Sabtu, 07 Juni 2008



By William C Montgomery

Buyers of the first generation KJ Liberty fell into two camps: those who appreciated the trucklet for its off-road, severe weather and towing capabilities; and those who thought it was adorable. Let’s face it: the oh-isn’t-it-darling? brigade made the Liberty a star; they drew it to their collective bosom like a Hollywood starlet clutching the only real friend she ever had (a Chihuahua). The Liberty became one of America’s hottest selling mini-SUVs. As fashion dictates, those days are gone. Upon the redesigned Liberty, dubbed the KK, Chrysler’s cute ute comeback hopes reside. But this time its neither fish nor foul.

The new Liberty's reworked front-end reflects the Jeep engineers' aesthetic angst. The YJ model Wranglers were roundly criticized for square headlights. So Jeep fitted a round peg into a squared-off hole. It's not a terrible solution– until you consider the Liberty's 70'-style bumper treatment. Although removable for off-road work, the bulbous bumper gives the vehicle a silly-ass milk mustache (at least in white).

Otherwise, the Liberty’s sheetmetal offers an ironic return to unrelenting angularity (the curvaceous last gen Liberty replaced the sharp-edged Cherokee). Like its Dodge platform partner, the new Liberty boasts clean, Range Rover-esque creases. Still, denied the Nitro's more aggressive blingery, the result is deeply, profoundly generic. Nine vehicles, one look; not good.

The KK is 2.2-inches longer and .6-inches wider than before, transforming the Liberty into a Commander mini-me. [NB: that’s not a compliment.] Despite blessing the rear seats with an additional 1.5” leg room, ingressing and egressing passengers must still perform a Beatles tribute (twist and shout). And according to Jeep’s published specs, the KK's cargo capacity is 4.8-cu.ft. smaller than the outgoing model's.

Nothing says cost-cutting construction quite like hard, cheap plastic– and this sucker brought a megaphone. The Liberty’s dash could be scrubbed with a wire brush without offense. On the plus side, Liberty soldiers on with an excellent sound system, the window controls are back where God intended (on the doors) and sun and wind worshipers will love the [optional] Sky Slider Roof.

The “all new” Liberty contains the same thirsty but dependable 3.7-liter V6 that's graced every non-four cylinder Liberty since its 2001 debut. Ye Olde SOHC is to its competitors’ powerplants what wool is to cashmere. Luckily, the configuration's abundant torque (235 ft.-lbs. @ 4000 rpm) eliminates the need to constantly prove the point. The six' workman-like manners also ensure that the trucklet will not shy away from DIY or the great outdoors (tow rating: 5000 lbs.).

In 2003, rollover lawsuits were all the rage. Jeep responded by chopping the Liberty’s ground clearance by an inch and stiffening the suspension. The resulting ride quality made an arthritic camel seem like a more comfortable option, especially at walking speeds. Hit a bump at 10mph in the old Liberty and rear seat passengers launched heavenwards. On the positive side, the old Liberty cornered with surprising poise for a porky truck standing nearly six-feet tall.

This stiff-legged problem has been well and truly sorted. The new Liberty’s independent front suspension (upper and lower “A” arms, coil springs, low-pressure gas shocks, stabilizer bar) and five-link rear (live axle, upper and lower trailing arms, track bar, coil springs, stabilizer bar, low-pressure gas shocks) make it float over broken surfaces with all the aplomb of Luke Skywalker’s speeder. If you’re looking for a Jeep that feels nothing like a Jeep, this is the non-Jeep Jeep to have. And yet…

Jeep's engineers sacrificed driver control. The Liberty’s over-boosted rack and pinion steering lacks any on-center feel; it tracks back and forth on the highway like an OCD bloodhound. You’d have to pay a professional boxer millions to take the kind of dive the Liberty executes when you stomp on the brakes. And any abrupt handling maneuver is followed by rebounding tremors. The Liberty’s sloppy handling dynamics are only bested (or should I say worsted) by the dreadful Chevy Trailblazer.

I've got one thing to say about the Liberty's off-road prowess: Wrangler. There's no question that the Liberty's trick Hill Descent Control (look Ma, no feet!) and Brake Assist (we don't need no stinking locking differential) git 'er done, leaving "real" cute utes mired in the mud or scrabbling for purchase. But anyone with serious off-road aspirations would be nuts not to stump up the extra $4k or so for the phenomenally capable, visually similar four-door Wrangler. Must choose: magic carpet ride or off-road acumen.

Aye, there's the rub. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of a genuine 4X4, or take comfort in a sea of cute utes, and by opposing them, make a lifestyle statement. Actually, chances are the cute uters won't bite. So who will prize Liberty above all? Hey, don't look at me.


