac systems (called I and II) are full-time all-wheel-drive setups that require no action from the driver. The third system, Quadra-Drive II, is a more sophisticated permanent four-wheel-drive unit with a computerized transfer case to distribute power to the front and rear, along with computer sensors that automatically lock the differentials when traction is low.
My test model, a 2005 Limited, had a price of $43,570 and included the Hemi engine, navigation and DVD entertainment systems.
The superb leather seats, communicative steering and smooth highway ride make the Limited as pleasing for summertime family trips as it is for winter runs to the ski slopes.
While the new Grand Cherokee is five inches longer than the old one, it remains nimble. Bigger, bulkier S.U.V.'s can carry more passengers and cargo, but can't squeeze between boulders or trees with the Jeep's agility. That same nimbleness serves the Grand Cherokee well when slipping into compact parking spaces at Wegmans.
INSIDE TRACK: The best Grand Cherokee ever, though the audience may be tuning out.
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Grrrrr.
Dave Milne
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