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car review

The 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee features five trim levels.

Jeep is climbing new heights: 2012 brought record sales for the brand globally, thanks largely to its top-selling model, the Grand Cherokee.

Introduced internationally in 1992, nearly five million Grand Cherokees have been sold – more than 600,000 in markets outside of North America. And those numbers will likely continue to rise with the refreshed 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The 2014 version comes in five trims – Laredo, Limited, Overland, Summit Edition and the high-performance SRT from Chrysler's Street and Racing Technology division. The Summit is a brand-new model that ups the ante in its offerings with beefy 20-inch wheels, leather seats, real wood, copper interior accents and adaptive bi-xenon HID headlamps.

The big news for 2014 is the diesel engine. It's an optional 3.0-litre turbo-diesel V-6 mated to a new fully electronic eight-speed automatic transmission, which replaces the former five- and six-speed units.

The diesel delivers 240 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque and has a driving range of nearly 1,300 kilometres between fill-ups. On the highway, it averages an impressive 7.1 litres/100 km; in the city, it is rated at 10.3 litres/100 km. It's also built for towing; it can pull 3,265 kg – the same amount as the V-8.

The diesel engine is great. It pulls strongly, passing slower-moving vehicles easily and quickly. The diesel comes from engine manufacturing company VM Motori in Italy, which is partially owned by Fiat. The new diesel isn't as crude as the last diesel in the Grand Cherokee, which was built by Mercedes-Benz. But the engine is still a bit noisy, compared to more modern and refined German diesel engines you'd find in an Audi or BMW. With this engine, you won't forget it's a diesel or accidentally fill up with the wrong fuel. Yet, it's still my favourite among the engine offerings.

Two other engines are carryovers – a 3.6-litre V-6, which delivers 290 hp/260 lb-ft and a 5.7-litre V-8 with 360 hp/390 lb-ft. A new Eco mode system also optimizes the transmission's shift schedule in the V-8 models to save fuel. I'm not a big fan of the eco mode. When engaged, the vehicle seems sluggish and slow. But you can disengage the system by pressing a button on the centre stack for improved performance. Fuel Saver MDS technology also kills half of the cylinders at cruising speeds to save more fuel.

Our route winds from downtown Austin to the Inks Ranch in Llano, Tex., where we conquer a rugged off-road trail in the Limited V-8 4x4. Tackling Mother Nature proves a breeze, thanks to a lower crawl ratio and three 4x4 systems (Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, and Quadra-Drive II as well as height-adjustable air suspension and Jeep's Selec-Terrain traction system with five settings (sand, mud, auto, snow, and rock).

We set the system to rock and hit the trail – at times, two wheels are on the ground, while two others are dangling in mid-air. As we climb down steep rugged grades, the selec-speed control system with hill ascent/descent kicks in. It's impressive. You control the speed using the steering-wheel paddles – you don't even need to touch the brake or throttle pedal. The system does it for you, seamlessly and effortlessly.

The Grand Cherokee isn't just built for off-roading. The high-performance SRT trim is made for the track. It pumps out a hefty 470 hp and 465 lb-ft with the Grand Cherokee's most powerful engine – a 6.4-litre, Hemi V-8. We push it to the limit on the race track at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA).

On the track, it's a blast to drive; it's fast and mighty. It'll hit 0-100 km/h in 4.8 seconds and has a top speed of 257 km/h. Despite its hefty curb weight of 2,336 kg, it's surprisingly nimble and agile. A sport mode creates aggressive shifts; while a launch control system offers optimal acceleration from a standstill. And then there's the exhaust note – it's menacing and aggressive. Music to the ears.

From the outside, the Grand Cherokee looks the same – only a trained eye would spot the changes. The upper grille is shallower with slimmer headlamps. The lower front fascia is slightly elevated and the fog lamps have been raised. Jeep's classic seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheel arches stay the same. At the rear, the Grand Cherokee features larger tail lamps, a bigger rear spoiler, and new front and rear LED lighting.

The SRT gets a bolder design to distinguish it from its siblings. It has a vented hood, dual black four-inch exhaust tips, new 20-inch forged aluminum SRT design wheels, and blacked-out adaptive bi-xenon headlamps, tail lamps and front grille. The interior is also race-inspired with leather seats and perforated suede inserts, heated and cooled front seats embroidered with the SRT emblem, a red start/stop button, and metallic race-inspired pedals.

The Grand Cherokee also comes with more technology and features, including a new Uconnect system with an 8.4-inch multimedia touch-screen and 3-D navigation, a seven-inch multiview cluster display, a new leather-wrapped E-shifter for the eight-speed transmission and a new three-spoke steering wheel.

The 2014 Grand Cherokee starts at $39,995; while the SRT version costs $62,995. The new Summit Edition with a V-8 engine starts at $62,145. The diesel option adds $4,995 to the sticker of the Summit for a total of $67,140 – making it the most expensive Grand Cherokee on the road.

Tech Specs

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee

Type: Five-passenger, mid-size SUV

Price range: $39,995-67,140

Engines: 3.0-litre, DOHC, turbo-diesel V-6/3.6-litre, DOHC, V-6/5.7-litre, DOHC, V-8/6.4-litre, Hemi V-8

Horsepower/torque: 240 hp/420 l.-ft for diesel; 290 hp/260 lb-ft for 3.6 V-6; 360 hp/390 lb-ft for 5.7 V-8; 470hp/465 lb-ft for 6.4 Heni

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic

Drive: Two-wheel or four-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 10.3 city/7.1 highway; diesel fuel

Alternatives: Mercedes-Benz ML, BMW X-5, Audi Q5, Land Rover Evoque, Volkswagen Touareg

Twitter: @PetrinaGentile