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The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee has seven-passenger capability, offers luxury, and can go off road.

Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

After 30 years of winning awards, Jeep is once again aiming for the heights with the redesigned and reconfigured fifth-generation 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The full-size SUV has upped its game by adding third-row seating for the first time. An electrified version is promised later this year.

It’s hard to stand out in the SUV segment these days with every automaker pushing a variety of sizes and forms to meet any conceivable buyer’s desires. This one is large, it has seven-passenger capability, offers luxury, and can go off road. But can it really do it all?

Short answer: it depends on how you spec the vehicle. The Grand Cherokee starts with four base models with MSRPs ranging from $52,495 to $74,495. From there you can add a world of options to make the SUV into a true off-roader, a luxury people-hauler, or a family soccer shuttle and vacation platform.

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Our tester was an Overland model equipped with the Off-Road Group, and enough other options to boost the $68,995 sticker price to $80,265. What it didn’t get was the optional V8 – a 5.7-litre 357 HP engine – instead relying on the wimpy 290-horse 3.6 litre V6. Although sticking with the base power plant keeps the cost down by $3,495, it feels weak for the size of the vehicle.

However, a test on a gnarly, steep and rocky summer-only road switchbacking its way up Ontario’s Niagara escarpment showed the 4x4 Overland’s off-road cred is real. The off-road package amps up the SUVs traction, ground clearance, manoeuvrability, and articulation and includes high-strength steel skid plates, electronic limited slip differential rear axle, 18-inch aluminum wheels and rugged, all-season tires. The Overland powered its way up the trail like a mountain goat with seldom a wrong foot, and came back down in a comfortable, controlled crawl, using the hill descent control function.

It was a convincing demonstration, but begs the question of why anyone would want a fancy Grand Cherokee for off-roading. It felt like driving a leathered-up limo into the backwoods. We got where we wanted to be, but tears would be shed if the luxurious SUV got stuck, or worse, dented and scratched.

The Grand Cherokee is meant for Jeep enthusiasts, just not those who want a purpose-built off-roader. Stellantis says the vehicle is aimed at repeat customers and star-struck aficionados of the brand. That makes sense. The Grand Cherokee’s competitors – Kia Telluride, Ford Explorer, and Toyota Highlander – all have a cheaper entry point and similar base engine output. Grand Cherokee buyers will probably be looking for the feeling of a rugged Jeep experience, albeit urbanized into a family hauler.

Our tester certainly had good city manners and was road-trip ready. The luxury tech package provided very relaxing massage seats, wireless charging and zone-based AC, while the advanced tech option added a rear backup camera washer, surround camera, interior rear seat camera, night vision, active driving assist and more. The camera system, in particular, was needed for tight-space manoeuvring.

A few deficiencies appeared on our test drive, however, with an annoying rattle in the driver’s side air vent, tinny sounding doors, an occasional rough shift from the 8-speeed transmission, and a fair bit of road noise. You can also hear a lot of mechanical noise from various servos doing their thing with the active suspension.

Nonetheless, the 2021 Grand Cherokee is an adaptable jack-of-all-trades. Optioned correctly, it will be able to do pretty much anything you need of it. But do shop around because its competitors are offering a lot of similar content for potentially less cash.

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Tech specs

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Base price: $68,995

Price as tested: $80,265

Engine: 3.6-litre V6

Transmission/drive: 8-speed, 4x4

Fuel economy (litres/100kms; combined): 11.4

Alternatives: Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Kia Telluride

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Looks

A new front fascia is more functional than decorative, concealing numerous sensors and cameras.

Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

Although the Grand Cherokee has been redesigned for the 2021 model year, the SUV retains its essential original-SUV character. Its long hood, upright snout and signature grille leave no question about its Jeep heritage. A new front fascia gives the impression of a yawning maw, and is more functional than decorative, concealing numerous sensors and cameras. Skinny, horizontal LED lights update the look.

The full-size SUV has upped its game by adding third-row seating for the first time.

Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

Interior

Spacious and understated, the interior of the Overland tester employed black leather with dark wood inlays to convey a masculine luxury. The new design includes larger windows and a panoramic sunroof, which together make the interior welcoming and bright. Visibility is good, although without the rear-view cameras and blind spot warning system reversing and changing lanes are risky.

Performance

In an unfortunate bit of specifying, the tester was equipped with the smaller 3.6-litre engine. It felt anemic and slow to respond to throttle inputs on the highway and in stop-start driving. The engine and transmission together produce an ugly whine, and the transmission was occasionally quite rough on shifting. Off-road performance is enjoyable and sure-footed.

A 10.1-inch display for the UConnect 5 and camera systems.

Emily Atkins/The Globe and Mail

Technology

Central to the in-car tech is a 10.1-inch display for the new Uconnect 5 system. A 10.25-inch frameless digital gauge cluster offers two dozen menus for choosing driver-assist technologies, such as adaptive cruise control, highway assist, night vision, drowsy driver detection and speed limit traffic signs display. Avoid driver distraction and bring along a co-pilot.

Cargo

Although it’s a three-row SUV, the Grand Cherokee can really shine as a cargo hauler. With those rear seats folded flat you can pack in enough gear to fill 1,328 litres, and with both sets of seats stowed capacity almost doubles, to 2395 litres. With an optional towing package it will pull 2,812 kilograms with the 3.6-litre engine, and 3,300 with the 5.7-litre V8. A delightful bonus is the automatically flipping and folding feature for third row and folding second row that are controlled from a row of buttons in the cargo compartment.

The verdict

Building your own Jeep Grand Cherokee with the options you want will net you a functional ride with a strong pedigree. You’ll likely pay more than for a comparable competitor to get the Jeep badge.

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The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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