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It’s no secret that sport-utility vehicles have become the preferred mode of transportation for motorists across the U.S. and beyond, but with a contingent of enthusiasts as fanatical as Jeep owners, a top-down redesign of a vehicle like the Jeep Grand Cherokee isn’t necessarily a guaranteed win.
First introduced in 1993, just as American buyers were warming up to the idea of the SUV as an everyday vehicle, the Grand Cherokee soon went on to become one of the best-selling models in Jeep’s history. As the years went on, the automaker expanded the Grand Cherokee’s skill set, adding more capability, luxury, technology, and hair-raising performance along the way, which has in turn raised expectations across the board.
To meet those rising expectations, Jeep engineers took a clean-sheet approach to the all-new, fifth generation SUV. Not only does this 2021 model debut a new look and a wealth of technology never before seen in the Grand Cherokee, it also introduces an all-new vehicle architecture that has enabled Jeep to address one of the biggest requests from customers – an optional third row.
But there’s a lot more going on here than just revised sheet metal, new buttons to press, and some extra seating. To get a better sense of how it all works together, we grabbed the keys to this decked out Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve 4x4 and hit the road.
The fifth generation Grand Cherokee’s bodywork is a bit more understated than its predecessor, but the key Jeep traits are there. The signature seven-slot grille has been updated to be wider with larger individual openings. LED headlights are standard on all trim levels of the new Grand Cherokee, as are LED taillights.
It’s clear from moment you lay eyes on the new Grand Cherokee L that this is no minor refresh of existing hardware. The first thing that catches your attention is the size – this thing is big, measuring a full 15 inches longer and an inch and a half wider than the two-row model from the outgoing generation (a two-row version of the new WL Grand Cherokee will arrive before the end of the year). As with the Grand Cherokees that came before it, the 2021 model is underpinned by a unibody chassis. About 60% of this new architecture utilizes high-strength steel, while aluminum is used for elements like the front subframe, shock towers, hood, and rear hatch to help keep the weight down.
The beltline has been lowered versus the outgoing model to allow for a more spacious cabin and improved outward visibility, and the bodywork adopts the design language that we first saw with the new Grand Wagoneer. Although it isn’t quite as distinctive as the outgoing Grand Cherokee’s, there’s an understated, minimalist charm to it – particularly in this spec, which fills in the trapezoidal wheel wells with 21-inch hoops and adds a gloss black roof for a two-tone look. With LED lighting all around and a very cohesive aesthetic, the new Grand Cherokee might not be rakishly handsome or particularly daring from an exterior design standpoint, but it does look genuinely premium.
The 2021 Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve’s interior is flat-out gorgeous. With the McIntosh stereo bumping and the massage seats going, you’d be hard pressed to find a more pleasant place to spend time at the helm under six figures. Third row seating is available for the first time ever in the Grand Cherokee with the L model. Although they aren’t the swankest chairs in the house, the third row provides head and leg room for real adults – and a ton of storage capability when they’re folded down.
The cabin is where things start to get really interesting. It’s an all-new layout as well, and it’s a stunner in this top-tier trim. Outfitted with premium materials like open-pore waxed walnut wood and quilted Palermo leather, it’s complemented by luxury features like heated, ventilated, and massaging front seats, active noise canceling, and a 10.1-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Uconnect 5, the latter of which boasts five times the processing power of the previous generation system and supports wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A 19-speaker, 950-watt audio system from McIntosh – a company normally associated with ultra-high-end home audio equipment – is on the options sheet as well.
Although the Summit Reserve trim is lavishly appointed, Jeep made sure not to lose sight of the off-road capability that put Jeep on the map in the first place. To that end, this Grand Cherokee L features a Quadra-Lift air suspension with adaptive dampers, Jeep’s Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive system, and a traction management system with five unique terrain modes. A multi-link independent setup is used at all four corners to provide solid on-road driving manners, but the air suspension can be raised to provide 10.9 inches of ground clearance in the highest off-road mode. It equates to approach, breakover and departure angles of 28.2, 22.6 and 23.6 degrees, respectively, and there are other trims that offer an even better approach angle (30.1 degrees for the Overland, for example) thanks to the use of a more off-road-friendly front bumper design.
