First Drive: 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit Review

Sicily is an awfully long way to go to review a new car. But then the Jeep Grand Cherokee is a car that’s come a long way in a relatively short space of time. The Jeep brand has a rich and deep heritage dating back to 1941 – a fact that’s inscribed on the newly designed steering wheel – but the Grand Cherokee can trace its roots back to 1992. To-date, over five million Grand Cherokees have rolled off the production line.

As its name suggests, the Grand Cherokee is the plusher and bigger version of the Cherokee. I hesitate to use the word iconic to describe the Cherokee, but it could mount a serious case for legendary status. The Grand Cherokee has less of an aura about it, but Jeep claims it’s still the most awarded SUV ever. A fact that must keep the bosses of Land Rover awake at night…

The new 2013 (model year name 2014) Jeep Grand Cherokee is a facelift of the vehicle launched in 2010. The changes made are – according to Jeep – as a direct result of customer feedback. The two words continually pressed home to us throughout the press conference were ‘premium’ and ‘freedom’. Sometimes ‘premiumness’ was thrown in for good measure. Thankfully they stopped short of using ‘freemium’…

Jeep has the new Range Rover in its sights with the new Grand Cherokee. Lofty ambitions – especially when you consider just how average the current model is. Pretty good off-road, blessed with an army of loyal followers but otherwise unremarkable. The new Grand Cherokee has its work cut out…

So what has Jeep – now fully under the control of Fiat – done to bridge the gap to Range Rover? And perhaps more crucially, have the changes had any effect?

New 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee on the road

Let’s start with the obvious – the new Grand Cherokee looks very different. The front grille is narrower, the bi-xenon headlights with LED daytime running lights are smaller and the front fog lights have been redesigned. It’s a striking new look that just about works. I’m not quite sure why the headlights lights don’t fit in the holes they’re placed in and they do seem a little too small for an otherwise aggressive and chunky front-end, but you can make up your own mind on that.

There are changes around the back-end too. Redesigned headlights, a new roof spoiler, new bumper, a redesigned tailgate and a larger Jeep badge dominate the proceedings. It’s fine, but certainly no more than that. Jeep desperately wants the new Grand Cherokee to look and feel more European and this is no more evident than on the back-end. For me it’s the least effective ‘upgrade’ – it’s just too anonymous – too Fiat Freemont.

Rear view of the 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee

As you’d expect there have been some tweaks made to the interior too. The top spec Summit model – as reviewed here by PetrolBlog – gets Natura Leather seats, lovely open pore wood and what Jeep calls a ‘suede-link material’ for the headlining and A-pillars. The result is a marked increase in perceived quality.

It’s only when you look a little closer that things start to go slightly array. Take the suede-like covering on the sun visors – they feel great, but a loose fitting means they are already starting to sag. Then there’s the plastic trim around the silver lock pins on the doors which have been finished poorly. Or the plastic cover hiding the USB port – it looks good and is nicely damped – but it lacks quality.

Interior of new 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee

All are minor points in the great scheme of things, but small inconsistencies such as these won’t pass quality control at Land Rover Towers. But if you’re looking to play on the same field, (or mountain, rocky path or snowy track for that matter), you need to take care of the details.

The Grand Cherokee does manage to redeem itself with a new 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment device which, although based on the unit I recently tested in the Chrysler 300C, has been brought right up-to-date. It’s just a shame that the sat nav sold itself short, regularly missing junctions and getting numerous estimated times of arrival of wrong. One journalist on the launch even received an instruction to turn onto a railway track. There’s sensible off-road driving and then there’s suicidal off-road driving.

2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee touchscreen infotainment system

There are no such doubts over the Grand Cherokee’s new 7-inch multi-configurable TFT dashboard display which is quite brilliant. Not only is it clear and well laid out, it’s also customisable to individual needs, with Jeep claiming it has a total of 100 different options. Information about the trip, status of the car, radio, sat nav, off-roading and temperature can be positioned at various points across the two pods. Hats off to Jeep, they got this one right.

I’m also a huge fan of the Summit’s steering wheel. Its simple three-spoke design is delightfully retro and the ‘Since 1941’ is a neat reminder of the brand’s heritage, albeit in a rather tacky M.A.S.H meets The A-Team font.

2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee steering wheel

Sadly if the steering wheel bags a 10/10 on the PetrolBlog scale, the steering itself is a huge disappointment. OK, it’s an SUV so razor-sharp response times are less important than they would be in a sports car. But seriously, the steering is woeful.

It’s possible to make huge turns side to side without having any impact at all on the direction of travel. Worrying on a straight bit of motorway, positively scary when cornering. It leaves you with very little confidence. Switching to Sport mode – which is done via the eight-speed automatic transmission – makes little to no difference.

It’s a shame because the new and much-hyped transmission is generally pretty good. Changes are smooth, if a little slow when pushed hard, and the increased efficiency it creates should not be underestimated. A reduction from 218g/km CO2 to 198g/km is not to be sniffed at. Combined fuel economy is also improved, up from a claimed 34mpg to 37.7.

Perhaps the transmission’s greatest strength is the fact that you barely even notice it’s there. It makes the Grand Cherokee much more appealing than before. It’s more suited to relaxed and unhurried changes than anything too dramatic, but in a car such as this, that’s ultimately going to be fine.

