2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland 4×4 Review
By Chris Haak
When evaluating a particular vehicle, it’s always telling to get the entry-level version of that vehicle. It’s quickly apparent what kind of vehicle the manufacturer is able to build on a tighter budget; for instance, a base Chevy Silverado may not be nearly as desirable as a Silverado LTZ, but a base Chevy Malibu LS is a pretty good car, even stacked against the Malibu LTZ. That being said, it’s always a little fun to get my hands on the loaded, top-of-the-line version of a particular model as well. There’s something to be said for a vehicle that doesn’t have any missing switches or buttons, has the nice seats, larger wheels, and biggest engine. For this reason, I thought it was pretty cool when Chrysler delivered a Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland to my driveway for me to evaluate for a week.
The Overland edition of the Grand Cherokee is the top trim level; the name comes from a chapter in Jeep’s long heritage. Overland Motors was purchased by John North Willys in 1908, who renamed the company Willys-Overland in 1912. Of course, Willys was the company that produced Jeeps during and after World War II. No Overland-badged vehicle was built after 1926 until the 2003 Grand Cherokee Overland. The Overland model includes everything that that lesser Grand Cherokees do, but also makes nearly everything optional on those other models (if it’s even available on them) standard. While I appreciate the heritage and capabilities of the Jeep Wrangler, my vote for the best Jeep vehicle currently in production goes to the Grand Cherokee. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a pretty good vehicle. Unless you’re a complete purist, you’d probably also consider the Grand Cherokee to be Jeep’s best-looking vehicle as well.
As I said before when I reviewed the Grand Cherokee Limited CRD (a model no longer available, by the way), the Grand Cherokee is something of the “baby bear” among Jeeps – not too big, and not too small. Further, its position in the lineup as the flagship (even though the Commander is larger) and the tasteful chrome adornment across the exterior cement its credibility as a luxurious off roader. Compared to the Limited model, the Overland externally gets a special chrome surround on the lower grille opening, larger 18 inch chrome wheels (which are chrome plastic covers on top of aluminum – which I thought was very odd) and tasteful Overland badging (which is done in a script similar to the traditional Overland logo from the early 20th century). Chrome door handles and a chrome moulding at the bottom of the windows complete the visual enhancements on the Overland’s exterior.
Inside, the Grand Cherokee Overland is a mixed bag. Generally, it’s a pretty nice vehicle – and it darn well should be for the money and given its status at the top of the Jeep lineup. Before touching anything, it looks luxurious, with low-sheen plastics, attractive seats with soft leather (better than the leather quality on many leather-seated vehicles) and featuring the Overland logo embroidered onto the back of each of the front seats and contrasting piping along the edges of the seat cushion and the edges of the seatback (the seats were light gray and the piping was dark gray). Unlike the Limited trim level (which the diesel model I tested last summer was), the Overland has a wood inlay in the steering wheel. It might have been fake wood, but it seemed pretty realistic to me. Unfortunately, the dash is made of nothing but hard, roughly-grained plastic. The only bright spot on the dash materials front was that the hood over the gauges was covered in fairly convincing-looking fake leather, complete with slight padding and visible stitching. Again, the leather may not have been real, but it felt closer to the Jaguar XF’s real leather than to the Cadillac CTS’ overly-grainy non-leather. Unfortunately, it only covered about 1/10 of the overall dashboard’s surface area, but at least it was right where the driver’s eyes always fall.
I’ve become fairly familiar with Chrysler’s uconnect studios (Sirius Satellite Radio)/uconnect phone (Bluetooth)/uconnect GPS (navigation system) over the past year or two, and it’s mostly pretty intuitive and easy to use. The system is operated via buttons on either side of the navigation’s LCD display and by touchscreen controls on the display itself. I particularly like the way Chrysler’s screens have high touch sensitivity, meaning that just the lightest tap will grant your wish. Map data is shown in a fairly high resolution, with a 3D view available (I generally prefer that) and with an easy-to-read font. On the downside, these Chrysler radios frustrate me with the way presets can’t be displayed at the same time the information about the current channel selection is provided. In fact, although I admittedly did not refer to the owner’s manual to check this, I could not find the radio presets anywhere in the audio settings – and I was always able to find them relatively easily in other Chryslers I’ve tested. At least the system had pretty good sound quality; my test vehicle was equipped with the Boston Acoustics Premium Sound System. I mostly liked Chrysler’s iPod integration; the dock connector was in the glove box, and the system immediately started playing music immediately, without the need for indexing (I’m looking at you, Cadillac and Ford SYNC).
