Well, you haven’t got much choice.
But — sometimes — that’s not a bad thing.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee, for instance.
It is one of just a few (one of just two, really) “mid-sized” SUVs that actually is mid-sized (allegedly “mid-sized” models like the Chevy Tahoe are full-sized and models like the Suburban are super-sized). The GC still offers real-deal 4WD and so, real off-road capability, too — an increasingly rare thing.
It doesn’t offer a third row — but you have your pick of gas V6, gas V8 or turbo-diesel V6.
You can get a vestigial third row in the also-mid-sized (actually mid-sized) Toyota 4Runner — which also offers real SUV off-road capability.
But the only engine it comes with is a gas V6.
There was also the VW Touareg. Also mid-sized and used to offer a diesel.
But not anymore.
WHAT IT IS
The Grand Cherokee is pretty much the last vehicle of its type available: a still somewhat-affordable, real-deal SUV with luxury amenities and off-road bona fides that offers three different engines at a starting price just over $30k ($30,295 to be precise) for the base Laredo trim with 2WD and a 3.6 liter gas V6 engine.
You can order 4WD (real 4WD, with a two-speed transfer case and low range gearing) for an additional $2,300 — bringing the MSRP up $32,595.
This, by the way is $1,415 less than the base price of the 2WD Toyota 4Runner, which stickers for $34,010 to start. Opting for 4WD (also real-deal) bumps the 4Runner’s asking price to $35,885.
Other Grand Cherokee trims include the Limited (which can be ordered with the gas V6 or a turbo-diesel V6 or a gas V8), Overland, Trailhawk and Summit — with prices topping out at $58,395 for a 4WD-equipped/diesel-powered version of the latter.
You can also order the top-of-the-line Summit without the diesel (and with the gas V6) for $5k less. Or, with the gas V8 — which adds $3,795 to the Summit’s $53,395 base price with the gas V6.
The Trailhawk package — which includes a heavier-duty (Quadra-Drive II) 4WD system, increased suspension travel and ground clearance, skid plates, M/S-rated (and Kevlar reinforced!) Goodyear Adventurer 18-inch tires, tow hooks, an electronically controlled limited slip rear axle, 10.8 inches of ground clearance (vs. 8.6 for other GCs) matte black anti-glare hood decal, unique gauge cluster and off-road-minded instruments, including LCD wheel articulation — is a new addition to the Grand Cherokee’s roster.
It and other trims can also be ordered with a self-parking system and electronic Lane Departure Warning.
One of the few real SUVs still available that isn’t also really big — or really expensive.
Gas or diesel. Six — or eight.
Genuinely luxurious — and still seriously capable.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
To get the V8 (or the turbo-diesel V6) you have to step up to the pricier Limited/Overland (and up) trims.
Diesel’s high cost ($5k added to the bottom line) negates its fuel economy advantages.
Toyota 4Runner has much more cargo capacity and its body-on-frame construction is more rugged than the Jeep’s unibody layout. It also offers auto-disconnecting sway bars and similar — extremely serious — off-road gear that even the Trailhawk version of the GC does not.
UNDER THE HOOD
Base Laredo — and all other trims — come standard with Jeep’s (Chrysler’s) 3.6 liter V6. It produces 295 hp — already out-gunning the Toyota 4Runner’s standard 4.0 liter, 270 hp V6.
It is paired with an eight-speed automatic (the 4Runner has a five-speed automatic) and either RWD or 4WD.
You’ve got two options here, too.
There is a lighter-duty full-time 4WD system (Quadra-Drive I) that does not have Low range gearing — and a heavy-duty 4WD system (Quadra-Drive II) with a two-speed transfer case and 4WD Low range gearing. The Quadra-Drive II system also has Sand, Snow and Mud modes, as well as Auto — adjustable via a rotary knob on the center console, adjacent to the gear selector.
The Quadra-Drive I system is comparable to car-based crossover SUV all-wheel-drive systems that are meant for on-road traction in wet/wintry weather while the Quadra-Drive II system has off-road capability — including a 44:1 crawl ratio in 4WD Low — as good (or better) than a 4WD truck. Especially when that capability is further enhanced by adding the optional Quadra-Lift suspension and the Trailhawk off-road goodies.
The max tow rating with the gas V6 is 6,200 lbs. Which also beats the maximum tow rating of the Jeep’s main rival, the Toyota 4Runner. It tops out at just 5,000 lbs.