A similar label can be attached to the 3.0-litre turbodiesel engine which, despite offering peak torque of 570Nm at 2,000rpm, is a little lacking in the performance department. It’s fine most of the time but just lacks urgency when pressed into an overtaking manoeuvre or when a quick injection of pace is required. Jeep isn’t importing the polar ice-cap melting and financially ruinous petrol versions to the UK, so the diesel is your only choice of engine.

Okay, so how are we doing with this Grand Cherokee review? We’ve established that the facelift is largely a success, the interior is pretty good and its on-road manners are slightly lacking behind its European rivals. How does the Grand Cherokee performance off-road?

Off-road in the 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee

In short, very well indeed. Although the caveat of not having the most of challenging of off-road routes to test it on has to be stressed, I saw enough to convince me that the Grand Cherokee remains a formidable machine when the going gets tough.

And as Billy Ocean once alluded to, the Grand Cherokee gets going when the road makes way for the rough stuff. This is a proper off-roader, packed with the kind of toys that help to provide bragging rights down at the Dog & Duck but will hardly ever get used. There’s Quadra-Lift suspension – enabling the driver to select between Normal, Off Road 1, Off Road 2, Park Mode or Aero ride height – a total span of 28cm.

Or Selec-Terrain – again with five different modes – Sand, Snow, Mud, Rock and Auto. It will be familiar to existing Grand Cherokee owners with the exception of a new piece of kit which allows the driver to control the speed of the vehicle using the paddle shifters instead of the accelerator and brake. It’s as fun as it sounds.

And fun is a good word to describe the Grand Cherokee off-road. It is, after all, Jeep’s chief weapon. Other than Land Rover I can think of no other brand more synonymous with off-roading than Jeep. It’s all about playing to your strengths. And aside from what appeared to be an extremely over cautious hill descent control – soon overridden by the paddle shifters – the Grand Cherokee managed to put on a good show on the rough stuff.

2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee makes a splash

But after a good morning skirting along the coast of Sicily it was time to head back to the airport – a monotonous journey dominated by motorways and suicidal Sicilian drivers. In fact, the only highlights were the site of a 1980s Lada Riva, a random police fuel tanker and a van driver with a death wish. The journey did however give me a chance to reach some final conclusions on the new Grand Cherokee. The Jeep Grand Cherokee review in a nutshell…

The fact is, for all the improvements made to the Grand Cherokee, it still lags behind the Germans and Land Rover when it comes to quality, on-road behaviour and real world driving. Stick it on a motorway and it’s perfectly fine, presenting itself as a usable, comfortable and in Summit mode at least, well equipped. It rides better than before and the gap between it and its European rivals has definitely been reduced.

It’s let down by the aforementioned steering which is painfully vague and inaccurate. What’s more, the diesel engine is, when pressed hard, a tad on the noisy side. I should add some balance by acknowledging that the Grand Cherokee’s entire structure feels far more refined than before. Wind and tyre noise is kept to a minimum and once cruising, the engine falls eerily quiet. Thank a long seventh and eighth gear for this.

2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee on the motorway

Jeep is yet to confirm pricing of the new Grand Cherokee but has suggested there will be an increase of between 5% and 8% across the range. By my reckoning that should put the Limited at a starting price of £40,000 with the all-new Summit coming in at somewhere around the £50k mark. About the price of an entry-level Range Rover Sport. Draw your own conclusions from that.

It’s likeable, capable and much improved. An unremarkable car on the road that’s lifted to a higher status by its off-road prowess. That and the generous level of standard equipment.

I understand the UK isn’t getting the entry-level Laredo model, meaning buyers will choose between Limited, Overland and Summit or, if they’re feeling particularly fruity, the 6.4-litre HEMI V8 monster. But even the Limited model gets a power tailgate, 18-inch alloys, leather, electric seats, heated steering wheel with paddle shifters, dual-zone climate control, heated front and rear seats, Selec-Terrain, touchscreen infotainment system and…well…the list goes on.

Is that enough for UK buyers? We shall see. For all the talk of the new Grand Cherokee being more European, I still reckon it’s a square peg trying to fill a round hole over here. Put aside the strictly niche SRT for a moment and you’re faced with the fact that we only get one of the three engines available to Grand Cherokee buyers and the two we don’t get are both petrol-engined.

And that’s fine. The Jeep Grand Cherokee should be as American as Mom’s Apple Pie and Bruce Springsteen. And in America where going round corners is less important and petrol is much, much cheaper, a gasoline-thirsty Grand Cherokee would be just the ticket. But in the UK where things are different, the Grand Cherokee feels more like a niche vehicle. Which in actual fact isn’t necessary a bad thing. The Grand Cherokee now deserves a look as a credible alternative to the safe options.

Cornering in the 2013 Jeep Grand Cherokee

The latest update helps to puts the Cher in the Grand Cherokee. A mid-life facelift that hints of someone or something trying desperately hard to stay current in a changing world. The undoubted talent is most certainly there, but it’s just a little rough around the edges.

An abundance of soul and character creates a positive case for ownership in the heart v head debate, but outside of PetrolBlog circles how many people really allow their heart to rule their head? And that could be a problem for Jeep.

Time will tell – the new Jeep Grand Cherokee goes on sale in July.

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Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

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