Jeep's Grand Cherokee Captures Hearts of SUV-Lovers

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Jeep's Grand Cherokee Captures Hearts of SUV-Lovers

Underneath Jeep's sleek exterior lurks a serious off-road machine with the credentials that command instant respect on and off the road. The power is in the Jeep name. It just keeps on working its magic. You simply can't go wrong with an American icon.

Jeep: There's only one, as the ad campaign tagline goes. And imitators better beware. Take Jeep's famous grille, for example. In use for more than 50 years, the vertical grille design is jealously protected by no less than three federal trademark registrations. How jealously? Just ask GM, which has been sued by DaimlerChrysler for "misappropriating" the Jeep grille design for use on its new Hummer. DC argues it confuses people into thinking the Hummer is a Jeep product.

Last overhauled in 1999, Chrysler engineers didn't tamper with success but were content to add subtle improvements to a tried-and-true formula. The result is a very civilized and up-to-date SUV with an athletic stance and low profile that's very likeable. Not too tall nor overly long, it fits neatly and easily into just about any garage, which is something you can't say about a lot of its gargantuan rivals. With its compact outer dimensions, Grand Cherokee is a cinch to drive and maneuver even along Seoul's tiny sidestreets. One glaring omission is the lack of power-folding side mirrors. When negotiating tight spots around town or on the trail, mirror folding is habitual exercise that prevents accidental brushes with stationary or moving objects. After a while, all that fidgeting with the mirrors gets to be a nuisance. Jeep's designers obviously haven't done much driving in Seoul.

The Grand Cherokee seats five in reasonable comfort but the interior isn't nearly as big as the Mercedes-Benz ML320 one of its closest competitors. The beige-colored interior has a distinctive middle-of-the-road American ambiance. Simple and efficient, it works but it also leaves me indifferent. One niggling complaint: The bucket seats. The seat cushions were a bit too concave for my taste leaving me with an uncomfortable "squeezed" feeling about the thighs but other than that, cabin ergonomics were fine. Welcome comfort and convenience features include steering-wheel-mounted radio and cruise controls, dual-zone heater/AC system and a high-performance sound system with a 10-CD changer. But curiously, the Grand Cherokee is missing one important features that you'd expect of a top-of-the-line model namely seat warmers. Where are they?

The Grand Cherokee is offered in two flavors: the Laredo with Jeep's tried-and-true 4.0-liter OHV inline six that produces 195 horsepower, and the Limited which comes with a behemoth V-8 displacing 4.7 liters. Despite the massive iron, this V-8 delivered a 7.2 liter/100 km fuel economy rating that was quite impressive as good as some 3-liter cars. Credit Jeep's high tech engine technology that squeezes more mileage out of every drop of fuel. The V-8 is mated to a four-speed automatic and is impressively smooth throughout the rev range. Its 7.2-sec. 0-100 km/h time puts it at the head of the SUV class. Combined with the sure-footed traction of its Quadra-Drive II full-time 4WD system (controls wheelspin with progressive speed-sensing torque transfer differentials front, center, and rear, rather than via brake-application intervention, such as on the Mercedes), the Jeep is a master at rock crawling, where one or more wheels may be off the ground at a time. Tackle a scary hill and you'll quickly discover this is a capable performer.

Even though our test vehicle wasn't shod with knobby "off-road" tires, the Grand Cherokee's steering was a tad mushy and truck-like but within the acceptable range. The ride over pavement was a bit soggy but the suspension characteristics are a virtue off-road, so all in all, the "floaty" ride is something I could learn to live with.

Even if you never tackle anything more challenging than a speed bump, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is a fun-to-drive SUV that is never a handful in the city. Of course, when you're so inclined you can always go play in the mud and never have to worry. It's nice to have options and Jeep serves them up in spades.

Price of the 4.7L Limited as tested: 58.7 million won ($44,810).

Next Week: BMW 330i

by Oles Gadacz

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