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and now, for something completely different.

2011 Grand Cherokee – Rental Car Review

We just got back from Maui where we had the use of a 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee for a couple of weeks. When I was shopping for rentals before we left, there were lots of options available… lots of Chevies and Fords and Dodges and Hyundais and all that, but the only Jeeps to be found were Wranglers.  I’m not kidding, I think about 50% of the global Wrangler production ends up in Hawaii. Also, as an interesting side-note, I have never seen more hopped-up monster truck 4x4s than I did on Maui:  they love that stuff.

Finally, at discounthawaiicarrental.com, I found the option to rent a Grand Cherokee. Given our past experiences with my dad’s 1993 Grand Cherokee back in the day, I was thrilled to get a chance to try the new generation. When we got to Enterprise (dhcr.com brokered the deal locally to make it cheaper), they gave me the choice of two different vehicles.  A black Jeep Grand Cherokee, or a white Hyundai Santa Fe. Yeesh.  Given my friend Phil’s review of the latter (not promising), the choice was clear.  Here’s the badboy we ended up with:

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee

First of all, it’s definitely a good looking car. Great lines, very muscular stance, Jeep does a good job on the look of their better vehicles (i.e., not the Liberty). I was initially a little disappointed that I could only get black because she’s gonna be hot, but let’s be honest: with those blacked out windows it looks pimped out. We ride in style, baby.

My initial impression of the interior was a bit of a mixed bag. For the premium Jeep, I was expecting nicer seats. The materials were quite cheap, though the seats were comfortable. They certainly didn’t match the quality of the instrumentation, which was top-notch.  More on that in a bit.  I know lots of people won’t care about this, but child-seat installation was done right. The rear tether ran over the back of the rear seat and straight down, not up to the back of the car (like the Outback) or down to the back of the car (like the Impreza).  No cargo space consumed.  Add that to the ISO anchor points (which are standard on any car after 2002) and we had both the infant seat we brought with us for Sabrina and the child seat for Graham provided by the rental company installed in a jiffy.

Instrumentation and controls were excellent, no crazy bells and whistles. A leather-wrapped steering wheel was excellent to grip, and rocker switches on the left and right hand on the back of the steering wheel controlled track/station switching and volume on the stereo. The speed and tach gauges were bright and easy to read. In between the speedometer and tach was a display for the onboard computers. It had trip information, fuel consumption, alternate speed readouts, outside temperature, among other things. Great feature, we have something similar in our Volvo XC90. I really appreciated the speed and temperature readouts because you could switch them to metric!  As a Canadian in an American car, the main units on the speedometer were miles, and though km appeared very small on the inside of the gauge, it was much nicer to km/h displayed separately in the alternate readout. I always set my speed based on miles (those the rules of the road in the US!), but it was good to know how fast I was going in km/h, which I really understand better as a speed, distance and time relationship. Having the temperature in Celsius also was excellent; 80 degrees still means nothing to me. The climate controls were very simple and easy to use. Our A/C was on pretty much the whole time we were there.

Side Profile

The entertainment system was excellent. It had a built in hard drive and a USB slot, and I just happened to have brought a 16GB USB stick full of music with me, so that ended up on the hard drive for the car, and we just hit random for the whole trip. I wish I could tell in advance on every trip if our rental car would have this feature. It also featured a large and bright touch screen that displayed track information (love this) and and an auxiliary input for MP3 players, which I did not use. The speakers were great, and it had great sound from the low to the high range. When I made a couple of runs to the drug store (3/4 of our family got colds on this trip, and I was not one of them!), I rode S Kihei road with the windows down and some downtempo cranked, and it sounded great. Hey, I’m driving a pimped car, I may as well flaunt it!

