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2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo

Improved Jeep SUV a good suburban 'image ride' Add to ...

Better? Absolutely. Fabulous? That would be a stretch. The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee will not save the reinvented Chrysler Corporation, but it is a promising start.

Still, there is just no overlooking the challenge Jeep faces here. In a nutshell, the engineers and designers needed to conjure up a balance of on-road refinement with off-road prowess.

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Compromises, right? The most telling of them is the longish suspension travel, which allows for rock climbing in the outback, but also contributes to a somewhat busy higher ride. Certainly the Jeep's ride motions are better controlled than, say, the Toyota 4Runner's, a key rival. But then, the Toyota rides on a truck-based frame, while the Jeep has a car-like unibody.

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On the whole, however, Jeep's fourth-generation Grand Cherokee has a pretty good story to tell. For starters, the cabin is nicely finished, with lots of soft-touch materials all around and, in my tester, rich-feeling leather seats. The rear seatback folds flat to expand cargo room, but this still is not the roomiest SUV on the road.

Of course, it's not meant to be. The Grand Cherokee is what you might call a suburban SUV. It's the wealthy family's station wagon replacement with a standard four-wheel-drive system for ski cabin runs and snowy driveways.

At the same time, the Grand Cherokee is an image ride. If you drive a Grand Cherokee, you're saying you have some money, stay active, and are unwilling to be as boastful as a Land Rover LR4 driver.

Buyers of this 2011 Grand Cherokee are also saying they're willing to put some renewed faith in a Chrysler Corp. aggressively trying to reinvent itself. Think about the history here. This Grand Cherokee is the end product of three companies (Daimler, Cerberus and now Fiat, which controls Chrysler) and a handful of CEOs. Thumbprints everywhere, right?

The most important are those of Fiat SpA, which took over after Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy. Under Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, Chrysler delayed the launch of the latest Grand Cherokee to make sure the quality was right. Everyone at Chrysler insists they held up the launch to be sure they nailed reliability and durability.

Let's hope so. The latest quality studies have nothing particularly good to say about anything from Chrysler. Going forward, Jeep's flagship is a metaphor for the brand, so it better be perfect. As the Grand C goes, so will Jeep.

The starter model is the Laredo ($37,995) with its all-new 3.6-litre V-6 mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. Lots of grunt here: 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque. In fact, all Grand Cs have this V-6, even the top-of-the-line Overland ($49,495). A 5.7-litre V-8 is optional for $1,900 and, yes, it's a Hemi. Jeep just isn't playing up the fact.

At 360 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque, $1,900 buys you more grunt; if you tow, you might want it. Still, the V-6 can pull 2,268 kg, just like the V-8. The V-6, naturally, gets better fuel economy, though the ideal choice for a tow vehicle is a diesel. Jeep doesn't have one, but the need exists.

Regardless of engine, the overall ride is smooth and quiet. The engineers did lots of work on the suspension and chassis while the designers tidied up the sheet-metal to improve aerodynamics. On top of that, in went extra sound-deadening material. Quiet? Yes.

The fully loaded Overland, which will cost you nearly $53,000, can be had with an adjustable air suspension (the ride height goes up and down three inches) and Jeep also has added a Selec-Terrain system, similar to the one found in Land Rover. It allows you to tell the Grand Cherokee what road or non-road conditions you are dealing with and adjusts the powertrain, braking and suspension accordingly.

Meanwhile, the exterior designers softened up the Grand Cherokee's look. Eye-catching? Not really. Rather, this Grand Cherokee looks like a less aggressive version of the last one.

The interior designers took things further, including a new LCD screen in the instrument panel. That's a welcome change. The gauges are big and clear, while a small screen between the speedo and the tach lets you scrolls through a variety of information outputs.

Then there is the centre stack where you'll find user-friendly controls for the radio and so on. The controls operate intuitively and I loved the steering wheel - thick and heavy in your hands, it feels good.

This Grand Cherokee began life as a shared platform between Chrysler and Mercedes. The basics of the Grand C are shared with the next-generation Mercedes ML ute, though the companies tune things differently.

The point is, Daimler's loss is Fiat/Chrysler's gain. Yes, a promising start.

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo

Type: Mid-size SUV

Price: $37,995 ($1,400 freight)

Engine: 3.6-litre V-6

Horsepower/torque: 290 hp/260 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 13.0 city/8.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota 4Runner, Land Rover LR4, Acura MDX, Audi Q5, BMW X3, Cadillac SRX, Mercedes-Benz ML, Infiniti FX35, Lincoln MKX, Lexus RX350, Volkswagen Touareg

jcato@globeandmail.com

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