Aside from a proliferation of hard plastic, the biggest problem the Grand Cherokee interior has is that it’s just too damn small. In terms of usable interior space, it’s more like a compact car than what you’d typically expect to see in an SUV (and in particular one rated at a worse-than-a-Suburban 13 city/19 highway; 13.6 mpg observed). Front legroom can be adequate for a 6’4″ driver like me, but adjusting the seat to where I was comfortable totally killed back seat legroom. Fortunately, I no longer have a rear-facing child seat to install, and neither of my sons are much taller than three feet, so I only had to give up about 4-5 inches of legroom to fit my youngest son behind me. The cargo area has a very high load floor and isn’t very tall. The second row seats do fold flat, but an SUV with two seats isn’t the most practical vehicle in the world. My family would NEVER be able to fit everything we need for a weeklong vacation into the Grand Cherokee without attaching half of it to the roof. Aside from a lack of legroom and rear cargo space, the four wheel drive hardware encroaches big-time on floor space, turning the footwells into lumpy obstacle courses for your feet. The upshot is that this means the important four wheel drive parts are fairly well-protected should you decide to traverse the Rubicon Trail in your $45,000 Jeep.
Speaking of the Rubicon Trail, the Overland is fortunately a “Trail Rated” Jeep (unlike the unfortunate Compass) and is a very capable off road vehicle in spite of its luxury touches. Of course, I didn’t take it on any kind of off road course (I didn’t think the Jeep folks would have appreciated that, since it only had 2,000 miles on the odometer), but it was kind of cool knowing that I could have if I wanted to or needed to. I certainly hope that the 245/60R18 white letter all terrain tires do a better job handling mud and rocks than they do dry pavement (more on that later), but I am pretty confident that the Quadra-Drive II four wheel drive system, electronic limited-slip front and rear differentials, hill start assist, and hill descent control all would be very useful in the backcountry.
On the pavement, the 5.7 liter Hemi V8 produces 357 horsepower and 389 lb-ft of torque. This is an upgrade for the 2009 model year (the power comes mainly from the addition of variable valve timing), in line with the other 5.7 liter Hemi V8s found in the Ram, LX cars, etc., and it really makes the Grand Cherokee scoot. I spent a few miles about a year ago driving a Grand Cherokee SRT8, with the booming 6.1 liter Hemi (420 horsepower, 420 lb-ft), and while the SRT8 was definitely quicker – not to mention handled far better – the upgraded 5.7 liter Hemi didn’t seem to be too far off its pace. It’s connected to a so-called “multi-speed overdrive automatic transmission,” which is a five-speed automatic with manual shift capability and features an alternate second-gear ratio for smoother downshifting. The Hemi is equipped with MDS cylinder deactivation, and while I was impressed with this system in the 2008 Chrysler 300C AWD that I tested last year, it showed no indication of engaging, either visually via a dashboard indicator, or through any kind of audible or tactile sensation either. Of course, the fact that I got only 13.6 mpg from a week of driving (and not really babying it, but also not thrashing it either) makes me question whether MDS was actually working in my test vehicle. At that mileage rate, that means that I had to refuel after just over 200 miles. The power was somewhat intoxicating, though – and the Hemi sounded great.
The Overland felt somewhat top-heavy, which is not at all surprising given its mission, ground clearance, and tire choice. The brake pedal felt a little bit spongy, but the feel wasn’t too bad overall. The tires just don’t seem to have any dry pavement grip, either laterally or for stopping and going in a straight line. Any kind of relatively-quick lateral moves, such as attacking a freeway on-ramp cloverleaf, are met with howls of protest from the Goodyear Forteras. Turning the steering wheel quickly (again, relatively, since any overly-abrupt move could flip the thing over) doesn’t really result in much of a direction change – and whatever change does occur happens when the Grand Cherokee is darn well ready to make that change. It almost seemed as if the wheel wasn’t connected directly to the steering wheels. Surely, lowering the vehicle and changing the rubber choice would make a huge difference, but then it would not be a “Trail Rated” vehicle for Jeep.
What makes the Grand Cherokee great off road (again, I’m assuming here) also adds to the vehicle’s cost, complexity, and weight when driven on road – where most of them are driven most of the time. Jeep finds itself in a difficult position, because vehicles like the Compass that skimp (or rather, skip) the off-road capabilities are scoffed at by many as not being a “real Jeep,” yet the same off-road capabilities that make the Wrangler (and most other Jeeps) perform so well when there is no pavement make them somewhat difficult to live with on a daily basis. I enjoyed driving the Jeep – as long as the road didn’t curve, I didn’t have to haul more than two people or a minimal amount of cargo, or drive on a curvy road. The Grand Cherokee should be appreciated for what it is – a powerful, comfortable vehicle capable of amazing off-road feats – but also should be bought by people who are OK with the compromoises that those capabilities bring to the vehicle.
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