2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L First Drive Review: An American Original Goes Long

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L First Drive Review: An American Original Goes Long
“It starts with the tow hooks,” says Mark Allen, Head of Jeep Global Design, when asked about the challenges of redesigning a beloved model. Jeep

The Jeep Grand Cherokee has led a charmed life. Launched in 1993 as an ostensible replacement for the boxy Cherokee XJ, the Grand Cherokee’s arrival synced perfectly with America’s emerging SUV obsession and sold alongside the XJ for nearly a decade. Still, the Grand Cherokee quickly became a top seller, a mantle Jeep expects the new, fifth-generation 2021 Grand Cherokee L to assume with little difficulty.

Much of Jeep‘s confidence rests in adding a third-row seat to the Grand Cherokee, a feature buyers have been requesting for years. Designated by the “L” suffix, the three-row seven-passenger—or six-passenger with second-row captain’s chairs—will sell alongside a standard, two-row fifth-generation Grand Cherokee that joins it in showrooms before the end of the calendar year.  

Lucky Seven—or Six

Providing a third row spreads the Grand Cherokee’s footprint across a crowded segment, placing it toe-to-toe with a disparate list of competitors including the Kia Telluride, Ford Explorer, Volkswagen Atlas, Honda Pilot and Dodge Durango, among others, as well as infringing on the upcoming 2022 Jeep Grand Wagoneer. Jeep thinks there’s room for both, telling us the Grand Wagoneer appeals to buyers more focused on interior space and luxury first, while the Grand Wagoneer is typically a more active user.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland at Detroit’s Eastern Market. Jeep

To prove that the new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L (“WL” in Jeep-speak) retains the core tenets that first put it on the map and subsequently in the driveways of over a million buyers, we sampled a handful of models in numerous environments in and around the city of Detroit.

First up was a reasonably well-equipped Overland, the second string player in the four-tier trim hierarchy. Comprised of the Laredo, Limited, Overland, Summit (Summit Reserve is a full-boat single box check option) trims, base MSRPs start at $38,690 for the Laredo and escalate to $63,690 for the Summit Reserve, both prices including a $1695 destination fee.

Access to the new third row is relatively painless, the second-row seat tipping and sliding forward in a single fluid motion. Vehicles with the air suspension have a Quick Down Leveling (QDL) that lowers the nominal 20.2 sill height to 18.4 inches in seconds, easing entry. Once seated, the third proves that it’s more than marketing hyperbole by offering 30.3 inches of legroom, enough space for adults in a pinch and plenty of room for kids on long excursions. A few inches short of the 33.7 legroom figure offered by the VW Atlas and the 33.5 by the Chevrolet Traverse, it does eke out a couple of more inches of legroom than the Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9 and new Kia Sorrento. But third-row seat measurements can be deceiving; you need to sample them to know if they will serve your needs. We found the Grand Cherokee’s wayback a comfortable place, but, as is the case with most three-row popularly-sized SUVs, far less accommodating than the third row in a minivan or a full-boat Suburban or Excursion.  

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L three row
The third row is a nice place to visit, but, like most vehicles in this class, permanent residency is recommended for children and small adults. Jeep

Made In Detroit

Circumnavigating the narrow surface streets bordering Detroit’s Eastern Market revealed linear steering with light effort, action falling just this side of being over-assisted—that’s typical of the segment and preferable to many overstressed drivers, although we’d welcome a little more heft. The Overland features the air suspension and semi-active dampers (it’s not available on Laredo and Summit), which coconspire to quickly find the proper algorithm to keep harshness outside the vehicle, even on the pock-marked industrial areas on the outskirts of the massive marketplace. Combined with the front and rear independent suspension and 18-inch wheels, the systems do their best to minimize the L’s nearly 205-inch overall length and make you forget that it is approximately 15 inches longer than the outgoing two-row Grand Cherokee. The fact that most competitors have grown equally as healthy in recent years makes the increase in length mostly a non-issue.

The location in the heart of Detroit not only offers an opportunity to show off the city’s revitalized urban environment but also to underscore the impact of the maker’s rejuvenated century-old Mack Avenue facility. Officially known as “The Detroit Assembly Complex – Mack,” the plant received a $1.6 billion investment in 2019 and is essentially new top to bottom. The first new assembly facility built within the Detroit city limits in 30 years, the 266-acre site employs approximately 4900 people.  An on-site test track featuring potholes, speedbumps, gravel and more real-world imperfections and obstacles helps engineers discover and eliminate any squeaks, rattles or other loose bits before a vehicle leaves the facility.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee Ls traveling down the trim line at Stellantis’ Detroit Assembly Complex – Mack plant. The fully modern facility will add the standard two-row Jeep Grand Cherokee and Electrified variations of the same in the near future.

V6 & V8 Power, Performance and Fuel Economy

Merging on to the expressway is effortless, the Grand Cherokee Overland’s 5.7-liter V8 shuffling its output through the eight-speed automatic transmission. It’s essentially a carryover engine, minor tweaks altering its output to 357 horsepower from 360 previously; torque remains unchanged at 390 foot-pounds.

