A muscle car makeover has just transformed the best Jeep in generations ...
Paul Gover road tests and reviews the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.
This is what happens when SUVs go bad. Or good. A muscle car makeover has just transformed the best Jeep in generations into a hotrod rival to a bunch of family heavyweights including the BMW X5M, Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG and even the Porsche Cayenne turbo.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT picks up the classy engineering and cabin quality of the regular models that arrived in Australia last year, then gives the package a giant thump with a 6.4-litre V8 engine, big wheels and brakes, and sports-tuned suspension.
It's not going to be a cheap machine, from around $90,000, but the SRT badge gives a Jeep just as much credibility for potential buyers as an M tag or AMG label in the BMW and Benz world.
Downsides? The new SRT hauler is a little slower than the previous model, just as thirsty, and is not going to cash-in the savings that Chrysler Jeep Australia is delivering on other new models coming downunder.
But the Nascar-style exhaust thunder from the ultimate Grand Cherokee will be more than enough compensation for some people.
There are a surprising number of SUV muscle cars in Australia, since people with Porsches and Ferraris also need something more family friendly to fill their garage. The benchmarks are the X5 M and ML63, both in the $150,000-plus range, and that makes the Jeep SRT look like a bargain. Then again, they are from two of the best luxury brands in the business, just like the Cayenne Turbo from a whacking $248,600.
So the SRT needs to be compared with the luxury stars, not a regular Grand Cherokee from $45,000. That makes it look pretty good, with everything from classy leather trim in an upscale cabin to climate control and beefy bodywork.
The previous SRT didn't do particularly well in Australia, but that was probably down more to the base car than the upgrading.
"We think the new model will have wider appeal, based on the refinement of the Grand Cherokee overall. It's the same as the current Laredo and Limited, which are far more popular," says Dean Bonthorne of Chrysler Jeep Australia.
Everything is new on the SRT8, starting with the body. That means more space and comfort inside, a better chassis with improved suspension - with switchable active ride - and all the latest safety gear including a knee airbag for the driver.
The heart of the car is a 6.4-litre Hemi V8, up from the previous 5.7 and now with 344 kiloWatts and 624 Newton-metres. But there are only five gears in the automatic and the overall gearing is unchanged, which means slightly less go with an extra 150 kilograms to haul around.
Chrysler says the SRT8 will still belt to 100km/h in less than five seconds, a mark we could not match in Nevada, but there is cylinder deactivation to improve the efficiency of the engien even though it still only managed 14.1 litres/100km and CO2 emissions of 328 grams/ kilometre.
Oh, and there are now crawler gears, despite the off-road credentials of the Jeep brand. Not that an SRT8 owner is ever likely to head into the bush . . .
For me, the best thing about the SRT8 is the beautifully sculpted bonnet, with twin scoops to tell the world what's happening in the engine room. The overall shape and soft-touch cabin - which is a massive improvement across the Grand Cherokee range - are much as before, including a driver's side rear-vision mirror that needs to be bigger.
The SRT upgrade is predictable stuff, from the deeper front spoiler with blacked-out air intake to the 20-inch alloys, Pirelli tyres and six-piston front brake calipers. The look is tough but still restrained, even for the blacked-out big- bore exhausts.
There is no ANCAP ruling on the Grand Cherokee, by Bonthorne says the Grand Cherokee have received the equivalent of a five-star ranking in the USA and the car is a top safety pick by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The Grand Cherokee, like a lot of models developed when Chrysler was partnered with Daimler, gets a lot of Mercedes-Benz safety gear from impressive ESP stability control to blind-spot monitoring. There are a total of seven airbags, a rear-view camera, and even what Chrysler calls an enhanced accident response system - which turns on the interior lights, unlocks the doors, hits the hazard flashers and shuts off the engine and fuel in an impact where the airbags are triggered.
The Grand Cherokee SRT8 makes an immediate impact, even in Sin City. There are lots of upscale cars in Las Vegas, and we spot a Lamborghini Gallardo Spider and Rolls-Royce Phantom in less than 30 minutes, but the Jeep easily holds its own. And when we head out towards the desert for some private picture work, the Nascar rumble from the 6.4 brings plenty of smiles.
More smiles are provided by the comfy-yet-supportive leather buckets, the punchy sound system and aircon that copes easily with any conditions. It's the same with the roomier new back seat and a cabin that's well designed and screwed together so there are no squeaks or rattles - or any hint of future trouble.
The stopwatch says the SRT8 is a few ticks slower than the previous model but it's not something you really notice, even if the upcoming ML63 has Benz's monster 5.5 twin-turbo V8 - a big advance for the ML that we need to trial at home for a serious score - and the Cayenne Turbo has a belter 4.8 V8 that will whack the Jeep. It's more like the Range Rover Sport, although not as hunkered-down and grippy for cornering work.
It rolls along smoothy with little tyre or wind roar, and when you hit the go pedal it does. The cornering grip is good, either in the standard or Sport setting for the suspension, although it rocks and rolls a bit as you'd expect from a big and very heavy SUV. It also stops very well.
The steering feel is not great, and I think the flagship Grand Cherokee needs a bigger colour display in the dash. It also gets very thirsty if you want to play.
But the SRT8 cashes-in the quality of the Grand Cherokee update last year and it ticks the boxes for someone who wants an SUV with the sort of punch and packaging you get from Holden Special Vehicles or Ford Performance Vehicles.
The SRT8 is not really a rival to the ML or X5, let alone the Porsche turbo, but it's a solid choice for anyone who wants a family SUV with real punch - and doesn't have an unlimited budget.
A solid performance upgrade on the impressive new Grand Cherokee means another winner from Jeep.
JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE SRT8
Price: estimate $90,000
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Safety: 5-star ANCAP (Estimated)
Engine: 6.4-litre V8, 344kW/624Nm
Body: Five-door wagon
Weight: 2336 kg
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Thirst: 14.1L/100km, 95 RON, CO2 328g/km.
OTHERS TO CONSIDER
BMW X5 M
Star rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Price: $178,200 Stars 3.5
Engine: 4.4-litre twin-turbo V8
Transmission: 6-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Body: 5-door SUV
Thirst: 11.5L/100km, 95 RON, 270g/km CO2
"The long-time Carsguide favourite is a top drive, and far more practical than the X6 coupe."
Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG
Star rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Engine: 6.2-litre V8
Transmission: 7-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Body: Five-door SUV
Thirst: 16.5L/100km, 98 RON, 392g/km CO2
"The current ML is quick yet flawed, and heavy on fuel, but when the 5.5-litre twin-turbo hits it will probably be a five-star car."
Porsche Cayenne Turbo
Star rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Engine: 2.8-litre V8 turbo
Transmission: 8-speed auto, all-wheel drive
Body: Five-door SUV
Thirst: 11.5L/100km, 98 RON, 270g/km CO2
"The current performance SUV benchmark is not even slightly cheap, but pays back in all areas including surprising efficiency."