AUSTIN, TEXAS — The names are still emblazoned above the individual garages on the inside of the pit road — Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and the rest — and standing there you can visualize what it was like last November when the best race drivers christened the Circuit of the Americas with the Formula 1 U.S. Grand Prix.
On this mid-February morning, however, the vehicles lined up in the pit lane weren’t super-low, super-sleek Formula 1 cars, they were large and somewhat boxy Grand Cherokee SRT Jeeps. The key letters there are “SRT” — for Street and Racing Technology, now a separate brand at Chrysler LLC., to identify a gang of corporate hot-rodders who carefully revise, rebuild and tweak specific vehicles. Currently their stable includes the Viper sports car with its overpowering 8.4-liter V10, the Dodge Charger SRT and Challenger SRT, and with the Chrysler 300 SRT. Then there’s the Grand Cherokee.
It seems a stretch from reality to fantasy that SRT can also take a 5,150-pound SUV, which is proving to be the most capable on-road family truckster and off-road rock-climber available, and turn it into a genuine screamer that can over-achieve on a road-racing track. But since SRT is the corporate Toy Department, why should a little fantasy be out of reach?
The Grand Cherokee SRT is definitely not mainstream but instead adds a dimension as the top-selling Jeep product that sets the full Jeep brand above and beyond any of its many competitors. Before we got the chance to take the SRT model out on the 3.4-mile road course, we spent a day in the hill country between Austin and Llano, Texas, sending other Grand Cherokee models through their paces.
The current Grand Cherokee came out thoroughly renovated as a 2011 model, and its popularity increased dramatically until the 2012 model hit 152,000 in the U.S., with a global record 220,000 sales worldwide, to hit No. 1 in SUV volume sales. Although just two years into its model run, the Grand Cherokee is renovated for 2014, with a new exterior that includes a higher, thinner grille, new headlights with LED surround, and LED taillights, plus a revised interior with a remarkable array of leather and wood colors reflecting different geographic locations.prompted Jeep to satisfy new cross-shoppers from
“We started the premium SUV segment in 1992, but when we increased sales with our 2011 model, we found that we were getting new customers,” said Brad Pinter, brand manager for Jeep. “We had added some upscale features to our top Overland model, and along with attracting new customers from our usual Ford and Chevrolet rivals, we were getting cross-shopped by higher-end BMW X5 and Acura MDX customers.”
That prompted Jeep to add a new top-of-the-line Summit model, above the progression from base Laredo, to Limited, and Overland. That also sends the top price up high, with a top Summit with all the goodies topping $60,000. Base customers can still get a Laredo for $28,795 with rear-wheel drive, or a 4×4 Laredo for $30,795, with comparable 4×2/4×4 models including Limited at $35,795/$37,795, Overland at $42,995/$45,995, and the Summit based at $47,995/$50,995. In snow country, or mountainous regions, a 4×2 Grand Cherokee is unthinkable, because 4x4s rule.
Before dismissing the $60,000-region models, consider that you can choose Morocco-themed black with Miknasa walnut trim and gold accents in the Laredo, or New Zealandish black and light frost leather with Nador brown walnut and light, anodized driftwood for your interior. The Limited also earns a slight golden hue to its brushed aluminum. The Overland offers open-pore wood in dark-hued Jeep brown and Indigo blue — inspired, we’re told, by the blue-gray hue of the walls of Mount Vesuvius, combined with two-tone Nappa leather seats of blue with Jeep brown, and a stitched leather upper leather cover to the dashboard. Overland buyers can pick from light frost and open-pore Zebrano wood inspired by Nepal, or black Nappa leather with open-pore Nador Brown walnut. The top-dog Summit has yet another choice of black or brown Natura-plus leather inspired by the Grand Canyon, with a softer, more plush Summit brown open-pore wood and copper leather stitching everywhere.
That may not interest the rugged Jeep buyer, but it should give Acura, BMW, Mercedes and other high-end competitors reason for concern. Of interest to both high-end and basic buyers, Jeep offers a new 8.4-inch screen on the center stack, an option up from the 5-inch, and that houses the new UConnect feature that works via Cloud and Sprint to provide voice commands for everything from audio selections to navigation commands. The instrument cluster is really a 7-inch screen that can be altered to show whatever you choose.
