Willow Springs Raceway, probably not the first place people think of to test the limits of a Jeep. Nine turns of high-speed road course is as far removed from famous trails like The Rubicon or Hell's Revenge as you can get, but that doesn't mean the company famous for go anywhere vehicles can't play here as well with a little help from Chrysler's performance brand.
"Delicious" is how Ralph Gilles, the president and CEO of Chrysler's SRT group, summed up the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8. He is responsible for this 6.4-liter, 5150-pound yuppie-stomper, which scares pedestrians and makes bros high-five. With all due respect to the man responsible for this and three other new SRT vehicles, a piece of cheesecake is delicious. This thing is a steaming platter of chili fries smothered in cheese -- "delicious" just doesn't cut it.
When the accelerator is pounded off the line, the SRT is less brutal than you would think. It squats and shoots out from a dig, but nothing slams; nothing feels uncontrolled. The all-wheel drive Jeep is fast. The previous SRT8 got to 60 mph in just under 5 seconds, but the 2012 has more power and handles it more efficiently. It shifts with a coarseness that shows the age of the five-speed automatic. Engineers explained earlier that it shifts harder in manual mode to increase the sportiness. It doesn't improve performance, but it does feel sportier. Back into auto mode.
Turn one is an uphill left-hander, big and open. Coming out of the pits and still accelerating, I barely lift going into the turn, and on a flying lap this will be the biggest test of the brakes. Turn two is a right-hand skidpad. Three, Four, Five, and Six are a roller coaster of left, double-apex right, left, right, with big elevation changes. Seven barely exists as a kink in the backstretch; eight is a test of high-speed bravery; and nine is a decreasing radius turn I have dubbed the Car Wrecker.
Coming out of Nine on the warm-up lap it is hard on the throttle. The end of the straight climbs uphill as I head into Turn One's braking markers. The Jeep was still pulling hard before I jumped on the brakes. Brembo supplies the six-piston front and four-piston rear calipers. The front rotors are a giant 15 inches while the rears are a still-large 13.8 inches. Stopping power is awesome, with good pedal feel, and travel slightly on the long side. The car moves around a little, but going into Turn One it feels predictable, and I'm off the pedal before turning in. The front end wants to change direction pretty quickly, but the rest of that big body fights it. The rear is still hooked up and it ends up pushing and missing the apex by a couple of feet. Not what I expect from something Jeep considers "Track Rated." Getting on the throttle tightens up the line. The SRT team and ZF have developed an electronic rear differential that pushes the power from side to side to adjust the vehicle's rotation in turns. The front end still uses a standard open differential and in the most extreme situations, the stability control system will use the brakes for course correction.
Accelerating hard out of Turn One, the approach into Two is downhill. My entry is hot, trail-braking deep into the turn knowing I have electronics on my side. When the torque vectoring and stability control systems register a high degree of steering angle while braking, they lock up the rear diff and get the car rotating. Suddenly the big girl can dance. The front end digs in and the rear swings around, but doesn't feel like it's getting away. Two is long, and unfortunately it's only fast in first third of the turn. Back on the throttle and the Jeep settles down with a decent amount of roll. It feels neutral with plenty of grip from the 295/45ZR20 Pirellis at all four corners. Two can be made into one arc, but to get the most out of the exit, a two-apex line seems to agree with the Jeep. At the exit it's flat to floor. The Jeep isn't about pure precision -- it doesn't have the millimeter accuracy of some of its European competitors. And more precision comes at a price. You can almost have two Jeep SRT8s for the price of a Porsche Cayenne Turbo. So while you can run that Cayenne right to the edge of the track, the Jeep needs a margin of error. Aim for a foot from the edge because you might end up right on that edge anyway.
Entering Turn Three requires a big stab of the brakes. I get deep into the ABS here and without unsettling the car, easing off the pedal -- not all the way -- to get some rotation. The track shoots uphill and has a late apex. The uphill and banking mean it's actually possible to pull over a G here, as verified by the onboard performance computer. The Jeep uses all of its suspension travel and loads up like the tires are sinking into thick mud. Luckily it never hits the bump stops. The adaptive suspension developed by Bilstein allows it to soak up the cornering forces while still dealing with bumps on the track. Getting hard on the throttle here gets the back end out while climbing the hill. Some cars tend to pick up the front end and understeer, but the Hemi's 465 lb-ft of torque really come alive here, and working in conjunction with the rear end.