Sunday, March 3, 2013

First Drive: 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT [Review]

It's hard not to levy high praise on a vehicle platform that, with only a handful of changes from the factory, can scale boulders one day and hit apexes on the track the next day.

The photos you see here aren't deceiving you: This is the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT and it's at Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas, the brand new Formula 1 race track that hosted the United States Grand Prix just a few months ago. In other words, it's not exactly the kind of territory where you might normally find a Jeep.

But the Grand Cherokee SRT has been thoroughly revised for 2014, in the process losing the 8 that previously came at the end of its name. Headlining the list of changes is a stout eight-speed automatic gearbox, the same ZF-developed unit that is now used in a host of Chrysler products in addition to BMWs and Bentleys. If anything, it's slumming in this application – although we're not sure that label really applies with 470 horsepower on tap.

That power comes courtesy of an essentially unchanged 6.4-liter Hemi V8 engine and it's complemented by 465 lb-ft. of torque and a single-speed four-mode variable all-wheel-drive system. Putting power to the ground is a set of Pirelli P-Zero tires sized in a decidedly supercar-like 295/45-20 specification (all-season Scorpion Verdes are optional for snow belters).

Naturally, a stiffened and lowered suspension and upsized Brembo brakes are included, as is a revised hydraulic rack-and-pinion steering system. To make the most of the power on board, a new launch control mode optimizes throttle, gearbox and traction settings for drag races – both official and not-so-official.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, all Grand Cherokees including the SRT include an Eco Mode button that dials back throttle response and forces earlier upshift to save premium fuel. With an EPA rating of 13/19 mpg, this one's a guzzler.

A few other upgrades are also on board for 2014: An 8.4-inch touchscreen monitor in the center of the dashboard for Chrysler's terrific Uconnect infotainment system (detailed here), a 7-inch TFT screen in the instrument cluster and some minor styling changes highlighted primarily by new eagle-eyed headlamps.

Formula Jeep
No, we're not expecting a spec series for Jeep Grand Cherokee SRTs, but one would be a hoot. Austin's COTA is a technical and challenging track, although its location in the flatlands east of town mean that there aren't as many elevation changes as you might expect.

In a straight line, the Grand Cherokee SRT vaults to 60 mph in a few ticks under 5 seconds and it will run the quarter mile sprint in the mid-13s. At COTA, we pegged around 130 mph on the longest straightaway, about 5 mph shy of a “leisurely” run we witnessed in the passenger seat while an SRT engineer was behind the wheel.

But with enough power, anything – even a 5,150 lbs. Jeep SUV – can be made to go fast (and for 2014, it can tow an extra 2,200 lbs. for a total of 7,200 lbs.). The challenge is making it go around corners in a way that's entertaining for all the right reasons.

Boy, does the Grand Cherokee SRT deliver. Helped in part by the prodigious grip offered up by both its all-wheel-drive system and the $490 apiece Pirellis, the Grand Cherokee SRT is almost impossible to let loose.

A control knob just aft of the transmission lever (itself an oddly unintuitive T-shaped handle) lets drivers select between standard, snow, towing, sport and track modes that modify the stability and traction control and how power is apportioned between the axles. Sport and track modes allow limited and virtually no assistance, respectively, from the electronic nannies. For 2014, a separate sport mode on the transmission modifies the gearbox's schedule.

The result is a newfound level of choice – and aggression – for this brute of a vehicle.

On most high performance cars, track mode means “danger,” but the Grand Cherokee SRT is remarkably easy to drive fast. Pushed into a corner, it hangs on with little in the way of the frightening drama that you might expect for a big SUV.

Helping matters is a purposeful three-spoke steering wheel with integrated paddle shift levers that is newly exclusive to the SRT variant. Though the steering isn't as communicative as you might find in a dedicated sports car, or even a Porsche Cayenne GTS, it is well-weighted and sufficiently precise.

For more gentle on-pavement excursions, we selected both transmission and drivetrain sport modes for a growling, fast-paced experience. In normal driving with passengers aboard, we actually preferred the Eco mode simply because of how it dials back throttle response. The system unintentionally makes the Grand Cherokee SRT feel rather more like a luxury car in its tuning. No, this roughneck in a tuxedo won't convince you that you're behind the wheel of a German super-crossover like a BMW X5 M, but the Jeep is easily as entertaining and it's a bundle less expensive.

In fact, about the only thing the Grand Cherokee SRT doesn't do is pass by gas stations or intentionally leave the pavement. But if those are on your wish list, Jeep can build you just the right Grand Cherokee without an SRT badge.

Leftlane's bottom line
Finding buyers for the 5,000 or so Grand Cherokee SRTs Jeep figures it'll sell annually won't be a challenge.

Though it's a little rough around the edges, the Grand Cherokee SRT more than makes up for its shortcomings by providing a driving experience essentially unparalleled at anything approaching its price point.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT base price, $62,995.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz. Follow Andrew on Twitter.

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