— For several years, Chrysler has made a lot of cars that looked great on the outside but disappointed on the inside.
The big 300 sedan is a great example. It's gangsta-styled body was gorgeous — almost Bentley-like — but its interior was just the opposite. It was roomy but also cheap, which was a big drawback for buyers who comparison shopped among models from Ford and GM.
As it entered its later years, the Jeep Grand Cherokee was the same way. It had rugged good looks on the outside, but inside it was putting on pretensions of luxury. It won over people for its off-road ability more than its cabin construction.
Well, there's a new Chrysler now, and it's finally fixed that problem with plastic interiors. The new 2011 Grand Cherokee shows how Chrysler has turned a corner.
Granted, there's a lot more to the new Grand Cherokee than its snazzy cabin, but that's what you will notice most if you've spent much time in its predecessors.
The new Grand Cherokee is classy inside. It feels solid. You want to touch it, love it and treat it carefully, which might seem odd for a rough-and-tumble brand like Jeep.
Soft materials help with the upscale feeling, but you also get the sense that designers paid more attention to details. Switches feel more precise; panel gaps are almost nonexistent; wood trim and strips of chrome make you wonder if you're in something expensive and European.
The driving feel isn't as big an improvement. It still feels like a Jeep, with a relatively firm suspension and that heavy, built-from-pig iron sensation over the road.
Acceleration is excellent with the 5.7-liter V8, although it's also available with a more efficient Pentastar V6 that gets up to 23 mpg on the highway.
For off-road driving — which is really what the Grand Cherokee is designed to do — there is a new air suspension system that can vary the ride height depending on what you're trying to accomplish. Five settings cover everything from extreme off-road driving (giving you 10.7 inches of ground clearance) to a special low-rider mode that makes it easier to climb in and out of the cabin.
Jeep also offers the Selec-Terrain traction control system that uses computers to help you gain footing in different conditions. A knob lets you pick from sand/mud, sport, auto, snow and rock to adjust the powertrain, brakes and suspension for better performance.
In fact, all the luxury and off-road tech is reminiscent of a Land Rover, although for a lot less money. It starts just over $30,000.
If you select enough options, you get a vehicle that pushes the limits of luxury for the Jeep brand, offering things you just wouldn't expect from a tough, American off-roader. My test car, for example, had a power lift gate in back, heated steering wheel, heated and cooled seats, radar cruise control and a stereo with a hard drive to store MP3 music files.
It's also got a high-class body. One relative, who admittedly isn't a car buff, mistakenly thought it was a Lexus. The styling is sleek, at least by Jeep standards, and provides a wonderfully fresh interpretation of what a Jeep ought to look like.
Overall the new Grand Cherokee is a sign Chrysler is getting back on track. It's a major improvement over the old model, especially inside the cabin, but it's also not sacrificing the off-road capability that made Jeep famous.
Derek Price is editor of The Herald-Banner in Greenville, Texas. CNHI News Service distributes his automobile review column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What was tested?
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4x2 ($36,320). Options: Paint upgrade
($225), blind spot warning and adaptive cruise control ($1,295),
Luxury Group II ($1,495), V8 engine ($1,495), Media Center Navigation
System ($750), premium wheels ($1,395). Price as tested (including
$780 destination charge): $43,455
Why buy it?
The new cabin is amazing. It feels luxurious and classy, but it retains its legendary off-road driving ability.
Why avoid it?
That off-road suspension means you'll have to live with a rough ride. It's smooth by Jeep standards but far firmer than crossovers designed for driving around town.