For even more towing capacity (and other capacities) there are two other engines to consider. There’s a 5.7 liter gas V8 (360 hp and 390 ft.-lbs. of torque) and a turbo-diesel V6 (240 hp and 420 ft.-lbs. of torque). With either engine, the Grand Cherokee’s pulling power increases to 7,400 lbs. — 2,400 lbs. more than the 4Runner is rated to handle.
The gas V8 or the turbo-diesel V6 are also paired with an eight-speed automatic and you can go with either of the two 4WD systems as well.
Mileage ranges from a best-case 18 city, 26 highway with the gas V6 and 2WD to a worst case of 14 city, 20 highway with the V8 and 4WD.
The diesel falls in between: 22 city, 30 highway with RWD and 21 city, 28 highway with 4WD.
This is not hugely better than the gas V6, but it’s much better than the V8. If you need to pull — and don’t want to stop at every other gas station — the diesel could be the pick of the litter. It also has the longest range of the bunch — 738 miles on a full tank (vs. 615 for the gas V6 and 541 for the gas V8).
ON THE ROAD
It’s not the gas junkie appetite that diminished the appeal of the traditional SUV.
If you doubt that, look at the mileage numbers posted by crossover SUVs.
They suck — literally.
Especially given what you’ve got, power and performance (and capability) wise.
Which is much less.
Consider the Grand Cherokee’s little brother, for instance. The regular Cherokee is a car-based crossover SUV that doesn’t offer heavy-duty 4WD and is both smaller and lighter than the Grand Cherokee. Even so, and even with the same engine (3.6 liter V6, optional in the regular Cherokee) the mileage is only slightly better: 21 city, 29 highway (with the light-duty AWD system) vs. 18 city, 25 highway with real 4WD.
The regular Cherokee can only pull 4,500 pounds, too — good for what it is, but weak compared to the Grand Cherokee’s numbers.
And, I will tell you that in real-world driving, most crossovers — which are almost always under-engined and over-heavy — average in the low 20s. About the same as a real SUV like the Cherokee with the gas V6 or diesel V6.
So, what accounts for the crossover craze, if not “great gas mileage”?
And, the handling.
Crossovers surged because most people — much as they liked the up-high seating position and the being able to get to work when it snows capability of a traditional SUV — did not like the rigid (and bumpy) ride.
The clumsy handling, either.
This was a function of the real SUV being (typically) a pick-up truck with an enclosed bed, with a high center of gravity and a beefy but heavy and basically primitive suspension meant for low-speed work, not high-speed cornering. Real SUVSs got a rep for being tipsy, which they often were — when people drove them as if they were sport sedans. Cue the Ford Explorer Rollover Debacle of the ‘90s.
Things haven’t been the same since.
Most everyone went crossover — because the car-based crossover’s car-ish suspension, lower center of gravity and so on delivered the car-ish ride and handling that most people who purchased SUVs really wanted — as opposed to having the capability to go seriously off-road. Which few of them ever needed to do.
But the Grand Cherokee is — honest Injun — as good on-road as off-road. It is even better on-road than many of its crossover cousins. Because it has power, which many of them do not.
And a cush ride.
Easy, precise steering, too.
Take note of the fact that Jeep builds a high-performance SRT8 version of the Grand Cherokee — and you can’t build a viable 160 MPH-capable performance vehicle on a lousy foundation.
Try one, see what I mean.
And then try the 4Runner.
Which is a fine vehicle, if you want a real SUV and all that used to come with that. Including the real SUV’s ride and handling.
Part of this is due to the Runner’s old-school body-on-frame construction and its higher center of gravity (it’s 71.5 inches tall and has 9 inches of ground clearance vs. 69.3 inches tall and 8.6 inches of clearance for the non-Trailhawk Jeep). It also has a much shorter wheelbase (109.8 inches vs. 114.8) and a narrower track.
That’s helpful picking your way in between trees on a narrow backwoods dirt trail. It is not helpful apexing a turn at high speed.
The Toyota is the more rugged of the two, as far as off-roading. Thirty degree angle of approach — standard, without taking off any body parts — vs. 26.2 for the non-Trailhawk GC; 26 degree angle of departure vs. 24 degrees for the Jeep (The Trailhawk’s angle of approach increases to 29.8 degrees; 36.1 degrees if you remove the lower bumper cover). But on-road, the Jeep kills it. No comparison. It rides and handles like a luxury sport sedan.
