AUSTIN, TX – Jeep has been promising to bring back the Grand Wagoneer, a boxy, wood-paneled model phased out in 1991 that many in and out of the industry have waxed nostalgic about since talk of the SUV’s revival cropped up in the past year.

However, since the Wagoneer’s demise, the Grand Cherokee has ascended to the top of the brand’s hierarchy, rivaling the Wrangler in both sales and popularity. The vehicle is pivotal to Chrysler’s long-term survival as the auto maker takes Jeep to a global-sales platform.

It’s important to mention the Grand Wagoneer because, by all accounts, it was the first American luxury SUV. While it has been absent from showrooms for more than two decades, the latest Grand Cherokee carries on the former’s premium tradition.

The Grand Cherokee hasn’t always been identified with such a lofty goal; rather, it has evolved from its rock-climbing, window-shattering days at the North American International Auto Show to attracting today’s luxury buyers.

As such, the model’s price range and trim levels have expanded as it sought to fight off rivals such as the Ford Explorer and Nissan Pathfinder, whose recent iterations have lost much of their rugged SUV styling.

This has left Jeep designers and engineers with the challenge of preserving the SUV tradition in an increasingly car-based cross/utility-vehicle world: rugged on the outside, supremely comfortable within.

Judging by our recent test drive of the new ’14 Grand Cherokee, the Jeep team has met that challenge and driven beyond.

The credit belongs to Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, who since he began overseeing Chrysler operations has vowed to make the Grand Cherokee an ambassador for the Jeep brand. The model, as executives have noted in recent months, is key to attracting premium buyers in Europe and China.

However, Americans remain Jeep’s bread-and-butter customers, and the Grand Cherokee continues to be one of Chrysler’s volume models, selling 154,734 units in the U.S. last year.

At first glance, Austin, a hipster-friendly Southwestern town, doesn’t seem to be the first place you would think of to test the mettle of the new Grand Cherokee. But Texas is full of wide-open spaces where an SUV can flex its muscle.

Our Grand Cherokee’s 3.6L Pentastar V-6, a 3-time Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner, is mated to a ZF-designed 8-speed transmission, which is being spread throughout Chrysler’s rear-wheel-drive model lineup.

The powertrain is important to the Grand Cherokee not only to dispel the notion of a gas-guzzling SUV, but also to help push Jeep and Chrysler into meeting tightening corporate average fuel economy standards.

The ’14 Grand Cherokee’s exterior sees little change, however, strongly resembling the previous model. In fact, the SUV’s basic styling has not changed much in the past 20 decades. But there are pronounced differences between this vehicle and the last refresh.

Designers note high-strength LEDs in the headlamps and taillamps. As a nod to more premium styling, the trailer hatch is hidden from view under the bumper, but not gone completely for the driver who needs to haul.

Chrome accents are brighter, but the chrome beltline is gone. Sheetmetal on both sides is noticeably more rounded, but not so much that the SUV loses its traditional rugged look.

And for the first time, the Grand Cherokee has an optional backup camera. Paddle shifters, a growing industry trend, are added to the steering wheel and a lane-departure warning signal is added to the side-view mirrors.

Journalists here are given the option of driving high-end Summit-trimmed or low-end Laredo-trimmed Grand Cherokee models.

The upscale Summit includes copper accents, which designers say is a first for the segment, along with soft-touch materials and Nappa leather seats. If there is a more noticeable change in the ’14 Grand Cherokee, it’s found here. Whereas the fit and finish in the previous generation was more utilitarian, this new interior is noticeably smoother.

Frugal buyers seeking premium touches shouldn’t pass on the entry-level Laredo. Although the interior is a bit gray, the same care is taken with fit and finish, with well-executed sculpted lines and soft touches.

A customizable instrument cluster behind a thin-film transistor screen first seen on the Dodge Dart appears here as well. Chrysler’s much-praised UConnect infotainment system is available, although touchscreen Luddites can be assured all the working knobs are present – and not too cluttered to distract.

Mid-priced Limited and Overland trims also are available on the new Grand Cherokee.