Cargo capacity was as bit inferior to our Volvo XC90. How do I know? Well, we pulled all our crap out of the Volvo in Calgary, and dumped it in the back of this Jeep in Maui: easy to compare. Still, it fit everything okay for our trip to the condo with a bit of fanaggling, even the 2-kid-wide B.O.B. jogger stroller we rented for our trip. This thing was massive, and barely fit in the back of the Jeep. Still, it was easier to push on a beach than an umbrella stroller and so worth the extra size. Wait, this isn’t a stroller review…

Now, to the meat of the conversation. My first impression upon getting in and driving it was “damn, this thing is big.” Our Volvo is bigger, but the Jeep felt bigger and more cumbersome to drive. Handling and control really felt truckish (well, hey, it is a truck), even to the point of being sluggish. I really did not like the handling at all, but stay tuned for our Hana trip. I did not like the brakes, nor did Adena. They were very top heavy with poor modulation, but with a bit of finesse you could get used to them. That doesn’t mean they got better, they were touchy. Power and acceleration were a different story. Power delivery was excellent, tons of go-power if – like the brakes – also a bit front heavy on the pedal (it was difficult to just do a slow smooth start from a full stop – this is a useful tactic with two babies asleep in the back). Acceleration was excellent, tons of torque. The five-speed auto makes things smoother than a four-speed, but it doesn’t even come close to touching our Volvo’s six-speed for smoothness – the Volvo almost feels like a CVT it’s so smooth. Still, pretty nice, and I never had any complaints about the interval between me asking for torque by wire and the computer giving it to me.

Rear-quarter view

We had this car for two weeks, so we definitely had lots of opportunities to test it. While I didn’t like the handling initially, we definitely put that to the test by driving the road to Hana. The road up to Haleakela (from sea level to 10200 feet) was also a handling test, but the road to Hana is the king of that on Hana. If you are not familiar with this road, check out this link to a Google Maps of a section of the road. It is by far the twistiest, tightest road I have ever driven. It is not the most challenging road I have ever driven, because it was such a well maintained route for tourists. It was definitely a test for the handling of the Grand Cherokee however, and I actually ended up being quite impressed overall! That didn’t stop me from craving my Impreza STI on that route (wow, fresh pavement and 40 miles of just pure curves), but the Jeep handled it with ease. Actually, after driving that road, I started to really enjoy the handling on the vehicle; it got a lot more fun to drive. It was much better than I had expected.

For visibility, the Jeep doesn’t even come close to our Volvo. It feels like you are sitting in a really deep tub, kind of poking your head out the top of the thing. The doors and dash are quite high, and it hurts visibility. It didn’t cause us any problems, but the Volvo XC90 is much nicer in this respect. Same deal for rear visibility, it was a bit difficult. I ended up using the side mirrors for rear-view almost as much as the rear-view mirror. Also affecting visibility are lights, which were excellent on this car. Like our Volvo, the Jeep was equipped with automatic HID lights, which worked perfectly for the whole trip and lit the road in front of us admirably even on the blackest of black nights. We’re talking black as in on the way back from Lahaina one night, it was so black that we stopped at a turnout just to look straight up and see the whole Milky Way galaxy stretch across the sky in front of us. That is black.

There was one aspect of the car that really made us nervous. We both noted and commented on some heat issues with the car. While the A/C was flawless and the cabin was always comfortable, and the console temperature monitor never complained or warned us, outside the Jeep spat out a lot of heat. I mean a lot. I thought I had burned my shins a couple of times opening the side door with the engine running to get my son out of his seat. There was so much heat coming out from under the car on the side! Same deal on the back when accessing the tailgate. Not even standing near the exhaust system, it felt hot enough coming out from under the car to cook you. This was a little disconcerting, and I’m not really sure why it was like this: I’ve never experienced that with any other car I’ve owned or driven.

Overall, the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a really nice car. I probably would not buy it in this trim (the seats just felt cheap compared to the rest of the vehicle, which had a great fit and finish), it was a great car to rent. When we return to Maui, we will likely try to get one again and take it along the south route back to Kihei from Hana (4×4 required). Our 2008 Volvo XC90 R-Design is much nicer overall and I definitely noticed the difference immediately when I got in it upon our return, but Jeep has done a really great job on this current generation of Grand Cherokee. I remember not being impressed with them when we visited them at the car show a couple of years ago, but having one for two weeks changed my mind. This is definitely easily the nicest rental car I have ever had.

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