ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Chrysler’s comeback trail has taken some twists and turns, but the Fiat-owned company can point to rapidly increasing sales as evidence that it is once again a viable automaker.
The critical and consumer acceptance of Jeep Division’s latest Grand Cherokee is just one success story, but it’s proven to be an important one.
The latest GC, released for the 2011 model year, instilled virtually every improvement Chrysler knew the predecessor needed.
First, the exterior design. Simply, the Grand Cherokee is one of the best-looking SUVs on the market. It’s bold but in a fairly conservative way, with traditional Grand Cherokee elements such as its seven-slot grille and squared-off wheel wells. The front and rear overhangs are quite short, giving the SUV a hunkered-down, well-planted appearance.
Inside, the transformation is even more dramatic. The cabin is crafted out of high-quality materials, carefully assembled into an attractive, comfortable space. Ergonomics are much improved, and the switchgear operates with agreeable heft and precision. This interior may well be the best Chrysler has ever produced, and competes handily with those in some high-end luxury marques.
On the road, the GC exceeded all my expectations, especially since our tester was the top-of-the-line, ultra-performance SRT8 model.
Chrysler’s SRT Division — Street and Racing Technology — focuses solely on building high-performance versions of existing models. Currently, it is producing derivatives of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Challenger, and the Grand Cherokee.
All four share a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 producing 470 horsepower created specifically for SRT application. In addition to the engine, enhancements include SRT-specific exterior and interior touches; high-performance brakes and tires; and track-tuned suspension systems.
So how does the hot-rodded Grand Cherokee fare? In a word, remarkable. Of course it’s fast. Even with 5,100 pounds to contend with, 470 horsepower is a lot of grunt. Jeep claims a 0-to-60 time of 4.8 seconds — that’s muscle-car territory.
As for the other side of the coin, the massive Brembo disc brakes drag the hefty SUV from 60 mph to zero in an eye-popping 116 feet, again according to Jeep.
But the real surprise is the way the big SRT8 attacks corners. Fling it into a turn and marvel at the way it seems to defy the laws of physics, the body flat and the 20-inch tires glued to the tarmac.
A couple of demerits: The five-speed automatic transmission seems almost archaic in this era of multispeed gearboxes. But help may be on the horizon in the form of an eight-speed autobox that could make its appearance in SRT products later this year.
And the brutish Hemi, even with cylinder-activation technology, can only deliver 12 mpg in town and 18 on the highway — and that’s on recommended premium fuel.
Still, given that this handsome, comfortable SUV can give a Porsche Cayenne or BMW X5 M a run for the money, while costing up to tens of thousands of dollars less, makes the Grand Cherokee SRT8 an extremely attractive proposition.