Under all the interior choices, the hardware is strictly for traditional Jeep purists. The traditional choices of Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Trac II with rear electronic limited-slip fits all customer desires from fully automatic to specific traction needs. The already firm chassis has improved rigidity, and is suspended by various choices up to the Quadra-Lift air-suspension, which has settings that can raise or lower the vehicle by a span of 4.2 inches for everything from lower aerodynamic highway height to the highest off-road-clearance height.
Improvement to output and performance of both the superlative Pentastar V6 and the legendary 5.7-liter Hemi V8 engines are complemented by the introduction of a new 3.0-liter V6 turbo-diesel. Chrysler’s new ZF (pronounced “Zed-F”) 8-speed transmission brings all three of those engines to life for better power and better fuel economy. The 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 has 290 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque with 24 miles per gallon highway, 23 on 4×4 models, and a 6,200-pound towing capacity. The 5.7-liter V8 Hemi has 360 horsepower, 390 foot-pounds, and a 7,400-pound tow capacity, with 22 mpg highway, or 20 with 4×4.
The surprise is the new Fiat-sourced 3.0-liter V6 turbo-diesel, with 240 horsepower and a whopping 420 foot-pounds of torque, allowing it to match the Hemi’s 7,400-pound towing capacity, while producing breakthrough 30 mpg highway mpg in 4×2 trim, or 28 mpg as a 4×4.
We tested the turbo-diesel on some remarkable rock-climbing challenges on a private farm west of Austin. It was astounding to drive up to a nearly vertical with steady and seemingly unstoppable power. Then we drove it back to our Austin hotel and recorded 31.5 miles per gallon, with a high of 32.2. This was in on of the heavier models, which range from 4,545 pounds for the lightest 4×2 to 5,374 for the top-line 4×4 diesel.
All of that makes the Grand Cherokee a superb family SUV, and those same attributes make the Grand Cherokee formidable off-road as well, particularly when paired with the new Selec-Terrain control system that goes beyond Quadra-Lift to offer manual settings for conquering sand, mud, snow, or rock driving, or an automatic setting that does a great job of picking out the right one for whatever you’re encountering.
It seems, then, that Jeep had created a special Grand Cherokee that was built and refined to be comfortable and accommodating on the road, and was surprisingly close to the all-out Wrangler’s supremacy in off-road operation, which we proved on rugged trails and amazingly sheer rock wall-climbing.
Another impressive feature is that the usual hill-descent control, which allows you to creep slowly down the steepest grades without touching gas or brake, is complemented by a new hill-ascent control, which allows similar consistent performance in severe climbing situations. It would be a real treat to try it out on an ice-covered avenue in my own Duluth, Minnesota.
But wait, as they say in the ad-biz, there’s more!
While unveiling the new 2014 Grand Cherokee at the Detroit Auto Show, they could talk about the road-race-ready SRT, but the best way to convince the automotive media was to give us a bit of training, plug us into a full-face helmet, and turn us loose on the finest road-racing circuit in the country.
Ralph Gilles, who oversees all things SRT, said “Performance is alive and well” at SRT. Creating the 2014 Grand Cherokee SRT was comparatively streamlined, based on the existing vehicle. “In the 1980s, we would build a car and then throw away a lot of parts to make a vehicle like this,” Gilles said. “But with this, we already have the wheel clearance for wider wheels, and the perfect arrangement for added suspension travel.”
Gilles calls the new SRT worthy of its own segment. “It’s a new category, the performance SUV,” he said. “There are some very good small engines that over-achieve, and here we have a big engine that over-achieves. With cylinder deactivation, and the 8-speed transmission, you can press the ‘Eco’ button and be in 4-cylinder mode more of the time to get decent fuel economy. Or you can have all-out performance. It almost matches your mood.”
On the Circuit of the Americas, our mood was decidedly foot-down excitement, and we got our thrills in two-lap doses. Out of the pits and onto the main straight as it rises steeply up a hill; at the crest, you set up for hard braking and a sharp turn back to the left, plunging down the far side of the hill, where you sweep to the right, then around a series of mild turns and then the esses — abrupt and tightening left-right-left. Cresting a smaller hill you have to inscribe in memory whether you’re going to confront a sharp turn or a long, right-bending straightaway — because there are both. The tight left leads onto a long, high-speed straight with a slight kink right, followed by another hard-braking tight left-hander, then a hard button-hook to the right, then a decreasing-radius left, leading into a sweeping, constant-radius right, then a medium-radius left, heading to the final acute-angle left-hander that sends you hurtling back onto the main straightaway. If you stay wide, and make a late apex out of that final turn, you can accelerate hard all the way past the pits and zoom up the hill, as long as you realize that carrying more speed means you have to brake much harder for that tight left as you head onto your second lap.