On the road, the Pentastar V-6 proves disappointing. While the powerhouse engine easily pushes the weighty Ram 1500 pickup, it underperforms here. There is little low-end torque, and prodding our Grand Cherokee to travel up steep grades along some of Texas’ winding roads is a bit of a challenge. Acceleration is the stickiestaround 4,000 rpm.

We also have issues with the new 8-speed gearbox, which stutters a bit after launch, and especially in going uphill. At times it seems unpredictable, but the transmission finds its gears along most of the drive route.

Along the way, we average 15.5-18.1 mpg (18.2-15.6 L/100 km), falling below Jeep’s posted 17/24 mpg (16.6-11.8 L/100 km) city/highway average. That’s without use of air conditioning or other gadgets.

Engineers note the Grand Cherokee’s 8-speed provides a notable boost over the past model’s fuel-economy numbers, and a new Eco mode, which restricts throttle response, is available for ’14.

Our destination is a distant ranch at the end of a miles-long copper-color dirt road. It’s here where the Grand Cherokee shows its SUV heritage, ably taking on bumps and bruises, while keeping passengers comfortable with little body roll and near-complete road absorption.

Once we arrive, engineers take us on a rocky route through hills and bogs and test more specific vehicle functions. Jeep has developed a Quadra-Lift air suspension system, similar to a function that debuted in the ’13 Ram 1500, for the thrill-seeking off-roader.

The Quadra-Lift air suspension allows five modes:

  • Normal ride height with 8.7 in. (22.1 cm) of clearance.
  • Off-road 1, which adds 1.3 ins. (3.3 cm) to normal ride height for clearing rocky obstacles.
  • Off-road 2, which adds 2.6 ins. (6.6 cm) to normal ride height.
  • Park, which lowers the SUV 1.6 ins. (4.1 cm) from normal ride height.
  • Aero, which subtracts 0.6 ins. (15.2 mm) from normal ride height, is controlled by vehicle speed and boosts fuel efficiency.

Jeep’s Selec-Terrain system carried over to the ’14 Grand Cherokee is necessary for our Texas expedition. Drivers can switch between sand, mud, snow and rock modes that adjust wheel spin, suspension or both. New to the Grand Cherokee are hill-ascent and hill-descent controls.

Our test model next climbs 60-degree-angle rocks, where all the driver can see is the sky. Sitting idle while pointing upward, there’s no slip or bounce-back. Traveling back down, where nothing can be seen in front of you at such a sharp angle, the Grand Cherokee capably inches its way despite its weight, thanks to the hill-descent system.

Brakes off, the SUV manages to hold its place, and the suspension easily carries us over the uneven terrain.

Back on the ground, we’re free to torture our Jeep as we please, plying through the eight gears as we power through sandy marshes and swampy bogs. We’re careful not to sink in too deep, but it’s a hoot splashing around without the fear of getting stuck or keeping clean.

While premium SUVs might be viewed as softies because of their curvier styling and plush cabins, it’s clear the ’14 Grand Cherokee isn’t a slouch when it comes to getting down and dirty thanks to its split personality.

Even though the Jeep Wagoneer came first, it looks like the revived model will have some catching up to do with the latest Grand Cherokee.

afoley@wardsauto.com

 

'14 Jeep Grand Cherokee
Vehicle type Rear-wheel-drive SUV
Engine 3.6L DOHC V-6
Power (SAE net) 290 hp @ 6,400 RPM
Torque 260 lb.-ft. (353 Nm) at 4,800 RPM
Bore x stroke (mm) 96 x 83
Compression ratio 10:2:1
Transmission 8-speed automatic
Wheelbase 114 in. (291.5 cm)
Overall length 189.8 in. (482.2 cm)
Overall width 84.8 in. (215.4 cm)
Overall height 69.3 in. (176.1 cm)
Curb weight 6,500 lbs. (2948 kg)
Base price $30,795
Fuel economy 17-24 mpg city/hwy est.
Competition Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander
Pros Cons
Off-road capable On-road stutters
Fuel efficiency improved Still slurps gas
Light on the inside A bit heavy on the outside