MY FAVORITE BIT on Jeep’s Grand Cherokee is the steering wheel. It is smallish, and its rim—partly dressed in leather and, at the touch of a button, heated—is satisfyingly hefty and hand-filling.
What does this have to do with dynamic behavior, build quality, MPG, price, value or anything important? Not much.
But when I climb in and grab hold, somehow this wheel conveys to me that the Grand Cherokee is a machine for drivers. It doesn’t hurt that a smaller wheel quickens the steering, while the built-in cruise-control and stereo buttons reduce how often I have to let go of it. But really it’s the feel of the thing.
Well, no. It’s really that having been much impressed by the Grand Cherokee a year ago, when it was re-engineered, I am reminded by this substantial steering wheel that in 2012 we’re in for more of the same.
Jeep claims that last year’s Grand Cherokee was the “most awarded SUV ever,” having knocked down something like 30 automotive honors.
I can vouch for at least one of them, as I was on the jury: The Grand Cherokee was the official Winter Vehicle of New England for 2011.
My favorite was the top-of-the-range Overland model, decked out with a luscious interior and tons of goodies and packing a Hemi.
The trouble with a smash performance, though, is how to top it next time. This year Jeep crowned its Grand Cherokee line with a new “Summit” version.
It is an Overland further dressed up with chromed mesh in the grille, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels and an even more posh leather-and-wood cabin, which might just be the most luxurious in any American-brand automobile.
Function-wise, the Summit gets adaptable cruise control, which sees traffic ahead and slows down by itself, and blind-spot monitors in its wing mirrors.
As well, the backup camera and sensors have been augmented with Rear Cross Path Detection, eliminating any final excuse for reversing over the mailman.
The Overland was already well furnished. Jeep’s Selec-Terrain 4×4 system lets the driver tweak torque and throttle settings for sand and mud, rock, snow or “sport” by turning a dial.
This also inflates the air cushions at each corner to one of five height settings. These range from normal, with just over eight inches of ground clearance, to off-road 2, which jacks the vehicle up another 2.6 inches.
There’s also a “park” setting that drops the Jeep an inch and a half below normal, for loading the roof rack and getting in and out. If you have trouble with that sort of thing.
Most of us will leave Selec-Trac in “auto” mode for everyday driving. At high speed it even hunkers the Jeep down, for better control and air flow.
This is particularly useful on the new $62,000, 470-horsepower SRT8 model, with its paddle-shift transmission, granite suspension and Italian-stallion brakes.
If you prefer to drive without setting your hair afire, the rest of the Grand Cherokee line comes with either a 360-horsepower V-8 or a 290-horsepower six.
These two don’t feel terribly different underfoot, and you may order towing packages for each.
The smaller engine can deliver more than 500 miles of range on a tank of gas, at 16 to 23 MPG. (It seems Jeep is readying a diesel powertrain, which could boost the mileage significantly.)
The entry-level Laredo 4×4 Grand Cherokee starts at $29,490; the Overland Summit at $46,595.
The difference between them is largely flash and toys. All Grand Cherokees share the same hewn-from-billet structure and all-wheel independent suspension mounted on alloy subframes.
Inevitably, we have to compare this Jeep to the world’s other hallowed all-terrain deluxe ute, the Range Rover. On the basis of size and a slightly stiff ride, the comparo is between the Overland and the Range Rover Sport, not the super-cushy big-kahuna Rangie.
Here, despite being $14,000 less than the Sport, the Summit comes off well. The Brit has a slight edge in refinement; off-road ability comes down to a dead heat; and the Yank gets the nod in value for dollar. The Grand Cherokee’s harvest of motoring awards will surely continue.