The 3.6-liter V6 can’t match the V8’s confident, easy stride, but it’s not a total lightweight either. Rated for 293 horsepower and 260 foot-pounds of torque, it uses the same 8-speed transmission. It, too, is a carryover engine, kicking around for about a decade under the hood of nearly every make under the FCA/Stellantis umbrella. A significant update in 2016 and other incremental revisions along the way have kept it viable, and it delivers pleasant if unspectacular motivation with solid acceleration, although it does get a little coarse as it approaches its 6400 rpm redline.

Towing is a crucial element for Grand Cherokee owners, and the new 2021 “GCLong” model is rated to tug up to 7200 pounds, 1900 more than the current Ford Explorer and 200o more than the Volkswagen Atlas and Kia Telluride. Jeep

Despite being down on power, the V6’s 6200-pound max tow rating gives up just 1000 pounds to the V8-equipped Grand Cherokee L’s 7200-pound rating. It also has the edge over the V8 in fuel economy, returning reasonable EPA estimates of 18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway and 21 mpg combined. The V8 extracts a small toll on fuel economy, rated at 14 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 17 mpg combined. If regular towing or drag-strip excursions aren’t on your to-do list, the V6 won’t leave you with any post-purchase regrets. 

Highway Manners

Highway travel in the Overland is serene, the air suspension and adaptive dampers once again absorbing the energy from roadway imperfections for the sake of the passengers within. Road noise is virtually non-existent, despite wearing semi-aggressive off-road tires; part of the credit goes to the new stiffer architecture and the extensive use of aluminum and high-strength steel. The light steering has a nice on-center feel but is otherwise ambiguous despite utilizing a variable algorithm to weight its feel and response based on vehicle speed and other factors.

The Level 2 driver assist lane keeping function is tuned to apply corrections gingerly, a welcome approach compared to some of the abrupt movements of competitor’s lane keeping systems. Uconnect 5.5, the latest version of the universally revered infotainment system, is on hand to entertain, assist and distract occupants with a 10-inch screen that permits users to configure the home screen to taste. Night vision adds a layer of safety and novelty to moonlight drives, and the rear-seat monitoring camera helps keep tabs on the kids when things get suspiciously quiet. And of course, the much-ballyhooed 17-channel, 930-watt McIntosh audio system with the trademark oversized VU meters provides impeccable sound reproduction even if your musical tastes are not.

While the new design is familiar, details like the forward tipped grille, slim headlamps and expansive glass area set it apart from previous generations. Jeep

Covering much of the same territory in a Grand Cherokee L Limited 4×4 with the standard suspension and minimal options revealed a less compliant ride. However, its 121.7-inch wheelbase—that’s 7-inches longer than the current two-row—goes a long way to smooth out the highway ride. It’s a solid, organic feeling, never loose, but could get tedious on long stretches of roadway with broken expansion joints. A comparative stripper, we synced the Limited’s Apple CarPlay without a hitch, taking the sting out of the absence of a navigation system and the McIntosh audio, which is only available on the Overland and Summit trims.  The Limited’s Capri leather stands in for the Overland and Summit’s Nappa leather seats—the base Laredo has cloth seats—but we managed.

Earning The Seven Slots

Though they could have easily moved more towards the “people-hauler with a rugged profile” attitude adopted by some of its competitors and still sold every Grand Cherokee L that leaves the factory, the three-row Grand Cherokee L still has an obligation to deliver on the rugged promise of the Jeep brand. Jeep engineers reminded us that “you gotta earn your seven slots” in reference to the Jeep seven-slot grille the capability it infers.

Our Overland trim was equipped with the Quadra-Drive II four wheel drive system with high and low ranges and locking rear axle. The base Quadra-Trac I is a single-range system and the mid-range Quadra-Trac II uses a two-speed transfer case.

Five terrain modes (Auto, Sport, Rock, Snow, Mud/Sand) are on hand to optimize nearly every parameter for the terrain at hand. We were advised to leave in Auto mode to see how well the system can sort out the particulars, i.e., 4×4 torque split, braking, steering and suspension systems, throttle control, transmission shifting, traction control, and stability control on its own. Air suspension-equipped models can also be left in auto, but a separate console-mounted switch permits the driver to set it at its highest setting, providing a full 10.9 inches of ground clearance.

True to their mantra, the Grand Cherokee L did all the traditional Jeep things without ruffling a feather: crest high angle ridges, crossing a haphazardly amassed log pile and descending steep, muddy downhills. We squared off with a formidable rocky incline with the compulsories out of the way, selected the Rock drive mode, and walked up the minefield of sharp granite obstacles with the forward-view camera informing the route. All with less-than-aggressive tires mounted on its 18-inch wheels.

The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L offers a max water fording depth 24 inches, an improvement of four inches over previous generation. Jeep

Equipped with the Off-Road Group (electronic limited-slip rear differential and steel skid plates) and the Quadra-Drive II four-wheel drive system (two-speed active transfer case and the rear eLSD), the driver simply applies the throttle judiciously and lets the system determine where to send torque for maximum traction. It might be a bit alien for experienced hardcore off-road types accustomed to double-locked, solid-axle rigs, but it works if you let it.

As one of the founding fathers of the practical luxury SUV movement, the Jeep Grand Cherokee blended genuine off-road capability with on-road comfort at price within reach of mere mortals. The new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L continues that tradition while incorporating the latest advances in technology. If the lack of a third row is the only thing that’s been keeping you from visiting your Jeep dealer, your time has come.