HOLLISTER, Calif. -- A two-track trace composed of sandy loam and gravel with embedded boulders stacking up as stony steps shoots up a steep slope in the Gabilan Mountains of California at Hollister Hills State Vehicular Recreation Area, which serves as our playground to test the awesome tire-claw traction capability of a completely new rendition of Jeep's flagship sport utility vehicle -- Grand Cherokee.
This deluxe mid-size wagon represents the original SUV, tracing back in Jeep history to 1963 and the Wagoneer, with innovations like the Quadra-Trac automatic full-time four-wheel-drive (4WD) system and a limited slip differential, introduced in 1973, and the watershed design of 1984 for the first unibody four-door SUV.
The nameplate of Grand Cherokee emerged in 1992 attached to a new wagon which demonstrated that a SUV could conquer rugged challenges of the off-road world and still transport riders in comfort due to cushy cabin appointments.
A larger version appeared in 1999 with a luxury-lined cabin plus mechanical systems aboard which raised the bar for SUV performance, while the 2005 Grand Cherokee with stronger structural systems and multiple engine options established even higher benchmarks.
Now comes the Grand Cherokee of 2011, and everything about the redesign is new and better and bigger -- expect price points, which actually undercut base MSRP figures for 2010 models despite lots of new features.
The wagon scores an all-new body structure which improves in torsional stiffness by 146 percent over the previous issue.
And it's larger, the body measuring a couple of inches longer and three inches wider with the wheelbase stretching more than five inches longer.
These extra inches of length and breadth translate to more space added in the passenger compartment for legs and shoulders and more room in the rear cargo bay for gear.
A new fully independent suspension system -- with isolating suspension cradles fore and aft, short/long arms up front and rear multi-link plus variable-rate springs in back -- produces a premium ride quality for passengers on pavement or dirt.
The suspension system also enables front wheels to stretch high vertically for climbing over trail obstacles like boulders or thick tree trunks.
And for rolling over such barriers, the chassis clearance runs from 8.6 inches to 10.6 inches, depending on tire selection and suspension setting.
Precise rack and pinion steering brings quick-response turns and produces a tight 37-foot turning diameter for maneuvering on road and off.
Jeep outfits the new Grand Cherokee with a commendable array of standard safety systems.
Gear extends to side-impact air bags in the two front seats with active head restraints and curtain-style side air bags for two rows of seats, plus electronic vehicle controls such as ABS (anti-lock brake system), BTCS (brake traction control system), ESC (electronic stability control), ERM (electronic roll mitigation), TSC (trailer sway control), HSA (hill start assist), HDC (hill descent control), even TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system).
Styling of the sheetmetal seems evolutionary rather than radically different, and the design incorporates familiar hallmarks of Jeep such as the seven-slot grille and large round headlamps which become focal points on front corners flanking the chrome-clad grille.
Grand Cherokee stands tall in the traditional two-box format of a wagon but with all corners contoured and the horizontal lines chiseled and planed in streamline fashion. Wheel openings are shaped in a trapezoidal design with wheels pinned at corners of the platform and front and rear overhangs crimped to make transitions easy on steep slopes.
In back, the liftgate window tips forward while the lower metal section falls vertically for a squared rump.
Cabin layout consists of a pair of bucket seats on the front row and a second row bench for three with reclining seatbacks split 60/40 and folding down for an expansion of the rear cargo bay -- which amounts to more than 68 cubic feet of room.
Grand Cherokee puts luxurious appointments in the cabin and sophisticated electronic controls on three full-time 4WD systems available through four models tagged as Laredo E, Laredo X, Limited and Overland.
The Quadra-Trac I system has a single-speed transfer case for full-time 4WD management and no levers to pull.
The Quadra-Trac II system contains a two-speed electronic transfer case for full-time active 4WD operation and locked 4WD low range.
The automatic Quadra-Drive II system with rear ELSD (electronic limited slip differentials) delivers infinite torque management at each of the four wheels.
With either Quadra-Trac II or Quadra-Drive II 4WD system the 2011 Grand Cherokee adds a new traction control system labeled Selec-Terrain. The device lets a driver dial in one of five terrain settings (Normal, Sport, Snow, Sand/Mud, Rock), then the system tailors the vehicle's traction performance to fit the type of terrain covered through modulation of powertrain response, transmission gear selections, and electronic controls like ESC.
On a flat patch of sand, we twirl the Selec-Terrain dial and select Snow. Subsequently, we feel less power in the throttle because strong torque only spins wheels on slippery surfaces.
Switching to Sand/Mud, we feel a power surge in the pedal as you need lots of torque to keep the wheels rolling through tire-sucking sand.
For powertrains, the 2011 Grand Cherokee presents two choices -- a fuel-thrifty V6 or a high-powered V8.
Standard engine is the all-new flexible-fuel 3.6-liter dual-cam Pentastar V6 with an aluminum cylinder block and VVT (variable valve timing) controls.
It generates 290 hp at 6400 rpm with 260 lb-ft of torque at 4800 rpm.
Optional engine is a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 with VVT and MDS (multi-displacement system) to conserve fuel by clipping cylinders when boosted power is not needed.
It hits 360 hp at 5150 rpm with 390 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm.
A five-speed electronic automatic transmission applies to either engine.
Jeep sets price points for the revised 2011 Grand Cherokee as low as $30,215 for Laredo E trim with two-wheel-drive (2WD) traction. Top trim Overland with Quadra-Drive II 4WD system lists for $41,120.