By William C Montgomery

Every morning at 4:00 am, I’m woken by an automotive alarm clock. It’s the sound of my neighbor beginning his daily commute, firing-up his 6.7-liter Turbo Diesel Dodge Ram. The oil burner nestling in the pickup’s snout embodies all the characteristics that American car buyers of a certain age associate with Rudolph Diesel’s powerplant. It’s loud, dirty and smelly. Its rattle makes the vehicle vibrate like a cheap motel bed. Is in any wonder Jeep’s website doesn’t go out of its way to advertise the diesel option in its Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland? Yes and no.

This low-key approach to the diesel propulsion extends to the vehicle itself. The only physical indication that my tester didn’t snack on Regular Unleaded: the subtle 3.0L Diesel badge on the Overland’s lower right tailgate. Otherwise, the oil burning Grand Cherokee looks the same as its gas-powered equivalent— which is, of course, no bad thing.

The tweaked fourth gen Grand Cherokee (codename WK) remains a potent design. The front end combines Jeep’s near-trademark seven-slotted grill with a hood cut back around the headlights the way a woman’s brow stretches back from her eyes after a facelift. In the keepin’-it-real category, a high crotched rear-end to enable departure from steep angled grades.

The Overland, named after the Indiana-born automaker of the same name, is Jeep’s highest spec Grand Cherokee (short of the bonkers SRT8). Externally, it’s differentiated from its more plebian siblings by tasteful platinum accents. Taken as a whole, the Cherokee still looks tight and right, ready to take you out of sight.

Inside, the Overland gets Jeep’s white glove treatment. The seats are adorned with two-tone leather and embossed by an Overland logo. Burled vavona wood frames the radio console, gearshift selector, side doors and the top third of the leather wrapped steering wheel. Sadly, every other dashboard surface is plied with the same low rent molded plastics that afflict every other Chrysler product.

Toys abound. The dual-zone climate control uses a Predator-style infra-red sensor to measure front seat passengers’ body temperature. Rain sensitive wipers deal with moisture issues, while Mafiosi will appreciate a remote start function that works from 300 feet. The Overland’s standard-fit Boston Acoustics audio system is loud enough to ward off wildlife from twice that distance. And speaking of noise…

Kick over the Grand Cherokee Overland’s [optional] 3.0-liter common rail diesel and the engine sounds like… a diesel. That said, it sounds like my neighbor’s truck a quarter of a mile away. And by the time you accelerate to 35 mph, the oil burner is inaudible over the air conditioning fan– on low. A diesel digression…

Although the Jeep’s V6 diesel is NOT a BlueTec, it is foundational to Mercedes’ diesel emissions treatment system. That process injects an additive called AdBlue into the engine’s exhaust, which reacts with nitrogen oxides. Nitrogen and water emissions then pass through an SCR-Kat catalytic converter to trap particulates. Should Mercedes agree to supply engines to Jeep subsequent to the Chrysler amputation, BlueTec might be in Grand Cherokee’s future in a year or two.

Meanwhile, the Overland’s turbo diesel provides the kind of low down grunt that sends off-road junkies into spasms of delight. We’re talking 379 ft.-lbs. of torque all the way from 1600rpm to 2800rpm. Though the mill only produced 215hp, the massive low rev torque pushes you down the highway like the invisible hand of god when you give it the gas, eh, diesel. Jump on the accelerator from a standstill and the traction control struggles spastically to keep the P245/65R17 Goodyear Fortera’s from shredding.

But all is not rosy with the new diesel. The Overland’s pogo stick suspension is so mushy I’m convinced Jeep invited Dodge engineers to tune it. The super-soft springy suspension is atypical of any other late model Grand Cherokees I’ve ever driven. Equally out of character: the Overland’s heavy, numb steering, which makes piloting the vehicle through traffic as much fun as hefting a garbage truck through a slalom course.

Last week, driving my family over the high plains of New Mexico across northern Arizona and into southern Utah, I stopped every 340 miles to refuel my V6 Liberty’s 20.5-gallon fuel tank. With its 22-gallon fuel tank, the Grand Cherokee diesel can cruise more than 450 highway miles per fill-up (estimated 20/25mpg). Road trip pit stops are more about emptying bladders than wallets.

So are SUV driving Americans ready to accept diesel power? We’ll find out, but it won’t be the Overland that wins the hearts of the driving public. The CRD option adds $2,010 to the Overland’s price tag, raising the price of admission to the oil burning club to a total of $42,285 (as tested). Never mind noise, smell or rattle, premium pricing and sloppy handling makes the Overland a glow plug non-starter.


