Jeep likes to brag that its Grand Cherokee is America’s “most awarded SUV.”
Well, as the saying goes, it ain’t bragging if it’s true. Yesterday was Winter Car Test Day, the New England Motor Press Association’s annual flog to pick the Official Car of Winter. Last year, the Grand Cherokee won the title for an unheard-of third time in a row.
(New Englanders like to think they invented—or at least discovered—winter. So far as I know, though, neither Jeep nor Subaru were present when the Pilgrims washed ashore 394 years ago.)
The honor isn’t based on just one day’s comparo of dozens of different vehicles. By now, the voting members have spent quality time in them at home too, from southern Connecticut to upper Maine. Test Day is when everyone assembles to argue for their favorites.
You hear a lot of “Oh, yeah? Well, let’s go—you grab the keys to the Durango and I’ll take the Q7 . . . .”
Test Day is also a memorable chow-down and social do; even the local cops drop by. (I asked the sergeant once if I could try his cruiser. He laughed and made to hand me the key.)
Naturally, all Winter Car contenders have AWD. Then there’s a menu of winter-management extras that range from seat heaters and remote starters to wing-mirror defrosters, outside thermometers, ski and snowboard racks, weather-alert radios, windshield-fluid heaters, OnStar and so on. Heated steering wheels weren’t even on the list a decade ago; now we all want them. (Gloves?! Nah.) Features such as airbags, ABS and traction control are required by the feds, so they’re taken for granted.
Many vehicles can be ordered with these items, but a true winter car is more than the sum of its parts. Heated, sure, but are those seats comfortable? Is there enough power to bust through the snow berm out on the street? How does it drive? Winter lasts, oh, eight or nine months up in Maine—is the vehicle a willing ally or just a reluctant co-conspirator?
At the end of Test Day, members of the jury go home in something different than what they arrived in. With a choice that spanned the cream of Europe, Asia and Detroit—4×4 pickups to crossover SUVs to AWD sedans, hatchbacks and sports cars—I chose one of my favorites: a Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Yes, a 2014 version of the Winter Car three-peat winner—but with two interesting new twists: an 8-speed automatic transmission and diesel power.
This 3-liter, 6-cylinder, clean-burning EcoDiesel motor is now a $4,500 option on the Grand Cherokee. It is rated for a modest 240 horsepower, but a robust 420 lbs-ft of torque. (The standard gas V-6 makes 290 HP and 260 torques, and the optional 5.7-liter gas V-8 is good for 360/390.) The diesel starts easily, makes a pleasant growl at idle and is silent on the highway, and propels the 5,400-lb Jeep with ease. It pairs beautifully with the smooth new transmission too; at cruising speed, the motor is into its torque curve and just loafing along at low revs.
On the long run home, the computer figured we got a stellar 30 miles per gallon. This newfound economy, along with the higher thermal efficiency of diesel fuel, cuts the Grand Cherokee’s CO2 output significantly.
The last 45 miles were on pavement so frost-heaved that the computer thought we were off-road and instructed the air suspension to raise the vehicle for extra clearance. No need—the ride stayed comfortable and completely controlled. That and the meaty, leather-wrapped steering wheel, the electronic adjustments and conveniences, the hard-core machinery underneath and the tasteful interior (the best in Detroit) reminded me again and again of the $100,000 Range Rover I oohed and aahed over recently. But this rock-solid, almost-equally deluxe, optioned-to-the-max Grand Cherokee Overland lists for $54,780.
Is this a great deal or what? Could the 8-speed diesel propel the Grand Cherokee to a New England Winter Car win for the fourth year in a row? Will Seattle punish the Donkeys for stomping on the Patriots last week? Will hell freeze over, now that Atlanta has? We’ll soon find out.