The original Jeep Grand Cherokee was an instant smash hit — former Chrysler President Bob Lutz driving the first SUV off the line, up the steep steps at Detroit’s Cobo Hall and straight through a plate glass window.
Throughout the years, the Grand Cherokee has remained one of the mainstays of the midsize sport-utility vehicle segment, despite an onslaught of new competitors. But it has had a few weaknesses that Jeep is finally ready to address with the first three-row version of the familiar SUV.
Add an updated design and some impressive new technology, but retain the classic, go-anywhere capabilities, and you have the all-new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L.
The “L” designation, as you might guess, signifies the long-wheelbase version of the Grand Cherokee. Those who want the standard, two-row version of the Jeep will just have a wait a few months for it to undergo a complete makeover.
To accommodate three rows, Jeep has stretched the new model by 15 inches, nose-to-tail, to 204.9. The wheelbase has grown by 7 inches. For those who might be serious about pushing the new Grand Cherokee L to the limits, two other numbers should catch your attention: 10.9 inches of ground clearance, and the ability to ford 24 inches of water — 2 inches more than the outgoing SUV.
Jeep has managed to enhance the Grand Cherokee’s already impressive off-road capabilities while also improving its manners. Indeed, the interior has been upgraded to the point where high-level trim packages could readily be compared to the likes of a Range Rover or Mercedes-Benz GLE. And new technology, including the latest Uconnect infotainment system, readily stands up to all comers.
It’s always a challenge redesigning “a legend,” said Mark Allen, Jeep’s head of exterior styling, so the look of the Grand Cherokee L was clearly meant to be evolutionary. There are inherent changes, of course, when you stretch the overall length of a vehicle by more than a foot. But Allen and his team did a surprisingly good job of retaining the traditional Grand Cherokee design cues. The 2021 three-row model looks new and, yet, familiar at the same time.
There’s more sculpting to the doors and fenders, while the beltline is slightly lower. And all new Grand Cherokee models now come with standard LED fog lamps, headlights and taillights. The headlights are more slit-like, while the grille leans more aggressively forward, picking up a few ideas from last year’s Grand Wagoneer Concept.
Other changes include a built-in rear spoiler and roof rack, more platinum-hued chrome, and American flag emblems by the Grand Cherokee badges. Each trim level, such as the Overland and Summit Reserve, will add unique design details and accents, notably in grille detailing. The trail-focused Overland model features special bumpers designed to maximize approach and departure angles.
There are a few Easter eggs inside and out, including the small American flags worked into the Grand Cherokee nameplates. That’s meant to be a nod, Allen said, to “when Jeep wasn’t even a brand but a service vehicle.”
Inside, the goal was to “create something very different” from the outgoing Grand Cherokee, said interior designer Chris Benjamin. The visual theme is more horizontal, and there’s a use of more upgraded and elegant materials, such as real wood, real leather and suede for the headliner on higher-trim packages. Details like double-cross-stitching are lifted right from the new Grand Wagoneer and give the 2021 Grand Cherokee L a level of luxury never before seen in the SUV.
Also borrowed from the Grand Wagoneer Concept, the new Grand Cherokee offers a custom-designed McIntosh audiophile sound system, complete with an app for the touchscreen replicating that brand’s familiar analog needle display. But more on the SUV’s long list of technology in a moment.
Even with a stretched wheelbase, one of my concerns was to see how effectively that was used to shoehorn in the third row. Surprisingly well, it turns out. Jeep officials insist the back bench is “no penalty box,” and someone of my 6-foot-2-inch height should be able to travel in the third row in reasonable comfort — Jeep even adding cupholders and USB ports back there. And there’s enough room behind the third row for plenty of cargo.
Equally impressive, those in the second row now get two more inches of legroom. The mid-row seats, meanwhile, slide forward and tilt to make access to the back surprisingly easy.
Buyers have a choice of two powertrains, starting with the all-aluminum 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 engine, rated at 290 horsepower and 257 pound-feet of torque.
For my first, long drive, I spent a day in a Jeep Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve with the 5.7-liter V-8 rated at 357 hp and 390 lb-ft. Like the V-6, it’s mated to an 8-speed automatic. For those who have a large trailer, this is the option of choice, with a tow capacity of 7,200 pounds.
Jeep will offer three all-wheel-drive systems for the Grand Cherokee line: the Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II with rear electronic limited-slip differential.