By William C Montgomery

High gasoline prices, foreign wars in oil producing nations and fears of global warming have made fuel efficiency the new patriotism. Yet many Americans reject clown-sized economy cars and suppository shaped CUV’s and minivans. They cling to the outdoorsy lifestyle and the go-anywhere freedom embodied by rough-and-tumble SUV’s. In a second attempt to address these shifting values, Jeep has unveiled the Patriot. It's an SUV for gas conscious Americans! Actually, never mind all that. Please, oh please, just let it be better than the Compass.

Visually, the $15k (FWD) Patriot succeeds where its mechanical doppelganger, the Compass, fails. The Patriot actually looks like a Jeep. Its grille is more upright and the hood smartly folds over the seven slots and round headlights. Beneath the bumpers, the Patriot’s body work tapers back, facilitating off road-friendly approach and departure angles.

Muscular fenders frame the trademark Jeep trapezoidal wheel wells in the Grand Cherokee fashion– as opposed to the Compass’ fat Elvis fender work. The Patriot’s upright greenhouse follows the same rectangular proportions as the Commander, which itself is an homage to the Cherokee. Wrangleresque it ain’t, but the Patriot’s Mom was clearly playing in the Jeep gene pool.

Serious Jeepers aren’t picky about interior aesthetics. Dirt lovin’ Wrangler and Liberty owners have been known to strip their rigs’ interior carpeting and spray pickup truck bed liner over the bare metal. These fearless depreciators will appreciate the Patriot's interior’s Rubbermaid chic.

Sure it has carpeting, available leather seats, a leather wrapped steering wheel and splashes of trendy faux aluminum, but every other surface and compartment is constructed from textured molded plastic. No matter how dusty and foul the Patriot’s cabin gets plugging mud, crawling over rocks and slithering through sand, cleanliness is only a damp rag away; it’s like wiping down a baby’s high chair.

Of course, the pairing of this highly washable interior with a vehicle designed to appeal to off-road-crazed Jeep owners is strictly coincidental. Chrysler uses this same nasty cheap plastic in nearly every car they make, including the identically appointed Jeep Compass. Furthermore, the most dedicated (and filthiest) off-road enthusiasts will stick with Wranglers. The Patriot will be competing for acceptance in urban and suburban environs, where drivers expect more refinement.

On the positive side, the seating position is excellent, especially for taller drivers. Drivers trading in their gas sucking Jeep Liberty will appreciate the Patriot’s generous leg room and reclining rear seats.

When it comes to driving, the Patriot takes a back seat to its fraternal twin, the Compass, whose ride and handling are already on the wrong side of unacceptable. Although only 1.5" taller and 33lbs heavier, the Patriot is much more sensitive to all non-linear motions, thanks to its four-wheel independent suspension. The dynamics are strictly Olde Worlde; the Patriot leans and flops its way down a winding road like a wounded Hessian.

The Compass’ excellent brakes are… AWOL. The Patriot’s stop pedal engages its four-wheel disks very slowly indeed, and resents driver input. Nonetheless, the long legged suspension eagerly dispatches bumps and gobbles up highway carbuncles, hinting at the Patriot's off-road potential.

Unfortunately, these sisters-under-the-skin share their most vital greasy bits: their drivetrains. Both vehicles come incomplete with an atonal 2.4-liter 16-valve four-cylinder Dual Variable Valve Timing World Engine, attached to a buzz-inducing (and not in the caffeinated sense of the word) Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).

The 172hp mill motivates the Patriot to 60mph in… yawn… stretch… ah, who cares? You’ll get up to freeway speeds, you know, eventually. And yet this engine is Patriot’s raison d'être. In 4×2 trim, the EPA prognosticators promise 24/27mpg. It’s a [theoretically] stratospheric achievement. You know, for a Jeep.

Early four-pot 4Runners, Monteros, Pathfinders and Cherokees conquered hill and dale with aplomb. Though capable in the bush, these lightweight vehicles were gutless tin cans compared to their robust descendants. Their modern incarnations now tilt the scales well in excess of two tons. By contrast, the Patriot is an SUV lightweight: 3,326lbs. in full regalia. And it’s still a pig.

For off-roader drivers, Jeep reinforced the Patriot’s underlying Mitsubishi GA platform with an ultra-high-strength steel cross-car beam above the rear axle. Optional Trail Rated models ($25k and up) get the Freedom-Drive II drive train system (utilizing the CVT at a 19:1 ratio for steep ascents and descents), downhill braking control mode, an engine oil cooler, extra ground clearance and skid plates. Packaged with the Patriot’s Jeepish looks, these features give the ute the cred that the Compass lacks.

Not that Jeep cares. On the official website, under “Capabilities,” the copy talks about the Patriot’s “smooth, agile and responsive handling… on mountain switchbacks and [during] evasive maneuvers” and, I swear, “parallel parking… made easy.” If Jeep is aiming the Patriot at the CR-V, RAV4 and Escape, they’re in big trouble. With its Playmobil interior, gutless engine and questionable handling, the Patriot is far better off road than on.


By Jonny Lieberman

We’re sitting in Jeep’s newest Wrangler pointed up a steep hill. Freak December rain has turned the ground into goopy glop. The transmission is in 4-Low, both axles are locked and the front sway-bar has been disconnected. A light tap of the gas slowly but oh-so-steadily begins to motivate our Trail Rated off-roader up the treacherous path. And then… we’re at the top. Huh? Too easy. We circle back down, turn off the lockers, reattach the sway-bar and put the Jeep into two-wheel drive. A moment later we are once again atop the hill. I’m saying it right here: the Wrangler Rubicon is the most capable vehicle ever badged a Jeep.

Like the venerable Porsche 911, each new gen Wrangler is an evolution of an ideal automotive form. Even the lay-person understands that the “new” Wrangler is a direct descendant of the military transport Americans have loved since Patton was slapping soldiers. Also like Germany’s ass-engined coupe, each successive Wrangler is getting better and better looking, without compromising tradition.

The Wrangler’s doors and tailgate are still simple slabs of metal held in place by exposed hinges. The rest of the body panels are still excuses upon which to hang over-sized fenders. Only the seven slot grill has changed in any appreciable way; it’s raked slightly backwards to lower the drag coefficient from school house to church. The new Wrangler’s design continues to be a triumph of function dictating form. It’s a much-needed, much-appreciated distillation of Jeep brand DNA.

The Jeep’s interior is surprisingly comfortable, cozy even. While hardcore mud pluggers will condemn this 4X4’s newfound civility as a brand-betrayal, who wants to sit on cheap patio furniture while resting their elbow on cold tin? Anyway, the radio head unit is straight out of the horrifying Sebring, though it actually works in this lower-rent application. The door pulls, window/door switches and column stalks are all appropriately bulky and solid.

For the first time, the Wrangler’s windows and locks are electric. And yet you can still pull the doors off. The windshield still folds down, too. Even cooler, you can unfasten the T-top panels from the driver’s seat and simply chuck them in the back. However… while we didn’t wrestle with the Wrangler’s soft-top, a brief flip through the owner’s manual revealed a picture of a rubber mallet. Uh-oh.

Jeeps of old were road-going torture chambers; inflicting psychological damage on their drivers with ungodly amounts of noise, vibration and harshness. The 2007 update is quiet (enough), sort of soft riding and about as harsh as a Fisher Price product. Granted, getting the Rubicon to go much faster than 70mph is a waste of time and gas (count on 16.5mpg). But like Jeeps of old, driving this relic delivers an elemental exhilaration which no other vehicles can provide. I’m frankly shocked at how much fun the Wrangler is to wrangle around town. Despite the high chair seating arrangement, you are essentially hooning about in one of the shortest wheel-based rear-drivers on the market, complete with tail-out powerslides.

Of course, this little Jeep is defined by what it can do when the blacktop ends and the rock hopping begins. A friend and I took the Wrangler to the Azusa Canyon OHV park and beat it mercilessly over 150 acres of dirt, mud, fallen trees, sand, rocks and streams. Due to it’s proximity to Hollywood (and the camera equipment found therein), many of the SUV commercials you TIVO past are filmed at this park. No poseurs need apply; you’re forced to ford a foot-deep stream right at the entrance. Nothing we found– save for one 45-degree soggy sand dune– slowed the Jeep down.

Every other vehicle in the park was customized to some degree. Over-sized tires, lifts, trick suspension and so on. Our Wrangler was bone stock. Yet we were able to traverse obstacles that the other vehicles couldn’t surmount. The Wrangler’s modern, technology laden suspension (i.e. greater wheel-articulation) was like a laptop amongst abacuses. The most shocking discrepancy: a jacked-up, diamond plated CJ could simply not get traction on a hill that we had easily ascended. The elder Jeep only spun its tire. The owner climbed down, lit a cigarette and told me he had a four-door Wrangler on order. As he should. This new Wrangler is simply peerless (for the price) in the rough.

Like a leaky British roadster, a BMW 3-series, a 911 and (hopefully) a bright red Ferrari, the Jeep Wrangler is more than an automotive icon. It’s a stepping stone along the path to pistonhead nirvana. A rite of passage, if you will. The new Wrangler in Rubicon trim is more civilized on-road and better than ever off. Sure there are faster, more economical and more practical SUVs for sale today, but they all share a common flaw – I don’t want one.


By William C Montgomery

No vehicle represents America’s can-do spirit as authentically as the Jeep Wrangler. Born from the conflict that defined our Greatest Generation, the Jeep embodied our nation’s core values: simplicity, honesty and never-say-die durability. That was then. Now, not one but two badge engineered CUV’s are dragging the Jeep brand’s hard-core off-road rep through the [ankle deep] mire. Which puts a lot of weight on the ’07 Wrangler Unlimited’s elongated shoulders. Does the new Wrangler have enough talent and gumption to make up for the sins of the sons?

Necessity dictated the design of the general purpose military vehicle in 1941. With its windshield folded down and wheels removed, large numbers of Jeeps could be stacked onto and into transport ships. Tradition demands– and receives– respect for these styling cues. Even so, the Wrangler has evolved. Every corner, once sharp as the pant crease of an Army Class-A uniform, is subtly rounded. The grille that has stood at starched upright attention for more than sixty years is gently swept back. The windscreen still folds forward, but now it’s hinged in the middle to accommodate its new slightly curved shape. Aerodynamic it’s not. But for a Wrangler, the new model is positively sleek.

The top is as stubborn as ever. When I asked the Chrysler rep to take down the “Easy Folding Soft Top,” I initiated a 10-minute wrestling match between man and machine. The machine won. Despite unbuckling hasps, releasing latches and unzipping Velcro, the origami-impaired rep couldn't get the damn thing down. While I’m reasonable confident that a properly trained, well-practiced owner could eventually remove the canvas lid, the transformation shouldn’t be attempted impulsively at, say, a stoplight. In fact, I reckon the optional three-piece modular “Freedom Top” was named for its ability to liberate owners from said task.

Meanwhile, the new Wrangler (codenamed JK) has sprouted an extra pair of doors. Despite its additonal length, the outgoing Unlimited two-door required a contortionist’s skill to access the back. With rear portals, back seat egress is downright civilized– which is a bit like marveling at how easy it’s become to swing open The Gates of Hell. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jeep’s second row accommodations are rear passenger purgatory, bereft of comfort or room in any direction. And that’s when you’re standing still. Flail about the countryside at speed and your companions will emerge bruised, battered and bitching.

I drove the ’07 Wrangler Unlimited back-to-back with an outgoing ’06 two-door model. The advancements are profound. The front seats are far more comfortable and offer something remarkably akin to lateral support. Also new for ’07: optional power windows and locks for the [still] removable doors. The power window controls are now located in the center of the dashboard just below the stereo. The rest of the spartan dash gets a Chrysler parts-bin makeover; a vast improvement for Jeep, but nothing special in and of itself.

Jeep’s streamlining and improved chassis insulation deliver a much quieter (if not quiet) ride. Wrangler owners have come to expect rigs that porpoise down the highway, skitter through corners and labor to a stop. Thanks to the new Unlimited's added width and wheelbase, its dynamics are far more refined than its ancestors’. Through quick slalom-like maneuvering, the body continues to dance the Tango after the orquesta típica stops playing. But it recovers quickly. You can navigate city traffic with greater confidence, to the point where the Unlimited is a plausible daily driver.

Wrangler drivers can kiss their beloved 4.0-liter in-line six goodbye; the venerable I6 couldn’t meet federal emissions standards. All ’07 Wranglers are now blessed with Chrysler’s 3.8-liter V6, good for 215hp and 245ft-lbs torque. While its genesis might not inspire much joy in Mudtown (Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country?), the pushrod powerplant is simple enough to take the requisite beating and gives Wrangler improved torque at higher revs; it can get out of its own way when asked. Zero to sixty? Top speed? About as important to Wrangler lovers as a Porsche Cayenne's towing capacity to its target audience.

I’ve yet to take the new Wrangler Unlimited off-road, but junketed journalists report that the model is the genuine article; including tales of a Jeep rolled, righted, repaired and restored to service. Experience suggests that the new model’s extra length won’t help it in up-and-over situations, but learning your 4X4's limitations is all part of the fun.

Ironically enough, Jeep is about to experience the “fun” of learning its brand limitations. Making the Wrangler more urban-friendly while maintaining its die-hard demeanor was the right thing to do. Turning its back on its heritage was not. Is the new old-style Jeep good enough to protect the brand's rep from their silly soft-roaders? Yes, but only just. Which tells you just how good the Wrangler Unlimited is, and just how bad those CUV's really are.


By William C Montgomery

Since Chrysler acquired AMC from Renault in ‘87, the Jeep brand has been the domestic manufacturer’s canary in the coal mine. When Jeep’s done well, Chrysler’s done well. When Jeep’s languished, Chrysler’s tanked. Chrysler’s German masters are not blind to this correlation. Jeep's new corporate parent has shortened product development cycles from decades to six years. And now Doktor Z und ze Boyz are looking to grow DaimlerChrysler by expanding Jeep's model lineup. Does the Compass point the way to a bright future for "America's sports car"?

The Compass is not the Jeep brand’s first non-Trail Rated product by any means (any 4X2 won’t do), but it’s become the most notorious. In an attempt to imbue the suburban schlepper with some brand faithful (if faux) off-street cred, the Compass’ designers maintained the classic Jeep proportions and gave it the usual brand cues: bug eyes, Iron Man mouth, seven-nostril nose and trapezoidal wheel arches. It just doesn’t work. The Compass’ triangular D-pillar kink strikes the most discordant note in a distinctly off-key, Far Eastern melody.

The Compass’ interior consists of DCX’ all-too-familiar homage to rectangles, punctuated by the occasional round dial or gauge. A gaping maw violently interrupts the passenger side dashboard, luring a mess of unsightly and unsecured schmutz which no right-minded off-roader would allow. It’s a workmanlike (though not workingmanlike) cabin, rescued from complete vapidity by two-tone leather seat and an [optional] MP3-compatible nine-speaker Boston Acoustics sound system that pumps-out major tuneage.

Equally strange, the Compass’ rear seats signal the vehicle’s inability to carry three adults in lateral comfort by leaving the two-tone design off the middle pew. A brace of rear passengers can recline– or you can forget the whole thing, fold the seats flat and stow the requisite mountain bikes, surfboards, golden retriever and other lifestyle gear. Oh, and the Compass’ rear cargo light is a detachable flashlight whose loss is your local Jeep dealer’s parts department’s endless gain.

The Compass’ 2.4-liter powerplant comes courtesy of the Global Engine Manufacturing Alliance (GEMA). This partnership of DaimlerChrysler, Hyundai and Mitsubishi has produced a so-called “World Engine.” Regrettably, this east-meets-west design– a Hyundai-designed block topped by a Mercedes-Benz-derived head — fails to deliver a first-rate competitor.

Though thrifty (estimated EPA economy 24/27 mpg), the transverse-mounted, 172hp DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder engine is completely intimidated by the Compass’ 3,153 pound curb weight (front wheel-drive model). Peak horsepower and torque arrive at 6000 and 4400 rpm respectively. Translation: a Compass driver must whip the snot out of the engine to liberate anything even remotely resembling hustle. Drop the hammer and the Compass moseys to 60mph in nine point five seconds. It takes an additional twenty three seconds to increase that velocity by 40mph. By then you’re bored witless and more or less finished.

The Compass’ Continuously Variable Transaxle (CVT) utilizes six preset gear ratios to simulate toothed cogs. During normal driving, the driver can manually input a “gear” by toggling the shift knob. Under hard acceleration, the computer controlled CVT jumps abruptly to a lower gear ratio, simulating a downshift. Under full throttle, the engine climbs to 6000 revs. And there it stays, while the Compass [slowly] accelerates. Now how much would you pay? The CVT costs $1150 and saps three mpg from maximum fuel efficiency. The Compass' standard five-speed manual gearbox is the better [non] option, but one suspects the Not Ready for Prime Time CVT will get the lion’s share of the business– and brickbats.

Never mind the TV ads. The Compass is far too tall, heavy and slow to offer sporty handling, or even the idea of sporty handling. If you have enough patience (and road) to attain speeds sufficient to generate lateral G’s, the Compass’ body motions are generally well controlled by its four-wheel independent suspension. The four-wheel discs haul the baby Jeep down from speed with admirable alacrity. The ride quality is acceptable: a cut above Jeep Liberty harshness, but not quite up to Grand Cherokee standards.

As far as off-roading is concerned, this Jeep doesn’t jeep. The Compass’ 8.1” ground clearance is competitive for a crossover ‘Ute. But a 20-degree approach angle will keep the Compass on the pavement or well maintained dirt roads. Even with the optional Freedom Drive I pack– a single-speed, electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system– the Rubicon would eat the Compass for breakfast.

And? The Jeep Compass will find plenty of budget-minded consumers looking to buy a piece of the Jeep mystique for peanuts (under $16k base); buyers who’d no more drive the Rubicon than raft down the Zambezi. Sure, Jeep will sell loads of Compasses, but at what price? In the long term, this is exactly the kind of half-hearted down market brand extension that dragged Mercedes’ image into the gutter.


By Robert Farago

You can't blame Jeep for launching a retro-styled seven-seater at a time when dealers' forecourts have become sport utility tar pits. The Dark Lords of DCX pulled the trigger on the Commander when the petrochemical sun was shining, hay was being made and the word "hybrid" applied to orchids, vegetables and farm animals. The logic was sound: build a more commodious SUV to keep fecund followers of Jeep's trail rated trucks within the fold. Something that would also lure lifestylers helming less venerable vehicles. But the execution is inexcusable. Even if Shell V-Power was free, you wouldn't want to waste it on the new Jeep Commander.

Before I tear the Commander a new tailpipe, I want to point out that Jeep's largest ever SUV is as a far more civilized beast than the rough-and-ready Cherokees of yore. Sure it looks exactly like the rough-and-ready Cherokees of yore: a remorselessly rectilinear shape with all the aerodynamic efficiency of a breeze block. And yes, it sucks gas with the same gay (but butch) abandon as its four-by-forbearers. And the Commander boasts all the steering feel of its predecessors (i.e. none). But the big Jeep is a thoroughly modern motor that carries five passengers in safety and comfort, regardless of weather (ex tornados) or terrain (ex precipices). It's those two remaining passengers that are the bitch.

Well, if they weren't bitches when you put them in, they will be when they get out. After five minutes in the Commander's tippy-up "theater-style" rear seats, full-sized adults will wish they weren't. Thanks to a foot well that's shallower than the British Royal family's gene pool, even polypeptide deficient three-year-olds sitting in the way back run the risk of giving themselves a pair of shiners with their knees (try explaining THAT to social services). The Commander's third row is like the Porsche 911 Turbo's cupholders: you may be glad they're there, but you'd be foolish to use them. And yet you do.

And pay the price at the pump. Bopping around town, the Commander's mileage readout never posted numbers capable of challenging our two-year-old's numeracy skills. Although I have no moral/political/environmental/social qualms about driving a vehicle that gets single digit mileage, I can't abide a gas hog that doesn't offer suitable compensation. The Lincoln Navigator may burn fuel less efficiently than an Icelandic fishing trawler, but at least it's NFL-linebacker compatible transportation. Not to belabor the point [much], the Commander couldn't schlep a Pee Wee soccer team's midfield without seriously compromising their ability to walk– never mind run.

While a Navi is suffused with bling, the Commander's interior makes a Calvinist church look like a Chuck E. Cheese pizzeria. Saying that, the Jeep's soft-touch plastics offer yet more proof that DCX has mastered the art of fabricating and fitting world class polymers. But the cabin's unrelentingly dark coloration and generic Chrysler design make it seem small and bleak. The Brink's truck-sized front windscreen does nothing to relieve the interior's claustrophobia, and much to increase it. And what's with the dashboard's fake Allen holes? If they were meant to be reassuring in a Tool Time manly sort of way perhaps Jeep should have resisted the urge to emboss fake Allen holes onto the ersatz chrome adorning its steering wheel and shift knob.

There's only one other possible justification for the Commander's prodigious thirst: speed. Our 5273-pound tester holstered a 4.7-liter V8, good for 235hp at 4500rpm. As those numbers suggest, the Commander's official zero to sixty stat is decidedly leisurely: 10.2 seconds. On the positive side, the V8 torques a good game; the Commander tips in with genuine conviction and feels a lot faster than it is– especially when kickdown rouses the powerplant from its default torpor. As the Hemi engine option trims a couple of seconds from the Commander's erstwhile sprint times and cuts consumption by "up to" 20%, it's hard to understand why anyone wouldn't saddle-up those 95 extra ponies.

Money. Yes, well, our tester cost $37k without sat nav or a cargo net (the trunk floor doubles as a launch pad). That's a lot of wedge for a cramped vehicle sans spizzarkle und Hemi. We would be remiss for not pointing out that many of the Jeep Commander's inherent shortcomings are directly related to the big, heavy, clunky gubbins that enable its superior off-road abilities. There, that's done. Now, can someone please tell me why Jeep didn't make a better job of this?

No one expects a Jeep– any Jeep– to drink like a Prius or coddle like a minivan. But surely the guardians of the legendary brand know that a nostalgic shape needn't be accompanied by nostalgic mileage and packaging. Heads-up guys: it's time to go back to the future.