The standard powerplant is a 293 horsepower naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6, but those who’re looking for a bit more oomph (and a better soundtrack) can opt for the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 that we’ve got here, which offers up 357 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque and bumps towing capacity up from 6200 pounds to 7200 pounds. Regardless of engine choice, the grunt is channeled through an eight-speed automatic that can be controlled manually by way of steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
21-inch wheels are a first for the Grand Cherokee and come standard as part of the Summit Reserve package. While they look great and require minimal compromise in terms of ride quality, we would be hesitant to have these on the Jeep when out on a trail. Scratching these up in the rougher country? No, thank you.
Before venturing out of my driveway, I spent an inordinate amount of time just soaking in the legitimately opulent interior and listening to the seriously kick-ass McIntosh stereo. Although you can find a few signs of the Grand Cherokee’s sub-$40K starting price if you look hard enough, the interior of the Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve is truly remarkable for a vehicle in its price range ($58,995 base; $69,070 as-tested with destination). It looks incredible, every touch surface is very high quality, and with features you’d expect to find in a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, it all adds up to a very nice place to hang out for extended periods of time.
In Summit Reserve trim, the Grand Cherokee L is a luxury sport-utility first and everything else second: Even with four wheel drive and Jeep’s impressive terrain management system, the 21-inch wheels set off-road aspirations fairly low. Pairing an air suspension with adaptive dampers is a first for Jeep and a revelation on the road, however, yielding luxury car-like ride quality in the Auto drive mode during everyday motoring despite the huge rollers and low profile tires.
A downward click on the center console’s drive mode selector switches Grand Cherokee L over the Sport mode, which hunkers the suspension down, tenses up the dampers, and sets the transmission up for more urgent response. Weighing in at well over 5000 pounds, the L isn’t sporty by any stretch of the imagination, but it also never felt out of sorts when asked to hustle down a mountain road. A toggle switch on the other side of the console allows you to raise and lower the air suspension to five different heights manually if you so choose – a process that is quicker in the 2021 Grand Cherokee L than in previous models thanks to a new design which uses dual tanks.
Tuning the Grand Cherokee for whatever conditions you encounter is simply a matter of toggling a switch. The Quadra-Trac has five unique terrain modes for whatever you are driving on or through, and the Quadra-Lift air suspension raises or lowers the Grand Cherokee, providing up to a maximum of 10.9 inches of ground clearance. The optional 5.7L Hemi V8 is a nice improvement over the standard 3.6L V6, but we were left wondering if the 6.4L engine would have been a better option.
If there’s a weak link in the Summit Reserve’s armor, it’s actually what’s under the hood. As mentioned earlier, the 5.7-liter Hemi is an optional upgrade over the standard V6, but even the bigger mill seemed stressed at times when called upon to move the Grand Cherokee L with purpose. While nearly every other element of the Grand Cherokee has been continually improved over the years, the 5.7-liter Hemi has seen very little development since it was given its last significant update way back in 2009. In 2021, its age is really starting to show. It would be wise to expect an SRT model to properly address this with a 6.4-liter mill, and there is always the potential for a reborn Trackhawk to absolutely obliterate any notion of the Grand Cherokee lacking for power when the blown 6.2-liter Hemi is providing the motivation.
For now, though, the new Grand Cherokee L sets a tone for models to come that shows a significantly greater emphasis on luxury. Although that can seem a bit incongruous with a brand that’s synonymous with off-road capability, the reality is that the vast majority of Grand Cherokees spend their entire lives on well-maintained pavement rather that fording rivers and crawling over rocks. This sport-utility handles the former with aplomb not only from a dynamic standpoint, but also in terms of the features and technology available. It’s an impressive family hauler and road trip machine as it sits right now, and we can’t wait to see what Jeep does with it once they bring SRT into the mix.