In all, the Circuit of the Americas track is 3.4 miles long, with 20 turns — 11 left and 9 right. Driving it for enough laps that it felt comfortable climbing over 125 miles per hour in the Grand Cherokee SRT, the most impressive thing about the vehicle is how none of the specific characteristics is more impressive than any of the others. The 6.4-liter Hemi V8 has 470 horsepower and 465 foot-pounds ofd torque, the same power as in the Charger, Challenger or Chrysler SRT models, and it is made more impressive by the addition of variable valve-timing and the 8-speed automatic.
“We start with a really good product,” said Steve Sharples, brand manager for SRT which is now a separate entity at Chrysler LLC. “The things that make it so good off-road help it on-road, too, but we have five criteria for a vehicle to be redone into an SRT: 1. Exterior, where everything must be functional; 2. Interior, where everything, such as seats and instruments, are all race-inspired with a purpose; 3. Suspension, where we work with Bilstein to make adjustable dampers; 4. Brakes, where we use Brembo brakes with six-piston calipers in front, which will stop the Grand Cherokee SRT fron 60-0 in 116 feet; and 5. Powertrain, where the 6.4 Hemi has improved power and efficiency.
“If we can’t improve on all five of these hallmarks, we won’t do it.”
Obviously, the 2014 Grand Cherokee reached those thresholds, and the interior with its special trim and butt-clutching seat inserts, lives up to the rest. The biggest challenge was to hit all the high spots of performance, because the SRT8 version of the 2012 Grand Cherokee was very swift and good-handling.
“Overall performance was our toughest challenge,” said Dave Cottrell, chief engineer for SRT. “The 5-speed transmission we used to use was very aggressive, and would go 0-60 in 4.8 seconds, with only one shift in that whole run. It’s hard to take a 5,150-pound vehicle with that kind of speed and improve on it. The 8-speed is a big improvement, but it shifts twice. It had to be as fast, and it took a lot of work to equal the 4.8-second time. We probably couldn’t have hit that without all-wheel drive, which gets all the power to the ground through all four tires.”
Naturally, a race-track-ready Grand Cherokee doesn’t really have a race series to compete in, so it’s an uncompromising performer for the highways and streets. And it looks the part of a sleeper, as a luxurious looking SUV with special airdam and scoop treatment, and while the acceleration is instantly impressive, more subtle is the passing speed, where reacting from 45-75 mph is improved by 1.5 seconds over the hot SRT8 the new SRT replaces.
Cottrell also described the launch-control feature. Put your foot on the brake as you click the button to engage, then step on the gas where the engine speed rises to the 2,000-RPM stall speed. At that point, you have five seconds to release the brake, and when you do, optimum power surges to the wheels — 70 percent to the rear and 30 percent to the front — as the suspension stiffens to full-firm. It gives the Grand Cherokee SRT maximum power and take-off thrust. If you lift your foot off the gas, or hold it for more than five seconds, the launch-control aborts.
Ironically, the Grand Cherokee SRT also has an “Eco” button. Push it and the vehicle gains a 6 percent improvement in fuel economy, with a wider range of fuel-saving elements such as second-gear startup. The previous SRT8 has a 6.1-liter Hemi without variable cam-timing or cylinder deactivation, and going to the 6.4 with those features improves horsepower by 32 percent in midrange and fuel economy by 25 percent.
As you roar out of a corner and go full-throttle down the straightaway toward 125, you aren’t thinking much about cylinder-deactivation or the Eco button, but appreciating the firm handling, precise steering feel, and the sheer exhilaration of the sound of that 6.4 Hemi, and maybe you can do a little Walter-Mitty recognizing what Lewis Hamilton went through holding off Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
Afterward, back in pit lane, you can further assess the features. The Eco button is neat, as is the dragster-like launch control, which pretty well account for both ends of the spectrum. But I couldn’t help wonder what would happen if you engaged launch control and hit the Eco button simultaneously. Chances are, the SRT guys have that all figured out.