If you want a mainstream, mid-size SUV with genuine off-road chops that’s also comfortable on the road and suitable for a family, you don’t have many options in the North American market. In fact, you have precisely two: the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Toyota 4Runner. Although both are several years old now and the Toyota has a sturdier reputation for reliability, it’s the Jeep that offers more features as well as the option of a fuel-efficient turbo diesel. Has the Jeep stood the test of time or has time marched on?
If the Grand Cherokee seems dated, the 4Runner is positively antediluvian. It predates the Grand Cherokee by two years, having launched in 2009, and, unlike the Jeep, it uses the same interior as it did ten years ago. The rest of the 4Runner package is also almost entirely the same as ten years ago, down to the 4.0 V6/5-speed automatic powertrain with its mediocre gas mileage. There were some minor tweaks in 2013 but Toyota is clearly coasting on the 4Runner (and their brand’s) reputation for quality, reliability and resale value plus its chunky good looks.
The more elegant WK2 Grand Cherokee launched in 2011 but was treated to a significant refresh for 2014, which included a heavily revised interior and an elegantly restyled front and rear end. In addition, there was a new eight-speed automatic and the arrival of the 3.0 EcoDiesel V6. Since then, there have been further tweaks including the addition of stop-start to V6 models (2016), an optional self-parking system (2017) and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay (2018). Jeep hasn’t left the Grand Cherokee sitting still.
Thanks to a strong advertising campaign and a favorable exchange rate, the Grand Cherokee surged up the sales charts in Australia a few years ago to become the second best-selling SUV in its segment after the 4Runner-related LandCruiser Prado. Unfortunately, a weak Aussie dollar and an embarrassingly long list of recalls softened Grand Cherokee sales. Nevertheless, the idea of a refined platform coupled with genuine off-road ability was enough to put the Grand on my radar for my next car. Though the Pentastar 3.6 V6 is a capable engine in, say, a Chrysler 300, the Grand Cherokee’s hefty 5000-pound curb weight made me skeptical of its ability to get up and go, while the Hemi V8 simply used too much fuel. If I was going to buy a Grand Cherokee, it was going to have to be the EcoDiesel. Time for a Turo test drive.
In Australia, if you want an SUV this size with genuine off-road ability and a spacious cabin, you’re not just limited to Jeep and Toyota. In fact, Toyota offers two similarly-sized SUVs (the LandCruiser Prado and Hilux-derived Fortuner), while Ford, Holden, Isuzu and Mitsubishi all sell pickup-derived SUVs. There are even two Chinese offerings, the LDV D90 and the Haval H9. With the exception of the Chinese vehicles, every other SUV is diesel-only. Therefore, it’s the inverse of the US market – instead of the Jeep having the only diesel-powered truck in its segment, they have the only gasoline-powered one.
The Grand Cherokee isn’t simply a wagon body on a ladder-frame chassis like a Ford Everest or Holden TrailBlazer. Instead, it employs unibody construction with four-wheel independent suspension. Its platform was co-developed with Mercedes-Benz during the DaimlerChrysler days and was shared with the third-generation Mercedes-Benz ML/GLE.
The Grand Cherokee lineup is dizzying in its scale, presently comprising Laredo, Limited, Trailhawk, Overland and Summit, plus the high-performance SRT and Trackhawk. There are three different 4WD systems available: a full-time system in the Laredo (Quadra-Trac I), one with a two-speed transfer case and low-range gearing (Quadra-Trac II), and one with an electronic rear limited-slip differential (Quadra-Drive II). There’s also an adaptive air suspension available, called Quadra-Lift. And if you don’t have any desire to go off-road, rear-wheel-drive is standard on all Grand Cherokees bar the SRT, Trackhawk and Trailhawk. The Limited comes standard with Quadra-Trac II, as in my tester, but is also available with Quadra-Drive II and Quadra-Lift.
That huge scope is a reason the Grand Cherokee is a consistent Top 20 seller in the US and was the 3rd best-selling mid-size crossover in 2018. All that’s missing is a third row of seating as in the gold and silver winners, the Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer (though neither have anything as wild as the Jeep’s high-performance variants). The Limited is the bread-and-butter Grand Cherokee and the cheapest way to get into the EcoDiesel and V8 and the more sophisticated 4WD systems. In addition to the Laredo’s rear parking sensors, keyless ignition and entry and dual-zone climate control, it adds remote start, bigger (18-inch) wheels, a power liftgate, heated seats front and rear (power-adjustable up front) plus a heated steering wheel. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a glut of available option packages.
My tester had the Luxury Group II package which added a dual-pane panoramic sunroof, rain-sensing wipers, automatic headlights and cooled front seats, among other niceties.