In terms of fuel economy, a rear-wheel-drive V-6 Grand Cherokee L will get you 19 mpg in the city, 26 highway and 21 combined. That drops to 18/25/21 for the all-wheel-drive V-6. The EPA rating for the Hemi V-8 — available only with AWD — is 14/22/17.
Those who want something a little more fuel-efficient and lower in emissions should stand by. Jeep will soon add a plug-in hybrid option to the Grand Cherokee. While details are scarce, look for it to share the 4xe designation first introduced on the Wrangler line. And don’t confuse this with the anemic PHEVs of the past. I’ve learned this will actually enhance off-road capabilities, deliver perhaps the best performance of the line — and also yield 20 miles or more in all-electric range.
In fact, I’d be surprised if Jeep doesn’t encourage the use of the electric drive system alone for off-roading. Electric motors yield massive amounts of instant torque, as the Wrangler 4xe proves, yet you can travel a trail in near silence.
Safety and Technology
That optional McIntosh audio system was one of the coolest features available at launch on the new Grand Cherokee L, but there’s plenty of other, impressive technology onboard.
There are now three digital screens, at least if you go for the optional head-up display, which offers a lot of useful information, including navigation guidance. Each, including the digital gauge cluster, infotainment system touchscreen and HUD, measures about 10 inches.
The latest Uconnect system offers a dazzling degree of capabilities. And customizability. You can move features and apps around as readily as on a smartphone – and as easily. The system makes it surprisingly easy to find what you want, most key functions either on the home screen or just one level down.
The new system also operates five times faster than the outgoing Uconnect package. It has Amazon’s Alexa built in. And it features the ability to use over-the-air updates to not only download content but to upgrade new features and even fix vehicle software glitches that once would have required a service call.
Meanwhile, there are traditional climate controls, a real tuning knob and additional manual controls on the steering wheel.
Like so many other new vehicles, a new smartphone app allows owners to operate vehicle functions remotely.
Other features include infrared night vision which automatically spots and highlights obstacles, such as deer that might run out across the road. And Jeep’s first semi-autonomous system, Active Ride Assist, helps you steer, though you still need maintain at least a light grip on the wheel.
In terms of safety, Jeep officials claim to have packed in as many as 110 different features. That includes standard advanced driver assistance systems like automatic emergency braking, blind-spot detection and park assist, as well as such options as night vision and surround view.
From a more conventional, mechanical standpoint, the Grand Cherokee L offers the Quadralift air suspension — a standard feature on top trim levels — that can raise or lower the vehicle a combined 110 millimeters, or a little more than 4 inches. You can control that manually, say, when going over rough terrain.
But the system also will raise or lower automatically under certain conditions. You’ll squat down at highway speeds, for example. And switch the terrain management system to “Mud and Ruts,” for another example, and it will raise 60 mm, while also adjusting functions like throttle response and shifts.
I spent much of my day with the Grand Cherokee L driving on-road, both on winding local pavement and on Michigan’s fast freeways. The big Hemi performs admirably. It’s quick off the line and makes high-speed passes with ease. Overall, the driving experience is a step up from before. The SUV is easy to handle, corners with minimal body roll and provides moderately light steering but good road feel.
Passengers will enjoy the surprisingly quiet ride, Jeep adding more NVH damping, including an active noise cancellation system.
The real fun started while spending a couple hours out at the parent company’s proving grounds in Chelsea, Michigan, where I got to flog the Grand Cherokee on the sort of vehicle development course that can jog loose your fillings. The SUV easily bounded across a large log pile, splashed through a deep pond and then maneuvered across a boulder-strewn path that, at one point, had me leaning at what seemed like a 45-degree angle sideways.
The Selec-Terrain system and features like Hill Descent Control made it easy to dial in vehicle settings perfect for each challenge.
From the time it made its audacious debut back in 1992, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has been one of the most rugged and dependable bets in the midsize SUV segment. But there have been some shortfalls the new Grand Cherokee L admirably addresses. It’s now got the third row that three-quarters of buyers in this segment want. And it has taken things dramatically upmarket in terms of refinement and features.
Yet, the 2021 Grand Cherokee L is surprisingly well priced for what you get. The base Laredo trim starts at just $36,995, with the Limited — typically the most popular trim — priced at $43,995. The off-road oriented Overland comes in at $52,995, and the Summit at $56,995. There’s a near fully loaded Summit Reserve at $61,995 that offers just two options: tow accessories and a rear seat entertainment package.
Add $2,000 for all-wheel drive, and $1,695 in delivery fees.
Based on my initial drive, I fully expect the 2021 Grand Cherokee L to gain new traction in the crowded midsize SUV market.