The relevance of a 6.4 litre, V8 Jeep might be lost in Pocket-lint's home country. But knowing we were heading to the States, we thought it high time we review a car with more of an American flavour on these pages. It needed to be something that could do justice to the stereotypes of its motherland – the domain of the SUV, land of Nascar racing and the spiritual home of the V8.
The updated, 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee therefore sounded ideal. In SRT flavour, complete with aforementioned 6.4 litre V8 “hemi” engine, it might as well come wrapped in a star-spangled banner, so many American automotive stereotype boxes does it tick.
And so it came to pass that waiting for us in the dusk of an LAX parking lot, was the fastest of fast Jeeps, finished in "bright white clear coat" paint. Resplendent with front mask, wheels and interior all rendered in black, the bling set of clothes felt right at home in Tinsel Town. We weren't staying long though, for our final destination would be Las Vegas, followed by Palm Springs. Given these were the spiritual and actual home of a certain, long dead rock and roll legend and our car’s colour scheme, Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT was soon abbreviated to an appropriate nickname: "Elvis". As we shall see, the car and "The King" had more than a couple of similarities.
A voice of blockbuster proportions
First among these is a "voice" we could listen to all day. The "Hemi" bit in the name of this car’s engine refers to the hemispherical combustion chamber, which give Chrysler/Jeep’s V8s their unique sound. It’s a familiar rumbling V8 noise but cut across with a slightly off-beat wubawubawuba at idle. If you've ever been in the centre of London when a Chinook comes over, the sound and vibration isn't dissimilar.
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This noise was particularly good when starting the car from cold in the morning, where it was augmented by a popping, fizzing crackle from the exhaust. And being of childish disposition, we made good use of the Jeep’s remote start facility – always waiting for an unsuspecting passer-by to be walking in front of the Jeep before double-pressing the button and falling about in fits of giggles as “Elvis” clearing his throat caused the poor unsuspecting to jump a couple of feet into the air.
America 1 Germany 0
But whereas American cars have long been thought of by Europeans as all mouth and no trousers, the SRT motor helps this Jeep feel like the king of SUVs. Foot-in-carpet performance is of the sort that you’ll need serious machinery to outrun. 60mph comes up in just 4.8 seconds, which is fairly startling considering it’s moving two plus tonnes of Jeep.
Better still, the low-flying Chinook idle morphs into a Nascar scream as it closes in on the rev limiter. Playing its part in this performance is the new for 2014 8-speed gearbox. The same ZF unit that sees service in various BMWs and Jags, we love it. Left in auto, you just plant your foot into the carpet and it hurls gears at the engine as fast as it car. But pull on the chunky, authentic metal-feeling steering wheel paddles and you’re in charge. To keep up, the Germans would need to bring a Porsche Cayenne. Turbo.
Premium, not so much
Of course, it doesn’t all feel like quite the premium item the German opposition does. The SRT wheel-arch extensions are bolt-on bits. Plastics are not universally soft touch. Door pockets are not flock, or even rubber- lined.
But crucially, most of the bits you touch – most notably the new SRT wheel and gear shifter paddles, wouldn’t feel out of place in a Porsche. The seats – huge, bewinged SRT branded units – are trimmed in decent quality leather and suede materials too, although we did find them uncomfortable in the small of the back after hours at the wheel.
And while the bits you can see might not be totally top drawer, underneath the Grand Cherokee shares its architecture with Mercedes' latest ML – a hangover from the days when Merc owned Chrysler, so it’s all premium goodness. Doubtless, it’ll even go further than most off-road too, given the Jeep heritage.
A game-changer in touchscreen designs
And when you're not listening to the engine and laughing out loud at the bonkers performance, your cabin experience is likely to be more dominated by the new 8-inch uConnect centre screen and associated digital gauge pack than the plastics.
When this new system won an award at CES we were sceptical about what made it special. But having spent two weeks with it, we have to say that in terms of touchscreen design, it is something of a leap forward.
Real thought has gone into the layout and menu structure. Crucially, the menu system in the 4:3 aspect ratio screen – for nav, radio, media, phone – constantly sits along the bottom. This means that shuttling between functions is a doddle. No need to come out of one function, go back to a global menu and then into another. You simply flick between menus in one touch.
The second impact is that, as these menu buttons remain a constant along the bottom of the screen, the rest of the display above it in facts sits in a 16:9 ratio. This makes the graphical layout look a lot more modern – which combined with a simple, uncluttered layout of buttons and functions makes uConnect very intuitive. It’s also largely fast and responsive. We say largely, because it’s good so long as you give it a minute or two to get its stuff together when first fired up. Clearly, like its name sake, Elvis the Jeep wasn’t one for early mornings. Forced quick entry of sat nav destinations at start up caused the system to crash on a couple of occasions.
Otherwise, the uConnect system proved a boon on our road trip. Can’t find the Fisherman’s Wharf Marriott in San Francisco? uConnect could. Want Wi-Fi on the go? Spotify through Bluetooth? Or Pandora radio via uConnect apps? All worked seamlessly.
And this being an SRT model, you can totally geek out if you want, as deep within the menus you can pull up extra gauges, record G-figures, time acceleration, braking performance and so on. And mirror it on the digital screen in the centre of the gauge cluster. Earning it extra stars as a family car, Jeep hasn't forgotten about the guys in the back with two USB ports on the back of the centre bin.
Such exuberant character and eye-popping performance comes at a price of course. Both at the pumps, where we recorded an average of 16.8 mpg, and to purchase in the first instance. Our car came in at $70,260 (around £45,900).
But let's put that in context. The 16.8mpg doesn’t seem as bad when we convert from US to UK mpg, where it comes out at 20.1mpg. Thirsty yes, but for the performance and size of the car, perhaps better than expected. And the price of $70k - at today’s exchange rates that’s around £45k, although the outgoing SRT model in the UK retailed for just under £60k- still compares favourably to anything similarly sized, German and offering this level of performance.
But this isn’t a review of numbers or rational maths. Anyone who wants a Grand Cherokee in the UK will buy the 3.0 Diesel, unless they own their own oilfield. Most people will buy an X5, Touareg or ML instead anyway. To them we say don’t overlook the Grand Cherokee, it’s really a rather good car.
Yet in trying to summarise our thoughts on this, the most banzai, crazy and American of Jeeps, we keep coming back to that the hard to quantify and overused word, character. Long used as an excuse to make up for a real shortfall in definable qualities in American cars, it’s something the Grand Cherokee SRT has in spades. Yet here it’s not an excuse. It just makes a good car extremely likeable.
Character isn’t quantified by the softness of the plastics. It’s about the special feeling and warm reaction we got while driving this car across three States of America. From bikers on highway one who wanted to know if it "was a 2014" and then gave us the "thumbs up" when we dropped the hammer, to surfer dudes in Big Sur to every Valet in Vegas, who commented on the “sweet Jeep” – America loved this car.
Character’s about the all-enveloping qualities of a truly stunning engine – and the memory of that first freeway on ramp acceleration, which will stay in the mind forever. It’s about knowing you’ll actually miss a car when you leave it for the last time in an airport car park. And it’s about even convincing yourself that calling a car “Elvis” wasn’t actually that silly because it was a bit overweight, full of character, rough around the edges, had a great voice and loved a drink. Try doing that with a Porsche. Funny thing, character.