Living in Australia where pickups are almost universally diesel and a great many SUVs are too, I’m used to hearing the cacophonous, unpleasant clatter of idling diesel engines. Though the Grand Cherokee is unmistakably a diesel at idle, it doesn’t sound too bad on the move. On the highway it shines, being exceptionally quiet until you have to overtake. Then, there’s a delightful bent-six growl, albeit one that’s appropriately hushed.
The EcoDiesel accelerates with authority though it never feels fast. Most testers have recorded a 0-60 time of between 7.5 and 8.5 seconds, lineball with the Pentastar V6. Where the engines differ is in power and torque. The Pentastar produces 295 hp at 6400 rpm and 260 ft-lbs at 4800 rpm, while the VM Motori-sourced diesel produces 240 hp at 3600 rpm and a stout 420 ft-lbs at a low 2000 rpm. That’s actually 30 more pound-feet of torque than the 5.7 Hemi V8. The EcoDiesel is also, of course, much more fuel efficient than the Pentastar – the EPA rates it at 21/28 mpg (24 combined), while the Pentastar is rated at 18/25 mpg (21 combined). Those who tow may also prefer the diesel as its 7400-pound maximum towing capacity matches the Hemi and surpasses the Pentastar’s 6200-pound rating.
The Grand Cherokee’s handling is sure-footed and predictable. The steering is light and lacking in feel but it makes the Jeep easier to manoeuvre and park in the city. The ride in the steel-sprung Limited is somewhat firm if comfortable, although there’s some suspension travel over bumps that reminds you this is a truck designed to blaze both pavement and trails. In all, the Grand Cherokee feels substantial on the road in the sense that it feels both heavy and planted. It might feel marginally more truck-like than some car-based crossovers but that’s understandable given its ability. I’d be curious, however, to see how Quadra-Lift-equipped Grands differ from the Quadra-Trac models.
Though the Grand Cherokee has a classier interior design than the 4Runner, it’s not without its flaws. The use of hard plastics on the lower half of the dashboard and doors is forgivable but the “wood” trim is unattractive and patently fake and one section of it was slowly detaching itself from the dash. The interior brightwork is tinged a pale gold which, again, looks somewhat strange. It at least helps brighten up the otherwise funereal black interior. In comparison, Grand Cherokees with the two-tone beige and gray interior are vastly more inviting and upscale in appearance. Upper-spec Grands like the Overland and Summit also have leather-wrapped dashes which improve the ambience somewhat. The overall design of the Grand Cherokee’s dashboard, however, is clean and elegant.
The classy 7-inch digital gauge cluster
Unfortunately, all Grand Cherokees are saddled with a foot-operated parking brake. In a truck with premium aspirations, the absence of an electronic parking brake is disappointing. Fortunately, the infamous electronically-controlled shifter – the one blamed for the tragic passing of actor Anton Yelchin – was consigned to the dustbin in 2017.
There are some other dings to be made against the Grand’s interior. The base of the front seats is a little short though they remained supportive over long distances. The switchgear and paddle shifters were appropriately tactile but the turn signal stalk felt brittle and cheap. Though voice command functions are heralded as an easy, intuitive way to access functions without operating the touch screen in motion, they were unreliable in the Jeep. The Grand Cherokee is also strictly a five-seater, while the 4Runner comes with an optional third row. While many third rows in this segment are strictly for kids, like the Toyota’s, Jeep’s laggardness in offering a three-row version of the Grand is puzzling; the last three-row Jeep, the Commander, was discontinued almost a decade ago.
There were plenty of positives, however. FCA’s uConnect has been further improved over the years but even in this 2016 model it was easily navigable and worked well after some initial Bluetooth teething troubles; my tester came with the larger 8.4-inch touch screen, an option on the Limited and standard on trim levels above. The blind-spot monitor had both a visual and audible warning and it worked well instead of aggravating with incessant beeping. The cooled front seats made me feel as though my butt had been injected with alien DNA and I had begun to metamorphose into a cold-blooded reptile. Finally, the most upscale touch were mirrors that tilted down when the truck was shifted into reverse.
For someone who wants the ability to very occasionally tackle some trails but who also wants a refined on-road experience – so, somebody like me – the Grand Cherokee is an excellent compromise. It’s spacious, comfortable and pleasant to drive and there’s a Grand Cherokee for almost every buyer and budget. Though it’s showing its age in some respects, Jeep has done a highly respectable job of keeping it fresh. Nevertheless, there are still some question marks over the Grand Cherokee’s reliability. That’s enough to keep the Toyota 4Runner a more desirable option for many even if it’s a less impressive truck. And for those buyers who don’t care about off-road ability, the mid-size crossover segment is also brimming with excellent choices.
As for me? My extended test drive did nothing to take the Grand Cherokee off of my shortlist.
Photographed in around Tacoma, WA in June 2019.