As the dust settles on the new '05 Grand Cherokee parked near the tents at the first annual Camp Jeep California, Jeep aficionados have mixed reviews.

“It doesn't look like a Jeep,” says one. “Can you believe they moved to an independent front suspension?” asks another. The doubt in their eyes signals concern Jeep may have gone too “soft” with its new flagship.

Jeep has a lot riding on the latest Grand Cherokee, its first all-new product since the Liberty in 2001 and the first Jeep developed under the present leadership team at Chrysler Group, including the auto maker's former product guru Wolfgang Bernhard.

Jeep has been widely known as the leader in off-road prowess, and its owners are among the most rabid in the business. Some long have feared Chrysler would transform the Grand Cherokee — and the rest of Jeep — into a suburb-crawling “cute ute” prepared only for mild off-road trails.

The new Grand Cherokee is softer, but in a positive sense. Jeep engineers say they had to move to an independent front-suspension for the all-new model to improve its on-road handling. Hardcore Jeep traditionalists within the engineering group had their doubts.

After driving the vehicle in Santa Barbara, CA, it's evident Jeep engineers turned the Grand Cherokee into one of the better on-road SUVs, with ride and handling vastly improved from the previous model.

Off road, the Grand Cherokee is stellar. Whether climbing a sandy incline at 35 degrees or descending into a trecherous rocky ravine, the Grand Cherokee, independent front suspension and all, inches over the boulders without breaking a sweat.

The new front suspension includes modular, L-shaped single-piece lower control arms; the shape and geometry provide higher ground clearance. The forged upper control arms deliver improved strength and durability. Tall aluminum steering knuckles improve steering performance.

A happy coincidence of the move to independent front suspension: Engineers increased travel 10%, improving the wheel articulation that is crucial to conquering off-road obstacles. The changes make for marked improvements in overall ride and more precise steering and help reduce nausea-inducing “head toss” in off-road driving.

Power for the Grand Cherokee comes in three flavors. The anemic 3.7L SOHC V-6 produces 210 hp at 5,200 rpm and 235 lb.-ft. (319 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm. This engine provides an affordable option but is best for on-road adventures only.

The tried-and-true 4.7L SOHC V-8 provides a noticeable power boost, with output rising to 235 hp and maximum torque of 305 lb.-ft. (414 Nm). This workhorse provides plenty of power to move occupants along the trails and keep pace on the open road.

Power-hungry buyers can choose the renowned 5.7L OHV V-8 Hemi. In the Grand Cherokee, the Hemi pumps out 330 hp at 5,000 rpm and 375 lb.-ft. (509 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm. Those figures are somewhat detuned from other Chrysler offerings (Dodge Magnum/Chrysler 300C, Durango and Ram). Regardless, 330 hp for a midsize SUV makes for serious performance.

Plus, the Grand Cherokee's Hemi is equipped with the Multi-Displacement System found on the 300C and Magnum passenger cars. The system switches between 8- and 4-cyl. operation, depending on driving conditions, helping achieve a highway fuel economy rating of 21 mpg (11.2L/100 km) — on par, remarkably, with the 3.7L V-6. The Hemi and the 4.7L drive through a 5-speed automatic transmission.

Four-wheel drive is delivered through one of three systems: Quadra-Trac I, which offers fulltime 4WD without switches or levers. The system apportions torque in fixed ratios of 48% to the front axle, with the remaining 52% sent to the rear.

The Quadra-Trac II system takes input from a number of sensors to determine slip at the earliest point and initiates corrective action. The system uses the Brake Traction Control System (BTCS) and Throttle Anticipation to maximize traction before tires begin to slip. Torque is transferred in variable proportion to the front or rear axles, where the BTCS also acts as a differential to apportion torque.

Topping off the 4WD lineup is Quadra-Drive II, which combines a fulltime transfer case with Electronic Slip Differentials (ELSD) — an industry-first application — at the front, center and rear.

The transfer case includes a center differential coupled with an electronically controlled clutch pack, varying the clutch from a completely open state to completely locked. The front- and rear-axle ELSDs, meanwhile, coordinate with the center differential/transfer case to automatically vary from slip to full lock at each axle, helping to maximize traction when needed.

Jeep plans to offer an optional Dynamic Handling System (DHS) next spring. Developed by Delphi Corp., DHS uses a hydraulically actuated active stabilizer bar to improve cornering and overall ride characteristics. DHS uses a steering angle sensor, center of gravity lateral accelerometer and upper lateral accelerometer to determine when the stabilizer bar is necessary. Actuators pressurize the bar links when the bar is needed. A quick test of the system shows marked improvement in Grand Cherokee's cornering during figure-8 maneuvers and through a slalom course.

On the outside, critics note a disconnect between the Grand Cherokee's rounded front and sharp-edged rear styling. Gone, thankfully, is the plastic body cladding on the old model. On the '05, designers incorporated the side moldings and wheel-well flares right into the sheet metal.

Inside, gaps are tight, and the cockpit is visually harmonious. The interior is light years ahead of the previous generation thanks to its tasteful use of chrome and wood on up-level models. Base models feature faux-brushed aluminum on the console and door panels.

Seating provides more than ample comfort for extended drives, while the rear cargo area features grocery-bag hooks, tie-downs and a new reversible load floor panel that converts into a shallow tray for additional utility.

Jeep has lost ground to a tidal wave of competitive SUVs, but it's apparent Chrysler has thrown serious engineering and development investment at the brand's crucial flagship.

'05 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited (4WD)

Vehicle type: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive, 5-passenger 5-door SUV

Engine: 5.7L (5,654 cc) OHV V-8, iron block/aluminum heads

Power (SAE net): 330 hp @ 5,000 rpm

Torque: 375 lb.-ft. (509 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm

Compression ratio: 9.6:1

Bore × stroke (mm): 99.5 × 90.9

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 109.5 ins. (278 cm)

Overall length: 186.6 ins. (474 cm)

Overall width: 73.3 ins. (186 cm)

Overall height: 67.7 ins. (172 cm)

Curb weight: 4,735 lbs. (2,147 kg)

Market competition: GMC Envoy; Mercury Mountaineer; Nissan Pathfinder; Toyota 4Runner; Volkswagen Touareg