Pros: Superior off-road capability; first-rate build and interior quality; good driving dynamics; it's a Jeep

Cons: Poor fuel economy with AWD; no third-row seat; upper level models can be pricey; narrow interior

By the best estimates, fewer than 10 percent of Grand Cherokee owners will ever take their vehicle off-road. So why, we wonder, did Jeep put so much off-road ability-and added weight-into the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee? The answer is pretty simple: because it's a Jeep. And, in the minds of many owners, it's the ability to go off-road (or through deep snow or loose sand) that draws them to this legendary five-passenger SUV.

Conceived while Mercedes-Benz still had a considerable stake in Jeep's affairs, the Grand Cherokee benefited from the merger, inheriting the platform and some suspension components from the current Mercedes-Benz ML. As a result, the 2012 Grand Cherokees has a rock-solid chassis, incredibly tight body panel gaps and an interior that looks more Audi than outdoorsy. A choice of three potent engines ensures that lack of power will never be an issue, and three possible 4-wheel-drive systems should safely cover every level of off-road enthusiast.

If it sounds like we're high on the Grand Cherokee, it's because we are. But, there are some notable downsides you'll have to learn to live with. Fuel economy, even on the V6, is poor, and there is no third-row seat option. The Grand Cherokee isn't cheap, and its new Pentastar V6 engine, while impressive, is still an unproven entity.

Comfort & Utility

The Grand Cherokee is available in four trim levels: Laredo, Limited, Overland and the high-performance SRT8. While the Laredo trim might be the entry-level model, the interior shows no sign of any cost-cutting measures. The dash, door panels and seats are covered in premium materials, and the standard equipment roster looks like some competitor's high-end options list. Move to the Limited or Overland trims, and the Grand Cherokee offers an interior to rival the best from BMW, Audi or Land Rover. Available features worth noting include a power rear liftgate, heated rear seats, a panoramic glass moonroof, Garmin navigation, and the Overland trim's adaptive cruise control and ventilated front seats.

From a comfort standpoint, the Grand Cherokee's interior feels a bit on the narrow side, and it doesn't offer the option of a third-row seat. Thankfully, this model has the most rear-seat legroom of any Grand Cherokee to date. Extensive use of laminated glass, sound-deadening materials and thicker steel conspire to create an interior that is as serene at highway speed as any luxury make.

Technology

Leading off the Grand Cherokee's technology roster is the UConnect voice-activated infotainment and navigation system. The driver can make and receives phone calls, select music from an iPod, and stream audio, all via voice command. SiriusXM Traffic and Travel Link work through the optional navigation radio to help you avoid traffic jams, see local weather conditions, and get up to the minute sport scores, movie information or gas prices. There's even a mobile WiFi hotspot option that turns the Grand Cherokee into a rolling computer lounge.

Music fanatics will love the Grand Cherokee's optional 506-watt, nine-speaker Alpine audio system including a power subwoofer. The SRT8 can be equipped with 19-speaker Harman Kardon system delivering 825 watts to its GreenEdge high-efficiency speakers.

Jeep's Quadra-Lift full air suspension allows the driver to select the vehicle's ground clearance, higher for off-road adventure (as much as 10.7 inches) or lower for improved handling on paved roads. Another innovative first for Jeep is the Selec-Terrain system. Available on all models with a two-speed transfer case, Selec-Terrain allows the driver to dial in the type of road conditions expected ahead. With settings for snow, mud, sand, rock and sport, the Selec-Terrain system adjusts torque distribution and control of the electronic limited-slip rear differential, as well as the air suspension and traction control, for optimal performance.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Standard on all but the SRT8 is Jeep's 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 engine. Producing 290 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, this engine is one of the most refined and adept V6s available. Although fuel economy figures of 17 mpg city/23 mpg highway don't thrill us (the figures drop to 16/23 mpg with 4-wheel drive), the V6 engine can tow up to 5000 pounds, and the 24-gallon fuel tank gives the Grand Cherokee a cruising range of around 500 miles.

One step up is the 5.7-liter V8 engine. Rated at 360 hp and with 390 lb-ft of torque, the V8 definitely ups the Grand Cherokee's game, but fuel ratings of 13/20 mpg for 4-wheel-drive models prompt us to advise this engine only for those who need the increased 7400-pound tow rating.

The performance-oriented SRT8 trim has a massive 6.4-liter HEMI engine with a staggering 470 horsepower and 464 pound-feet of torque. Though not intended for serious off-road use, the SRT8 can run from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 4.8 seconds. However, with fuel economy figures of 12-mpg city/18 mpg highway, you won't get very far before needing to refuel. The SRT8 has the same 5000-pound tow rating as the V6 model.

Safety

The Jeep Grand Cherokee is equipped with front side-impact and side curtain airbags and electronic traction and stability control. Available on the Limited and Overland is a blind-spot warning system, radar-based Forward Collision Warning and Rear Cross Path Detection system and a brake system that helps dry the rotors when it's wet outside.

Driving Impressions

On paved roads, the Grand Cherokee delivers a solid driving experience, with excellent marks in the areas of ride comfort, handling, acceleration and driver feedback. Its independent rear suspension not only improves the Grand Cherokee's handling, it allows for greater vertical wheel travel when off-roading. Another off-road plus is the Jeep's narrow body, which allows easier maneuvering in tight spots.

The Grand Cherokee can be ordered as a rear-wheel-drive-only vehicle or equipped with one of three 4-wheel-drive systems. Laredo trims feature Quadra-Trac I, which is essentially a permanent AWD system. Optional on the Laredo and standard on the Limited and Overland is the Quadra-Trac II system, which features a two-speed transfer case, hill decent control and the Selec-Terrain system. V8-equipped Grand Cherokees use the Quadra-Drive II, which adds an electronic limited-slip rear differential. The SRT8 gets its own version of the Selec-Terrain system with settings for Auto, Sport, Tow and Track.

Other Cars to Consider

Ford Edge - The Edge offers a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that is nearly as powerful as the Jeep's V6 but gets much better fuel economy. Unlike the Grand Cherokee, the Edge is not a true off-road vehicle and its tow rating is limited to 3,500 pounds.

Toyota Highlander - The Highlander isn't off-road capable and doesn't offer the same level of sophistication or the Grand Cherokee's V8 engine. On the flip side, the Highlander can seat 7, has superior resale history and offers a high-mileage hybrid model.

Land Rover LR4 - The Land Rover offers the same advance off-road technology as the Grand Cherokee and it carries the added bragging rights due a luxury SUV. But for the same money, you can get a loaded Overland with more features, a better ride, better resale and better fuel economy.

AutoTrader Recommends

If venturing off-road is part of your reasoning for buying a Grand Cherokee, we'd take a Laredo X with the optional Quadra-Trac II and Selec-Terrain systems. We'd probably throw in the navigation and upgraded audio systems for good measure. If luxury is more important to you than rock climbing, go with the Limited model. We'd avoid the V8 (it's just too fuel thirsty), and unless your year-round weather precludes the chance of ever seeing snow, we'd also advise against the rear-wheel-drive models. After all, a Jeep is meant for tackling snow and mud and going off-road. If you're only driving on dry paved roads, there are plenty of vehicles that make better sense (and get better fuel economy) than the Grand Cherokee.

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Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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