The winds of change blowing through the automotive world are hardly gentle breezes these days. Very few manufacturers have been spared the hurricane force impact of the last few years. Especially hard hit? Chrysler. A perfect storm of conditions brought the company to its knees forcing intervention by Uncle Sam and a hook up with Fiat.

I ponder all this while looking upon the new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee on a very blustery day in the hills of Sausalito, Calif. It is a handsome rig, much like the outgoing model, but with more gravity and panache. The cabin gets Volkswagen-grade materials (a compliment, by the way). Overland models get wood that comes from trees GC would pass in the forest, not a petrol chemical factory. Parked among the blowing grass and rugged golden hillside it looks like an animal in its natural habitat, one that has no idea that it was endangered.

Vastly improved

The new Grand Cherokee redefines the segment. Again. Back when it was introduced, trucks were trucks and cars were cars. Sure, there was the occasional Subaru and AMC s Eagle, but buyers bought body-on-frame trucks when 4-wheel drive was a necessity because, well, that s just the way it was done. Grand Cherokee arrived on a unibody chassis, offering up car-like driving. It s easy to forget what a revelation that was.

Only one thing looks cheaper this time around - the sticker price. On an entry level 4x2 Laredo which stickers at $30,995 with destination, it s down by around $500 and gets added equipment like keyless ignition. For a top o the line Overland, it s effectively reduced by $6,000. Laredo, Limited and Overland look very much alike from 20 paces save for some chrome trim bits and upscale wheels. Every model gets a stylish band of chrome that rings the greenhouse making it harder for the neighbors to tell if you're driving a budget GC.

At the press launch in San Francisco, the Jeep folks say research told them two things - don t change the size and make the back seat roomier. Done. The length increases just 1.5 inches but rear legroom grows by over four inches. Taken out of the trunk perhaps? Nope. Space there is up 19 percent. Wheelbase stretches by some five inches, pushing the wheels to the corners. That and a removable front chin helps the GC conquer steep grades as well.

Geek section

Based on the Mercedes M Class architecture, this is a pretty deep vehicle. Basically, there are three different 4-wheel drive systems and 2 engines. The most important powerplant is Chrysler s new 3.6-liter Pentastar or Phoenix V6. It brings 290 horses and 260 pounds-per-foot of torque at 4800 RPM to the camping trip. Its EPA fuel economy ratings are 16/23 for 2WD, 16/22 for 4WD and tows up to 5,000 pounds.

The 5.7-liter 360 horse V8 HEMI (no exterior badges, thank you very much) produces 390 lb.-ft of torque at 4,250 RPM. As imagined it s thirstier, 13/19 for 4WD, but ups the towing to 7,400 lbs. In a nutshell I prefer the V8 for its deeper torque off the line but the fairly smooth V6 is perfectly fine. Jeep predicts it s the engine 80 percent of buyers will choose.

A five-speed transmission is all you ll find in Grand Cherokees. It s easy to question this many gears in these days of 6, 7 and even 8-speed boxes but frankly it s a way to keep the costs down. More gears might help performance and fuel economy a bit but in these tight economic times price is important to both Chrysler and owners.

4WD x 3

Time to tackle the 4-wheel drive systems. Laredo comes with Quadra-Trac I. This is a basic 4WD system that works automatically, no switches or levers to operate. Move up to the Limited and there s, you guessed it, Quadra-Trac II. It uses a two-speed transfer case and takes cues from the various sensors to recognize tire slip and take immediate action. When a wheel slips, QT II can redirect 100 percent of available torque to the axle with the most traction. Finally there s Quadra-Drive II. It gets an electronic limited-slip differential. It instantly detects tire slip and smoothly distributes engine torque to specific tires with available traction. It can even anticipate low traction situations and adjust power delivery accordingly to proactively limit or eliminate slip.

But wait, there s more. Selec-Terrain is similar in concept to the dial found in a Range Rover that allows bushwhackers to dial in vehicle response to terrain they re about to traverse. The 4WD system then tailors its performance to that surface. For example in snow setting traction control is on full alert and Cherokee starts out in 2nd gear for less tire slip. The sand/mud setting allows for more wheel spin because that s the best operating situation for getting through soft stuff. Most will just leave it on auto . Selec-Terrain is standard with Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II.

Finally, pair that up with the new Quadra-Lift air suspension system that offers five height settings. The normal 8.1 inches of clearance can rise to 10.7 for the tough stuff or hunker down to 6.6 to let people out at a fancy restaurant (or loading a roof rack). It even lowers the Grand Cherokee at highway speed for better aerodynamics.

Go anywhere. Yes, anywhere.

All this adds up to a vehicle that s just at home on the range as it is pulling up to the symphony. Its road manners are nicely buttoned down. Quiet and comfortable it s a touch soft in the corners but then again so are many crossovers. Jeep has competitors RX350, Equinox, Pilot and Acadia on hand for comparison and while they might be more composed on a long highway road trip they can t get past the parking lot of the two trail courses Jeep encourages us to navigate. I highly recommend watching the video to see what the Jeep can do. It looks impressive but the camera really doesn t capture how rough the ruts are and how steep the grades rise.

Electronic hill descent control allows a driver to take their foot off the brakes on grades that are so steep every brain synapse says slam down on the pedal. All the driver has to do is steer. At this event Jeep wants everyone to know Grand Cherokee will never let an owner down unless they re trying to get to the bottom of a very steep hill.

Chrysler finally gets the hint.

Everyone writing about Chrysler products over the past five years has lamented the cost cutting visible in the cabin. Rejoice! It appears the accountants have been fired. Jeep execs on hand swear those days are over and are eager to talk quality if I just look their way. Even the new advertisements touch on it saying at one point this can be put right, we just have to do it .

Soft touch materials in the entry level Laredo look richer than the outgoing premium versions. The standard fabric seats are a bit austere in the new environment so those who care about such things will immediate check off the leather seating option box. Overland gets real bark trim and an instrument panel draped in stitched leather. Is it Range Rover grade? No, but it s easily half the price. Maybe it s just me but I m more willing to off-road a 43K vehicle than an 80K rig.

Heated and cooled seats, heated steering wheel and panoramic sunroof are here. Want radar adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation, blind spot detection, and auto high beams? It s all available, just like a luxury vehicle ... which this is.

A back seat that doesn t take a back seat anymore

In the second row, there s more than just the four inches of added leg room. The door opening is larger, better to get those child seats in. Grand Cherokee s drive shaft doesn t dominate the center position either, so three adults will be OK. The Overland example I m looking at has heated seats, an AC power port plus storage cubbies to make things nice for rear passengers. The seats split and fold of course, but don t slide fore and aft to max out leg or trunk space.

It s easy to load Grand Cherokee s larger cargo hold, the floor isn t too terribly high. A neat trick? The motor for the power liftgate is in the thick strut so there s no big bulge in the trunk. A rechargeable flashlight and a small amount of storage under the load floor keeps things handy.

Impact of current events

Being good doesn t guarantee market success these days. When Grand Cherokee launched, Jeep sold over 300,000 copies. That was 1993 and will never happen again. Today there s a blizzard of competition, mostly in the form of crossovers. They get better gas mileage and do most everything that owners honestly need them to do. Let s face it, most of these machines only trek the Rubicon Trail in the owner s mind and Americans have sobered up to that reality. The winds of change have made fuel economy more important and SUVs less popular. Still, the significant changes Jeep has made gives this new model a tailwind. It will be interesting to see if it performs as well on the showroom floor as it does in the wild

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