The 4Runner rides and handles like a 4×4 pick-up with an enclosed bed. That’s not a slam. It’s a reality check.
It’s a fine vehicle for people who like SUVs the way they used to make ‘em.
The GC, on the other hand, does 90 percent of what the 4Runner can do off-road and is a much nicer companion on-road.
Aside from the ride and handling, the Jeep is quick while the Toyota is slow. Even with the diesel, a GC will outrun it — and with the available V8, it crushes it.
AT THE CURB
This Jeep is a best-seller in part because it is a good-looker. Unless you just dislike SUVs, in which case you wouldn’t be shopping the GC or any other such vehicle.
It looks like an SUV — without looking too much like an SUV.
There is a reason why Hummer went away. Vehicular codpieces have a limited appeal.
Speaking of appealing…
The GC is not overwhelmingly huge. Its overall length — 189.8 inches — is less than current mid-sized sedans like the Honda Accord (192.5 inches) and Toyota Camry (190.9 inches). And much less than a “mid-sized” SUV like the Chevy Tahoe (204 inches).
Re-read that last number. The Tahoe is a foot-plus longer than the GC. If you need the third row, ok. But if not, the GC is much less a handful. In fact, it is not a handful at all. Less of a handful than the Accord or Camry, as far as slipping into a curbside parking spot.
And vs. the 4Runner?
It’s a tale of Pros — and Cons.
If you need a third row, the GC doesn’t offer one while the Toyota does. But the Jeep has a much more passenger friendly second row, with 38.6 inches of legroom vs. 32.9 for the Toyota’s second row. The room for the 4Runner’s third row had to come from somewhere.
Now you know from where it came.
And, that third row is a horror show. Mid-sized rides like the 4Runner are just not physically large enough to find adequate space for a viable third row. If you really need a third row, you probably ought to shop something larger, like the (ahem) “mid-sized” Tahoe.
As far as cargo capacity, the Jeep’s got 36.3 inches behind its second row and 68.3 with the second row folded flat. This is less than the 4Runner (89.7 cubic feet with its second and third rows folded) but — like that extra measure of severe off-road capability the 4Runner’s got — you may not have to have all that much space. Either one of these has four or five times as much cargo-carrying capacity as a mid-sized sedan like the Accord or Camry (15.4 cubic feet of trunk for the latter).
Another area of departure vs. the 4Runner is that the GC can be outfitted as a luxury SUV — something the 4Runner hasn’t even pretensions to being.
For example, noise-damping acoustic side glass, a dual-pane panorama sunroof, diamond-quilted ultra-premium leather, heated first and second row seats, a 19-speaker Harman Kardon audio rig, dual LCD Blue-ray passenger entertainment system, power rear lift gate and an 8.1 inch LCD touchscreen.
These are features not offered in 4Runner (although the Toyota does offer some serious off-road gear that even the Trailhawk version of the GC does not — such as its optional Kinetic Dynamic Suspension, which automatically disconnects the 4Runner’s stabilizer bars to allow for greater suspension articulation — and locking center and rear differentials).
Again, it’s the ticket for the person who wants a bit more off-road capability in severe situations… and is willing to sacrifice other things in real-world situations.
The Jeep also offers adaptive cruise control vs. plain old cruise control — the former automatically accelerating and braking to maintain your set speed in traffic — as well as automatic emergency braking/collision avoidance, blind spot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross-traffic alert and a self-parking system.
You will notice another point of departure between the GC and the 4Runner. The former’s 4WD system is engaged remotely and electronically, via a rotary knob on the center console. The 4Runner has a manly lever you pull on to engage the 4WD.
Also, the GC’s system is always on (Auto) while you can operate the 4WD 4Runner in 2WD, at your discretion.
Both are more in keeping with their respective missions.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The GC is the gentlemanly Jeep. The Toyota has stubble on its chin. Both are very capable vehicles but the 4Runner is less versatile, the more single-minded of the two.
If I were going to spend my weekends (or even one weekend a month) rock-crawling, if I had to deal with Minnesota-level endless winters, I’d lean toward the 4Runner.
But if I needed to pull my boat to the lake every weekend and drive to work every weekday, I’d lean toward the Jeep.
The V8 version in particular.
Nothing else like it on the road.
Not that’s new — or recent — anyhow.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos