When most people think about Jeeps, visions of rock-crawling and serious off-roading probably come to mind. They might not think of a road course, but that is exactly where the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 feels most at home.
Since track days likely won't become overrun with Jeeps, it's a shame that the majority of the new Jeep SRT8s will go unappreciated. More likely is that a small number will serve at dragstrips, and many will probably be used in stoplight grands prix so owners can post on Internet forums about how they beat some soccer mom in her BMW. We don't care how they're driven. Just keep buying them, so they keep making them -- so we can drive them at racetracks.
Our first experience with the new performance Jeep came at Willow Springs Raceway outside Los Angeles. It's a 2.5-mile, nine-turn, high-speed road course with late apexes, even later braking points, and more prayers per mile than a popemobile procession. Your initial instinct with a 5200-pound battlewagon is light, smooth inputs. Straighten out corners and maximize the time with the front wheels pointed directly ahead and the throttle buried deep in the carpet. That works great for understeer enthusiasts. Those who actually prefer fast and fun over safe and sane might consider a different approach. Hold the skinny pedal down until you think you're going to die, wait longer, then jump on the brake pedal and make those six-piston Brembo calipers strangle the giant 15-inch front rotors. The sticky 295/45R-20 PZeros dig into the track like a bulldozer blade. Ease off a little and turn in, but be a man about it. Throw it in and the stability control computer will see you mean business. The electronically controlled limited-slip differential out back will lock up, freeing the back end and getting a little drift going into the turn. As soon as you unwind the steering wheel, the diff loosens its grip on the clutches and opens up to get the rear planted just in time to pick up the throttle. Drop the hammer, and the torque vectoring from the rear differential helps steer the car out of the turn. While the Jeep isn't sports-car precise, or even as precise as some of the European SUVs, it is big fun.
The Jeep also is fun on the road, but it has downsides. The 6.4-liter, 470-horsepower Hemi makes fantastic noises while producing an equally fantastic 465 lb-ft of torque. Sad to say, the EPA rates the big Jeep at 18 mpg on the highway.
On a drive that was almost entirely freeway and highway between Huntington Beach and El Mirage Dry Lake Bed, we recorded 15 mpg. Around town, the EPA says 12 mpg, but our testing numbers were closer to 10. After a day of testing at Fontana Speedway, we achieved a comically low 4.8 mpg, but testing the quarter mile and other wide-open throttle obviously isn't directly applicable to most real-world driving. While towing, you'll see mileage somewhere in the middle.
Yes, towing -- something the new SRT8 is capable of doing, unlike the previous generation. Thanks to rerouted dual exhausts, a tow hitch is now optional. The SRT8 is rated at a 5000-pound towing capacity. You now have a justification for buying an SUV that you can't take off-road -- it's a tow vehicle.
On the highway, the willingness to change direction -- which makes it great at the track -- isn't quite as welcome. Trying to drive straight at 65 mph and above, the Jeep tends to wander a bit and requires constant steering correction. Our test vehicle was a preproduction unit that visually appeared to be running a decent amount of negative camber in the front end. The guys at SRT may not have final alignment specs worked out, or they might have been set to something a bit more track-friendly. We don't know, but paying constant attention to helm got old about 20 minutes into each trip.
The SRT boys really need to focus on getting the next generation of transmissions in the car as well. The tried-and-tested five-speed isn't bad, but it certainly keeps a simply good powertrain from being considered world class. Another ratio or two would have to add a few mpg to the highway rating, while also shaving off a few tenths in acceleration. We have been told it will likely be upgraded in a couple years during a midcycle refresh.
The interior is an area that did gain a huge improvement. The trim is now actual carbon fiber, and fit and finish seem way above that of the previous model. Chrysler is convinced it's now on par with a BMW or a Porsche, but this is probably wishful thinking.
The Jeep is a substantial amount cheaper than either the X5 M or Cayenne S, and a great deal of that may be in the interior. We would gladly trade that actual carbon fiber trim for some soft materials to replace the hard plastics in critical areas. The center console is still plastic, and during hard driving you will end up with a large bruise on the outside of your knee. This is stuff that's done simply for cost-cutting but is easy to fix.
After a two-hour drive we found another spot where the Jeep feels perfectly at home. El Mirage Dry Lake Bed is exactly in the middle of Nowhere, California, with miles of flat, packed, and cracked clay swept by wind and baked by triple-digit temperatures. With the Jeep's low front valence and low-profile tires, this is the only type of off-roading it's really suited for. Driving the big SRT8 across a lakebed fulfills every "Mad Max" fantasy you've ever had, short of the parts with crossbows and explosions. Even with no visual cues of speed, the Jeep feels fast. Wide open across the clay, it pulls relentlessly well past 140 mph. As vast as the landscape is, you still run out of room -- quickly. Turning the wheel produces surprising g-forces, especially considering the dusty surface. The all-wheel-drive system really comes into its own when pushing power forward and backward to the axle that best utilizes it.
Alas, the long arm of the fun police has reached even El Mirage, and the ranger gave us strict instructions that drifting or sliding will quickly get us a swift kick in the rear right out the gate. The attitude is unfortunately prevalent when it comes to vehicles like the Jeep SRT8.
Chrysler PR and engineering guys are comparing their beast to its European rivals, when it is an entirely different animal. Sure, all the segment players may build a normal family-hauling SUV with big engines and sport-tuned suspensions born and bred on the autobahn, but the Jeep feels like it comes from someplace like that lakebed. It isn't a musclecar, but an old-school hot rod. It isn't about turbocharging; it's about displacement. This may not be a traditional Jeep in the go-anywhere, conquer-the-trail sense. But it is imbued with that same sense of adventure and spirit. It isn't trail-rated, but it is track-, lakebed-, and road-rated.