Last redesigned for 2005, the Grand Cherokee looks square-edged but modern, with a fashionably high waistline and small side windows. The shape of the body is designed to protect the sides of the vehicle from potential road debris.
While conventional SUVs, such as the Dodge Durango, are built on a separate frame like a truck, the Grand Cherokee uses an unusual construction scheme Jeep calls Uniframe, a close marriage of a welded steel unit-body and underlying front and rear frame modules. This is an extremely sturdy and rigid concept developed back in Jeep's days with unit-body pioneer American Motors. The Grand Cherokee has earned a five-star safety rating in both front and side impact tests from the federal government.
Limited models present a flashier appearance than Laredos, with a chromed grille, bright inserts in the bumpers, and accent-color bodyside molding.
The Overland is distinguished by mesh-texture grille inserts between its traditional vertical grille bars, which are Platinum in finish; Platinum accents also appear on the bumpers, side moldings, roof-rack side rails, liftgate light bar, and mirrors. The wheels are chromed, and the front sill guards are brushed stainless.
Jeep reached deep into its heritage for the Overland name. First built in 1903, the Overland automobile was the earliest ancestor of the Willys. Willys played an instrumental role in the development and production of the World War II-era Jeep, but was also the first automaker to seriously envision a civilian market for a military-style utility vehicle. The Willys Jeep debuted in 1946 and had its name shortened to just-plain Jeep in the early 1960s. Although the Jeep brand has passed through several owners since then, its lineage remains unbroken.
The SRT8 has a monochrome look all its own, relieved by bright trim at the belt level and bodyside and accented by enormous five-spoke, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels. Functional air ducts in its more buff front bumper fascia improve brake cooling. The rear bumper is cut out to accommodate dual four-inch exhaust tips, and the extended side sills are claimed to enhance downforce. SRT8 is available only in Bright Silver, Brilliant Black or Inferno Red.
The seats are large and cushy (in all trim levels except SRT8). In Laredo models, they are upholstered in cloth with leather as a package option, while Limited seats are two-tone leather with perforated inserts. In Overland, the seats are upholstered in saddle-perforated high-contrast two-tone Ultrasuede, featuring accent piping and embroidered Overland logos. Overland also features real wood trim on the steering wheel, instrument panel, door panels, and gear selector. The center armrest is leather-upholstered, and unique colors are employed in the instrument cluster.
The SRT8 goes for the high-tech racer look with deeply contoured sport seats, and lots of faux carbon fiber and aluminum trim. Unique blue-accented gauges include a 180-mph speedometer plus oil pressure and oil temperature readouts in the center stack. The sport seats offer lots of support, with deep side bolsters, but drivers with larger frames may find them too narrow.
Overall, the Grand Cherokee cabin is nice, though not as posh as you might expect at its price point.
The instrument panel on all models is a cohesive design with a nice combination of shiny plated parts, matte-finish parts, and a first-rate layout. In all Grand Cherokees, the two-tone, dark-over-light theme set by the instrument panel flows into the door trim. The instrument panel and dashboard are made of plastic that, while sturdy, is not up to snuff for the Overland's luxury-level pricing.
The available navigation system integrates the audio system and other functions, and it includes a 30-gigabyte hard drive that holds songs, pictures and the navigation information. It can hold thousands of songs, and you can program it to display your own digital pictures. The screen has a nice display, generates crisp maps, and does a good job of directing you to your destination, both visually and audibly. It isn't as easy to program as similar systems from Acura and Lexus, however. There's a separate Enter button, which can be annoying because intuition suggests pressing the toggle switch down. The daytime setting is so bright at night as to be distracting.
Similarly, all Chrysler products, including Jeeps, use a separate Set button for pre-setting radio stations, which seems unnecessarily difficult. Setting these on most radios is just a matter of holding down the desired preset.
The rear DVD entertainment system comes with Sirius Backseat TV and, for 2009, a nine-inch screen instead of an eight-inch screen. The TV system requires a monthly subscription for its three channels: Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon. We tried it and found the reception to be good. With Sirius Backseat TV, if you forget the DVDs, you can still keep the kids entertained.
One area of concern for family shoppers is rear seating. Despite its midsize SUV dimensions, the Grand Cherokee's rear seat lacks the leg room to make rear adult occupants comfortable, especially if taller passengers are riding up front. Such an issue might be a deal breaker for customers who regularly carry adult-size passengers.
The cargo area, on the other hand, is quite useful, though also smaller than that of rivals such as the Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota 4Runner. It features a reversible load floor panel that flips over on itself to create a shallow container, for more versatility in the rear storage compartment. The second-row seats fold down for a total of 67.4 cubic feet of cargo space, but they don't fold flat for optimal utility. By comparison, none of those aforementioned competitors have less than 75 cubic feet of cargo space.