Nov. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Like grunge rock and flannel, sport utility vehicles were one of the biggest fads of the 1990s. If you mumbled the lyrics to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” while piloting a Ford Explorer in 1994, you were the zeitgeist.
If the Explorer was the most popular SUV, Chrysler’s Jeep Grand Cherokee wasn’t far behind. It started life in 1993, emphasizing off-roading ability while tantalizing buyers with unimagined luxuries like a keyless remote and leather seats.
No matter that the tires rarely touched dirt, by the late ’90s it was the vehicle of choice for adventure-loving moms in northern New Jersey.
When Chrysler hitched its fortune to the SUV craze for too long, the car died, leaving a dearth of new products. The company is still grasping for relevancy.
Which makes the all-new, 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee a litmus test. Is it the right vehicle for today?
A look at gas mileage quickly quells high hopes. Despite a new V-6 engine, it gets 16 city, 22 highway. That’s barely better than the original 1993 Limited 4X4 model, which saw 15 and 20.
There is no direct injection or turbo-charging, so power is lackluster at 290 horses and 260 pound-feet of torque. It’s also got a five-speed automatic, about as cutting edge as another 90s relic -- the Tickle Me Elmo toy.
A V-8 Hemi engine, with 5.7 liters, is optional. It gets 360 horsepower and 390 pound-feet of torque. A better option if you’re towing stuff like boats, but otherwise gas mileage only gets worse.
Good news -- it looks cool. The Grand Cherokee has always had something unmistakably Western and adventuresome in its exterior DNA, and the 2011 model manages to retain its Jeep-ness while still looking fresh.
The iconic grill is there, though brighter and blingier than ever before. So are those squared-off wheel arches, also found on the Wrangler, that unmistakably read Jeep.
The side window columns are blacked out, with a strip of brightwork surrounding the glass -- an illusion first used by the Audi Q7 to deemphasize bulk. Both women and men from whom I solicited opinions liked the Grand Cherokee’s looks, suggesting that it doesn’t pander to a specific sex.
Pricing starts at $31,000 for the two-wheel-drive Laredo model, traveling upward with luxuries. I drove the four-wheel-drive Limited with a base sticker of $40,000; $45,590 as tested. The $43,000 Overland model is the top dog.
The new models are hundreds of dollars cheaper than the outgoing 2010 models, a smart enticement on Chrysler’s part.
A big part of a Jeep’s allure is the ability to run over rugged mountains, even for buyers who live in the flatlands of Ohio. That off-roading feature means some compromise of on-road performance since the demands of the two types of driving are so different.
Jeep takes an elegant approach -- one already perfected by Land Rover. Buyers can opt for an optional air suspension system, which alters the height of the truck. It will hunker down while on the freeway or rise while off-roading, allowing an impressive underside clearance of up to 10.7 inches.
Having a lower center of gravity makes a big difference when exiting off a highway ramp. While it isn’t as fine-tuned as a Porsche Cayenne SUV or a crossover like the Acura MDX, the latest Grand Cherokee handles far more like a car than its predecessors.
This includes road noise. At 75 miles per hour, other than the sound of the 18-inch tires, the cabin was quiet.
Rocks and Snow
If you do find yourself on a back road in the Appalachians, I have little doubt that the Jeep would live up to its name. The air-suspension system lets you adjust for the type of terrain you’re tackling. Simply dial in options like “rock” or “snow,” and the vehicle adjusts a host of systems such as the throttle sensitivity and stability control.
If none of the Jeep’s technology is exactly innovative, the company has made a serious effort to keep astride of luxury-level electronics. Rain-sensitive windshield wipers and heated seats are standard on the Limited.
For an extra $1,300, you get adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning and a blind-spot monitoring system that alerts you when another car is in that area.
The interior is agreeably straightforward and materials line up nicely with one another. It feels like more care has gone into the workmanship than I remember from previous models.
We’ll begin to better understand the future of Chrysler next year, when its alliance with Fiat should start bearing fruit. Expect smaller, high-mileage cars based on the Fiat platforms. With luck, we may see some Italian design flair.
The Grand Cherokee, though, is a throwback to the earlier Chrysler. It might provoke some nostalgia from certain buyers, but it’s hard to believe it will once more drive the company’s sales.
Like grunge rock, the hit days are long over.
The 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4X4 at a Glance
Engine: 3.6-liter V-6 with 290 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Five-speed automatic.
Speed: 0 to 60 in about 8 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 16 city, 23 highway.
Price as tested: $45,590.
Best features: Looks fresh; better interior.
Worst feature: The new V-6 delivers neither great mileage nor superior power.
Target buyer: Nostalgic SUV-lovers who like to mix dirt and comfort.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com or follow on Twitter @JasonHarperSpin.
To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.