DETROIT – Jeep brand loyalists have been wondering what’s taken so long for a three-row model to arrive.
The U.S. market is flooded with two types of competent, popular utility vehicles accommodating up to eight people – car-based unibody CUVs and truck-based body-on-frame SUVs that tend to be bigger. Jeep is working the three-row equation from both sides of the ledger with the all-new Grand Cherokee and, before long, the body-on-frame Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer.
Since Jeep dropped the three-row Commander in 2010, its customers had to shop the Dodge Durango or offerings from multiple rivals. It’s been more than a decade of missed sales opportunities for the rugged off-road brand.
That all changes this year as the redesigned Grand Cherokee launches from an all-new plant on Detroit’s east side, and the first version reaching showrooms has a long wheelbase and a third row that seats two adults comfortably. A two-row Grand Cherokee, as well as plug-in hybrid variant, launches from the same plant later on.
Based on recent sales trends, the all-new Grand Cherokee L is positioned to build market share. The outgoing model – of course, with only two rows – managed 55,198 first-quarter deliveries in the Middle SUV segment as tracked by Wards Intelligence. That’s good for second place behind the Ford Explorer but well ahead of Durango and Toyota 4Runner.
If the Grand Cherokee were part of the Large CUV segment – where it surely is cross-shopped – it would have been No.2 to the Toyota Highlander in the first quarter while easily outpacing the Chevy Traverse, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Nissan Pathfinder, Subaru Ascent, VW Atlas and several others.
Based on a recent test drive of the new Grand Cherokee L, these rival brands should be nervous. The exterior shape is a homerun, carrying on all the distinctive Jeep styling cues while incorporating sleek headlamps flanking an upright, modern interpretation of the brand-essential seven-slot grille.
The interior is comfortable, ergonomic and upscale; highway driving dynamics are spot-on; carryover V-6 and V-8 powertrains get the job done; and the off-road credentials have been verified on steep rockpiles and sketchy surfaces at Stellantis’ Chelsea, MI, proving grounds.
On smooth pavement, the Grand Cherokee L is a comfortable cruiser with its optional class-exclusive Quadra-Lift air suspension with electronic adaptive damping and accelerating easily with the trusted 3.6L Pentastar V-6 rated at 293 hp.
For customers planning to tow, the optional 5.7L Hemi pushrod V-8, with 357 hp, can tow up to 7,200 lbs. (3,265 kg). In Chelsea, the V-8 had no problem pulling a 7,000-lb. (3,175-k) boat, and the Grand Cherokee with its independent front and rear suspension stayed reasonably flat in a short slalom course.
For those hitting the trail, three different 4x4 systems are available, and Selec-Terrain traction management offers five modes for handling snow, sand, mud – you name it. From 18 to 21 ins., there’s an all-season tire for every situation supplied by Michelin, Bridgestone, Pirelli or Continental.
As handsome as the Grand Cherokee L is on the outside, it’s warm and alluring inside, conveying a sense of handcraftsmanship with a large, metallic, knurled rotary control dial serving as a focal point in the center console.
In our top-of-the-range Summit Reserve tester (pictured above), the door trim and black Palermo leather seats are dressed with gorgeous diamond-in-diamond accent stitching in light brown, perfectly complementing the open-pore matte-finish oak wood trim that extends from the doors to the steering wheel and across the instrument panel.
Walnut trim is available, and the lighter interior shades – light beige and a rich caramel – are attractive as well.
Every seating position is comfortable, even in the third row, where Jeep wisely accommodates two adults, rather than trying to wedge in three. This is the first time a Grand Cherokee is long enough for a third row. Third-row occupants get cupholders and USB ports, too.
The user experience is impressive as well, underpinned by the new fifth-generation Uconnect infotainment architecture driving a 10.1-in. (26-cm) high-definition display atop the center stack. Menus are simple to navigate, information is customizable, smartphones pair easily and the McIntosh premium audio system sounds amazing.
Also new is a 10.25-in. reconfigurable digital gauge cluster with access to nearly two dozen menus for driver-assist technologies, night vision and much more.
The systems are controlled with steering wheel buttons that – if we need something to complain about – are a bit too small, as thumbs come in contact more readily with the surrounding trim than the intended button.
The Grand Cherokee L (pictured above) is on sale now and arriving in showrooms with a starting price of $36,995 for a base Laredo trim. There are five trims in all, capped off by Summit Reserve, which starts at $61,995. Our Summit Reserve tester stickered at $66,275, including $1,695 destination charge.
Jeep managers understand how late they are to the three-row party, but they’re quickly making up for lost time.