Monster Jeep Burns Gas as It Takes on Porsche, BMW SUVs

Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8
The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 4x4 sells for $61,785 as tested. Source: Chrysler via Bloomberg

Twelve miles per gallon. That’s all the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 4x4 gets around town. As a privileged, high-horsepower SUV, this special edition seems primed for a Hummer level of vilification.

Why is it that the stuff that’s most fun is also the worst for us? By any rational measure, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is about as necessary as a single-pronged fork. But it’s also a 5,150-pound hunk of hurtling, bombastic fun.

I don’t think I could look a polar bear in the eye after stepping out of the $54,470 Jeep ($61,785 as tested). I’d done our environment wrong, repeatedly lighting up tires from stop lights.

This juggernaut of American excess will break average highway speed limits in 4.8 seconds. And you can find yourself a quarter mile down the road in around 13 seconds from a standing start if you never let up on the go pedal.

My reward for these transgressions? An average mpg of 13.4. Geez, I really am a bad person, despite what my mom says.

By comparison, the regular, 4x4 Grand Cherokee with lots of plush options costing around $40,000 is a moderate sipper. Its 3.6-liter V-6 gets 290 horsepower and yields 16 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway.

Sporty Suspension

The SRT edition jettisons that V-6 for a 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 packing 470 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque. It also gets an adaptive sport suspension and exterior tweaks.

The attention given to detail is evident everywhere, from the feel of the steering wheel to the choice of the tires and carbon-fiber trim in the interior. This is not the old, careless Chrysler, eco-issues notwithstanding.

The real difference is the way it drives. This is a different and rather magical machine.

It’s worth noting that the Jeep SRT8 is a low-volume, niche product: Chrysler plans on making no more than 3,800 this year. The new 2013 Dodge Dart sedan, on the other hand, should get around 40 mpg and, Chrysler hopes, will be a high-volume model sold worldwide.

Officially, the tuning division has become a separate entity, the SRT Brand, Chrysler Group LLC, including the Grand Cherokee SRT8. The initials stand for Street and Racing Technology. Like the rest of the company, SRT is in undergoing a giddy resurgence with a stream of renewed products, including SRT versions of the Dodge Charger, Challenger and Chrysler 300.

Test Drive

The division’s ultimate product is the new SRT Viper, unveiled for the first time at the New York International Auto Show during the first week of April. The two-door, flagship sports car has been out of production for several years, and the all-new design was the standout hit of the event. I’m already salivating for an early test drive.

“It’s a good feeling,” said Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of SRT, shortly after the Viper’s unveiling. “The new design is exactly where we want it.”

The Viper won’t go into production until late this year. In the meantime, Gilles says the Grand Cherokee best represents the SRT ethos. “It’s a go-anywhere, do-everything vehicle. It will carry the family and sporting equipment. You can go to Home Depot and drive it fast on mountain roads.”

Gilles says his division is concentrating on vehicles that are lighter and better handling. “The horsepower race is pointless. We want vehicles that dance, not wrestle,” he says.

Smooth Cornering

The Grand Cherokee actually delivers this promise. If you pick a good line through a corner, it will follow it smoothly, with very little body roll. (It does ride roughly on broken pavement, though.)

There are other fast SUVs out there, notably the Porsche Cayenne Turbo and BMW X5 M. BMW is particularly good at making heavy vehicles which are light on their feet. The Grand Cherokee is the first time I’d seen European-worthy handling in a big American-made SUV.

Considering the Grand Cherokee is normally championed for its off-road ability, there are jarring details you wouldn’t normally expect from an off-roader. Slick-looking Pirelli tires replace rugged, knobby rubber. And driving modes include auto, sport, tow, snow and track. Yes, track.

Now let’s be honest. The Grand Cherokee SRT8 is not going to be prancing about at private race courses with Ferraris, so the track setting is a misnomer. Rather it puts traction control on its lowest setting, allowing for a bit of wheel slip and the quickest starts.

Bellowing Boar

The truck rears back when you crunch on the gas, and bellows like a boar as the Hemi winds up. The trip computer will compute your best 0 to 60 mph time and quickest quarter mile. Again, an unnecessary indulgence, but oh, so much fun.

The steering wheel, which is coated in sporty thin leather, weights up nicely on long sweeping turns, and you can click through gears -- all, um five of them -- with paddle shifters. (Part of those gas mileage issues have to do with this antiquated transmission. Chrysler is developing an automatic eight speed.)

Braking on the behemoth is especially good.

Many drivers simply feel more secure in an SUV, a result of the ride height and being wrapped in a heavy cocoon of metal. And some of them want to be able to drive really, really fast.

Sometimes, it just feels oh-so-good to be so bad.

The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 4x4 at a Glance

Engine: 6.4-liter Hemi V-8 with 470 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Five-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 12 city; highway 18.

Price as tested: $61,785.

Best feature: Great interior, good handling.

Worst feature: Gurgle, slurp, gurgle.

Target buyer: The SUV driver who’s always late to work.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Today’s Muse highlights: Rich Jaroslovsky on technology, Farah Nayeri’s London weekend, Jorg von Uthmann on opera.

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