When Fiat boss Sergio Marchionne moved in at Chrysler he identified Jeep as the American company's most suitable global brand. It was a no-brainer really: how many other car names are generic? All around the world, Jeep is shorthand for a four-wheel drive off-road vehicle.
The name derives from the US Army's General Purpose vehicle from World War 2. Like many long-established brands, Jeep has changed owners several times, so its evolution has been inconsistent, but it has always maintained its reputation for rugged vehicles that can go on when others are defeated. Of course, these days there are lots of go-anywhere vehicles and quite a few that meet Jeep's trailblazing standards. Copies of early Jeeps have been produced, officially and unofficially, all over the world. The nearest thing to the original in Chrysler's current line-up is the basic Jeep Wrangler but the marque today is better know for more civilized sport-utility vehicles like the Grand Cherokee.
The Grand Cherokee dates back 20 years, when it was introduced by Bob Lutz, then Chrysler president, driving the first car off the line at the Jefferson North plant through the streets of Detroit and crashing through a plate-glass window to make a grand entrance at the North American Auto Show. In 1992, that first Jeep Grand Cherokee was a credible alternative to the Range Rover - then, as now, king of the 4X4s - at a price lower than the Land Rover Discovery. New generations have come and gone but improvements did not keep pace with the new SUVs from everyone from Audi and BMW to Porsche and Volkswagen. Development of the new Grand Cherokee was started when Jeep was part of DaimlerChrysler and its mechanical design owes a lot to the Mercedes ML, then part of the same family.
The new model was nearly ready when Fiat took charge of Chrysler but there was the opportunity to make some changes, notably to design details and quality, and to provide its new 3-litre V6 diesel engine (made in Bologna by VM Motori) with the latest Fiat Multijet fuel injection system. It is an odd twist of fate that a car that has the platform and 15 per cent shared components with the ML - and in its previous generation used a Mercedes diesel engine - should have its diesel made in Italy but Fiat secured the supply by taking a 50 per cent share of VM (the other half is owned by General Motors but that's another story). There has also been an about-turn on production: whereas the previous model was made for Europe by Magna in Austria, all versions of the new one come from the Jefferson North plant in downtown Detroit.
This is the first Grand Cherokee with independent, multi-link, rear suspension and the first to offer height-adjustable air springs. The old-school SRT8 with a rumbling, 470PS, 6.4-litre petrol V8 gets the headlines in America but the new diesel, with 241PS from the Fiat-tweaked VM V6 is the main feature for Europe and it was that model that we drove on the roads of Northern Italy and the Jeep off-road course at Fiat's Balocco proving ground. Jeep's chief engineer said that the Grand Cherokee's closest competitor is the Land Rover Discovery 4 and that its aim with the new model was: 'Land Rover capability and Mercedes comfort - at a lower price than both'. We think it comes close to meeting those objectives but only as the higher specification Overland model including Quadra-Lift air suspension and 'trail-rated' equipment and that brings the price (Rs 35 lakh in the UK) pretty close to the equivalent Discovery and Mercedes ML. With all the right kit, and 18-inch rather than the fancy 20-inch wheels, the Grand Cherokee romped over the concrete hillocks, gulleys and other formidable terrain at Balocco and yet rode and handled decently on normal roads.
The new bodyshell - a monocoque like its predecessors - is said to be 146 per cent stiffer than the last Grand Cherokee and the lines, tank and compressor for the air suspension system are all enclosed and protected. With air suspension, the ride height can be adjusted within a range of 105mm and is lowered automatically by 15mm when the road speed exceeds 100kmph. The QuadraDrive permanent four-wheel drive system with active torque distribution is standard, as is automatic transmission - though that is only a five-speed, which dictates a relatively low final drive ratio. Nonetheless, fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are 20 per cent lower than the last model while the engine produces more power and accelerates the 2,300kg vehicle to 100kmph in about 8 seconds.
The engine has a slightly rough note at idle but settles down quietly for cruising, when occupants benefit from extensive insulation including double-glazed side windows. On-road performance and comfort are entirely satisfactory - it rides more softly than most SUVs and is none the worse for that - but the Grand Cherokee isn't a car you would buy for the joy of driving. It is more impressive as a workhorse, when it does all that you would expect of a Jeep with the minimum of fuss. The Selec-Terrain selector is a direct crib from the Discovery: a rotary control on the centre console which gives the choice of settings for snow, sand, and mud and rock, as well as a 'sport' position for normal roads. Like the Land Rover, these settings automatically activate the relevant systems - for example, raising the suspension in rock mode and adjusting traction controls for sand and mud. There are buttons alongside to engage low-range gearing and hill-descent control - the latter operating at higher speeds than Land Rover allows.
A lot of the other controls are sited on the steering wheel spokes, and therefore close at hand but easy to confuse. The design and execution of the facia is disappointing for a car that competes with premium products. Nappa hide on the Overland's seats creates a better impression than the shiny, untextured leather of lesser versions which looks more like plastic. The new Grand Cherokee is longer and wider than its predecessor and bigger than all its direct rivals apart from the Discovery. It is also 12cm lower than the Land Rover, which gives it a more sporty look.
There is no question that the Grand Cherokee is much improved in the way it drives and rides, accommodation, running costs, and even fit-and-finish. It looks - and is - tough in an American way, which is what Chrysler's Italian masters intended. But we would prefer the Indian-owned British Discovery. The reasons are hard to define, as there is not much between them in things you can measure and assess. Perhaps the Land Rover just has more class.