By Robert Farago

Jeep's latest ads ask SUV buyers to believe that the new Grand Cherokee is a pleasure to drive on-road. It's a stunning example of "the big lie" (people are more likely to believe a massive deception than a little one). If there's one thing that the heavily revised Grand Cherokee does badly– like any two-ton SUV– it's handle on-road. The SUV floats alarmingly over dips and crests, shudders disturbingly over bumps and holes, and leans precipitously through the twisties. I'd no sooner blast a Grand Cherokee around a sharp corner than I'd drive an Enzo on the Rubicon.

Ah, the Rubicon. Also known as the McKinney-Rubicon Springs Road, the unpaved trail runs 12 miles through California's rugged High Sierra Mountains. On the official off-roaders' difficulty scale of one to 10, the boulder-strewn, gully-infested Rubicon rates a 24. (As one veteran mud plugger puts it, the only part of a vehicle that's not likely to break on the Con is the radiator cap.) To qualify as "trail rated", a Jeep product must have enough traction, ground clearance, maneuverability, articulation and water fording to tackle the Rubicon.

Well, maybe not the Rubicon. In fact, the Con would turn a stock Grand Cherokee into scrap sooner than you could say 'I TOLD you we needed bigger tires and a LOT more ground clearance'. Even so, Jeep's trail-rating criteria guarantees that the Cherokee is a seriously capable off-roader.

Yes, but who needs a trail-rated SUV to pick-up the kids from school or brave the supermarket parking lot? Well, um, no one. And while Chrysler PR reports that more Grand Cherokee owners go off-road than drivers of the SUV's "primary competitors" (20% vs. 11% for the Chevy Trailblazer and 7% for the Ford Explorer), there's no getting around the fact the vast majority of Grand Cherokee tires will spend their working life kissing tarmac. You know it. Jeep knows it. And that's why they want you to believe that they've civilized the Grand Cherokee.

As long as you avoid the whole handling issue, it's hard to argue the point. For one thing, the new Grand Cherokee's cabin is as comfortable as the interior of a properly appointed sedan. The upmarket Grand Cherokee Limited combines sturdy, supportive leather with tasteful wood and high-grade plastics. Well-fed adults will still find the rear perches a bit cramped, but at least the legroom no longer threatens deep vein thrombosis. And when you're not head banging to the Boston Acoustics sound system, the Grand Cherokee's build quality provides a suitably hushed atmosphere for intelligent conversation.

Like how the Grand Cherokee's exterior betrays Jeep's desire to join the automotive mainstream. The "box on stilts" look that used to embody and project the Grand Cherokee's utility has been discreetly softened. The new shape is longer, lower and wider, with a steeply raked (not to say rakish) windscreen. The brand's new face– rounded headlights and housings and a deep chin spoiler– exemplifies the move away from Jeep's Army surplus design heritage, towards a more modern, Orvis-like sensibility.

What's more, the Grand Cherokee has an entirely refined powerplant– in a Boeing turbofan kinda way. In fact, the 330-horse, 5.7-liter lump lurking in the engine bay makes the new Limited the scramjet of mid-priced SUV's. OK, zero to sixty in 6.59 seconds isn't exactly sub-orbital. Still, unlike its classmates, the Grand Cherokee can get out of its own way– fast. It leaps off the line so quickly you can feel the rear 17's squirming for traction. At higher speeds, the Hemi-powered Limited loses much of its accelerative aggression, but maintains its ability to cruise without complaint.

Until you come to a corner. Just how bad is the Grand Cherokee's on-road handling? After all, Jeep's engineers have given the new model an independent front suspension, five-link rear suspension, rack and pinion steering, grippy all-season rubber and, should all that fail, ABS and ESP. Let's put it this way: if you drive to live, the Grand Cherokee's bouncy ride and skittish handling aren't dire enough to distract you from your lite rock radio. If, however, you live to drive, perhaps sir or madam would like to consider another, more laterally gifted member of the DCX family?

That is, unless, you're an enthusiast who likes to journey into the great American outback. Then it's yee flipping hah! I caned the Grand Cherokee at my local off-road course and had myself a peak experience. With Quadra Drive II, Jeep's latest four-wheel-drive system, it was point and scoot. Blasting over hill and dale, I discovered that the Jeep Grand Cherokee is to rocks and inclines what a Porsche 911 is to tight corners.

However dubious the Grand Cherokee's on-road manners, you gotta respect its off-road prowess, and Jeep's decision not to abandon their trail rated roots. If the new Grand Cherokee is still better on back roads than paved ones, so be it. There are plenty of SUVs that are mediocre on both. As Roman General Julius Caesar said when leading his troops across the original Rubicon river, 'alea iacta est'. The die is cast.