It has all the qualities of a particularly unusual dream, but I doubt that I am dreaming. I am sitting in a 2011 Grand Cherokee Overland V6, next to the absolutely stunning Latina television host, Teresa Bravo, and we are banked to nearly forty-five lateral degrees. To our left is an unforgiving rock face; to the right, a drop of perhaps five hundred feet, all the way down to to where we started. I can see other Grand Cherokees down there, and they are small enough to be covered by a thumb held at arm’s length. This qualifies as a sticky situation.

The V-6 growls, the absurdly intelligent Quadra-Drive II system speaks to the sand through the three tires still in contact with the ground, and we are around the embankment and back on solid ground. It was a masterful piece of driving, if I do say so myself… and I will do so reluctantly, because Teresa, not I, was responsible for it.

Although the Grand Cherokee as we know it today has only been on the market for eighteen years and three generations, it’s already acquired the kind of don’t-mess status commonly associated with far older nameplates. Ford’s free to style the Explorer any way they want, and General Motors hasn’t bothered to come up with any kind of long-term visual identity for their mid-size SUVs, but with the GC Jeep faces a problem much like that encountered by Porsche with the 911. Jeep buyers expect that the Grand Cherokee will be tidily proportioned, aggressive-looking, and instantly identifiable.

The new model hits those marks without difficulty. In the same way that the second-gen GC added additional curves and sheetmetal “depth” to the original, this 2011 model takes the design language of its squared-off predecessor and adds muscle. The new truck is angry-looking where the old one looked a bit confused at times, and there’s additional aggression in the flared fenders and bulky hoodline. Perhaps best of all, the rear end trades upright lights for a broad horizontal setup, highlighted by a chrome bar. This Grand Cherokee looks lower, wider, smaller, meaner. But that doesn’t mean the old one gets completely forgotten about. Some might think it’s a shame that these cars still with many miles on the clock quite literally, get left behind in the upgrade. But there are auction sites like Grays and used car dealers who are there to keep them in circulation, and they can go to a loving home once their time is up.

Looks can be deceiving. In reality, this is a bigger truck, particularly from the B-pillar to the C-pillar. The first three GCs were miserable for rear-seat passengers. If you could make it through the tight squeeze presented by the rear door, you’d suffer in silence once crammed behind the front seats. This used to be par for the course; ever get in a first-gen Range Rover or Discovery? Wheelbase was the reason. In off-road situations, wheelbase kills maneuverability and drastically reduces “breakover height”. The people at Jeep simply couldn’t lengthen the Grand Cherokee any more without raising it and suffering the crash-safety and on-road compromises inherent to that choice.

Enter Quadra-Lift. For the first time, a Jeep has full air suspension, just like what you’d find in a Range Rover. Quadra-Lift can drop the car 1.6 inches below standard height for passenger entry, or it can skyjack the Grand Cherokee to over eleven inches of ground clearance. With that kind of clearance, it’s possible to stretch the platform. Voila! Four more inches of rear-seat room makes the difference between coach and business class for the soccer kids and couples-date veterans who typically inhabit the back of these vehicles.

Quadra-Lift isn’t the only driveline trick debuting in the Grand Cherokee, and not the only one with its roots in the competition from Land Rover. “Selec-Terrain” is a near-as-dammit duplicate of Land Rover’s “Terrain Response” multi-function controller, and it seems to work better. During our drive in California’s Hollister Hills, we primarily used “Sand/Rock”. One would think, from seeing the people who wear “Hollister” clothing, that we’d want the “Douchebag/Bro-Love” setting, but it turns out that’s a different Hollister. For the drive to and from the trailhead, there’s an interesting “Sport” setting that stiffens the suspension and lets the ESC relax a bit for full-power corner exits.

Some of you, of course, don’t give a damn about off-road ability. Jeep has you covered there as well. It’s possible to set up your Grand Cherokee with 20″ wheels, performance-oriented tires, and one of two road-oriented drivetrains. The standard RWD is obviously the “driver’s choice”, but there’s also a “Quadra-Trac I” which is a simple AWD system with no low range, much like what you’d find in most of the imported competition. With this setup, you can go hunt Corvettes. You won’t catch any, but you can hunt them.

Not that you won’t catch pretty much every other mid-sized SUV out there, particularly the seven-seat land barges. On a fast road, this thing will absolutely dominate a Lexus RX350 or, chuckle, a GMC Acadia. It actually handles. It’s possible to drive up to the limits of the tires, which are reasonable even for the “minus two” 18″ setups found in the off-road-oriented Grand Cherokees. Even the brakes are okay for the available pace.

Speaking of available pace… I never thought I would write this, but for the first time in Chrysler history it’s okay to skip the HEMI. The new Pentastar V-6 develops 290 horsepower at 6,400 rpm and 260 lb-ft. of torque at 4,800. It’s “oversquare,” with a bore diameter greater than the stroke, and as a result it’s more than happy to rev in this 4,300-pound SUV. A brief freeway pull in a V6 Grand Cherokee made me think it was underpowered – until I checked the speedo and discovered that we weren’t doing the 80 mph indicated by the general noise level and road motion, but closer to 95. There are three more good reasons to choose the Pentastar: it’s flex-fuel, it returns 23 mpg on the freeway for the 2WD variants (22 for the 4×4), and it is 300 lbs. lighter than the 5.7L HEMI.

Some Grand Cherokee owners like to tow, and for them the difference between the V6’s 5.000-pound towing capacity and the Hemi’s 7,400-pound rating will merit choosing the larger engine. As always, the HEMI is characterful and strong, if a little quiet in this very subdued Jeep insulation package. For the first time, however, it’s not the best choice in a vehicle where it’s available.

As noted above, this Jeep is quiet. It’s also surprisingly nice inside. The Overland has real wood and stitched leather, but the Limited is passable and the Laredo is a surprise for the price. It’s a pleasure to sit in, there are ventilated leather seats available (quite helpful when sweating along a no-mistakes-allowed mountain trail) and all the controls feel high-quality. All it would need to be absolutely fabulous would be the SYNC system. Instead, we get uConnect, which isn’t as good. I realize it’s a violation of the auto-journo code to make a blatant comparison like that, so just pretend I said something like “SYNC and uConnect have very different strengths, and the consumer will have to make his or her own choice.” Bee. Ess. SYNC rules and uConnect drools. The saddest part is that there’s a “SYNC” button on the Grand Cherokee dashboard, which raised my hopes to the sky when I got in the truck, but it only refers to the climate control. Sob.

Okay. So Ford has the better mousetrap. Right now, however, the Grand Cherokee is the better truck. I have no difficulty anointing it as the class leader. We all expect the GC to whip pretenders like the Lexus RX and Acura MDX off-road, but it whips ’em on-road as well, has plenty of space, seems well-put-together, and it’s affordable. The Laredo 2WD starts at $30,995, and our fully-equipped V-6 Overland tester rang the cash register for $43,900 or so. Try taking forty-four grand to the Acura dealer and see what you get.

When Ms. Bravo and I were done proving to ourselves, and everyone else on the trail, that I couldn’t touch her as an off-road driver, we settled into a HEMI-powered Overland for the long run to Half Moon Bay. I had plans to show her just what I was capable of, but as we wove along the coastal road and saw the first glimpse of the setting sun on the Northern California beaches, I couldn’t help but turn the pace down a bit. Why hurry? We have an iPod full of music, the sun ahead, the sea besides. I pinched myself. I wasn’t dreaming. For Grand Cherokee fans, this new Jeep is a dream come true.

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Jack Baruth

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