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The idea of a super ute has always been a crazy one. Of all the vehicle types on which to base a high-performance machine, one that was originally intended to go off road and later evolved into the towering family wagons we use today would not be our first choice. And yet, time and again we see that auto enthusiasts – even ones calling the shots at major automakers – will make anything go quicker and faster if given the chance. That's how the first Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 was born back in 2006, and Chrysler has again seen fit to apply this extreme treatment to its best-selling SUV – despite the fact that its mere existence seemingly violates every facet of Jeep's rugged off-road image.
But the small segment of super utes to which the Grand Cherokee SRT8 belongs has gotten extremely competitive in the past few years while Chrysler clawed its way out of bankruptcy. Sport utility vehicles from BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz have spawned unholy super utes with enough horsepower to embarrass supercars from just a few years ago.
The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 doesn't play by German rules, though. Despite its well-timed redesign that gives SRT guys and gals an opportunity to leapfrog their rivals, they instead practiced restraint, ignored winning the war on paper and upgraded their entry in the areas requested most by their customers.
Styling was not a source of complaint from customers of the first-gen Grand Cherokee SRT8. The original model that sold from 2006 through 2010 was brutishly blocky, its design seemingly inspired by the head of a sledgehammer. This new SRT8 is forced to wear the smoother, softer lines of the all-new 2011 Grand Cherokee, so it loses that cast-iron quality of the original.
That doesn't mean it's any less intimidating to walk up to in person. It actually might be moreso. The height, width and sheer verticality of its front end is just about the best impression of a brick wall we've ever seen an automobile make. And that deep front chin spoiler means this Jeep won't be Trail Rated for anything other than the freshest asphalt. The two air vents on the hood, however, are our favorite elements. These nostrils, which require tippy toes to even see, perform the real-world function of letting heat escape the engine compartment, but you can just tell people they shoot fire and sometimes claim small animals that get too close.
That deep front chin spoiler means this Jeep won't be trail rated for anything other than the freshest asphalt.
One thing customers did complain about was the last generation model's center-mounted rear exhaust. Despite being eminently cool to spew your fumes out the middle of the rear bumper, the twin pipes' location was not very practical for loading up the rear cargo area or figuring out a towing solution. In the best-case scenario they would blast your legs with hot exhaust, and in the worst burn them like a branding iron. The Mini Cooper S has garnered complaints for its similar set up, but unlike Mini's solution of just shortening the pipe length, Jeep decided to split them up and put a single four-inch diameter outlet on each side.
The rest of what makes this Grand Cherokee look like an SRT product is more subtle. The grille and door handles are body-colored, in this case a Brilliant Black Crystal Pearl, instead of chrome; the roof rack has been shaved and the liftgate topped with an SRT-specific spoiler; and the front fascia features a pair of slim LED daytime running lights. As a whole, the visual changes clearly communicate that this Grand Cherokee was made for going quickly, not crawling rocks, and nothing screams that louder than its new wheels. A set of five-spoke, 20-inch forged aluminum wheels wearing P295/45ZR20 Pirelli Scorpion Verde All-Season run-flats, these steamrollers avoid the polished look with a smokey, anthracite-like finish, and their thin spokes offer the least obstructive view of the bright red Brembo-spec braking system.
The inside of the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is less aggressive and intimidating than the outside, but it still tries to pull off that veneer of performance despite its original purpose as a functional and semi-luxurious SUV interior. To that end, gone is the warm and inviting two-tone beige and brown color palette available on a standard Grand Cherokee. In its place is the same monochromatic theme of the exterior played out in black Napa leather and suede, dark plastics, satin chrome and carbon fiber accents. While certainly muted, the interior isn't gloomy thanks to the bright trim work, a set of aluminum pedal pads that greet you on entry and that ribbon of surprisingly convincing carbon fiber across the dash and doors.
Second-row passengers will have a hard time hanging on when you show off what the GC SRT8 can do.
Any driver will become intimately familiar with the two parts of the interior we like best: the steering wheel and front seats. The Grand Cherokee SRT8's steering wheel is a thick and meaty ring with a flat bottom covered in attractive satin chrome. Already beefy, the steering wheel bulges with palm rests in just the right places, giving your hands something to grab when sawing away at the helm. It's also heated, and the integrated controls for operating the stereo, Electronic Vehicle Information Center (EVIC) and adaptive cruise control system are easy-to-use and difficult to engage by accident.
SRT seats have always been high on our list of favorite thrones for their ability to both coddle and secure at the same time. These new ones upholstered in premium leather and grippy faux suede maintain the tradition, and are as equally great for long hauls as they are for hauling ass. Front seat passengers are treated to both heating and cooling, while the rear bench will only warm the backsides of passengers not quick enough to call shot gun. Second-row passengers are also given not nearly the same amount of bolstering, which means they'll have a hard time hanging on when you show off what the Grand Cherokee SRT8 can do.
Rear passengers do get more than three inches of additional leg room to stretch their lower limbs, and cargo capacity with the rear bench upright has also increased by nearly two cubic feet to 36.3 over its predecessor, though maximum cargo volume is down just a hair to 68.3 cu-ft. The Grand Cherokee SRT8 does keep things functional with a completely flat and expansive floor when the second row is folded, though the floor's four chrome accent strips, while attractive, look like magnets for scuffs and scratches. Jeep also gets kudos for thoughtful touches in the way back like a storage tray and flush-mounted flashlight located in an unused space behind the driver's side rear wheel, as well as four grocery bag hooks and a DC outlet.
Demerits, however, should be handed out to whoever decided the Jeep Grand Cherokee wasn't ready for Chrysler's latest UConnect infotainment system. Like all Grand Cherokees, the SRT8 model missed the cut for Chrysler's new UConnect system that can be had in cars like the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger. Instead of that system's humongous touchscreen, dead-simple user interface and industry-leading response time, you get the old system with its cramped screen, yesteryear graphics and limited functionality. Fortunately, it appears the center stack was designed to accommodate the new, larger screen and it's probably just a matter of time before the system upgrade happens. If it were our money, we'd wait for it.
We're fortunate, though, that the Grand Cherokee SRT8 didn't have to wait for Chrysler's newest SRT-spec powerplant. Like the latest SRT editions of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Challenger, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 has been upgraded with the automaker's new 6.4-liter HEMI V8 that replaces the tried-and-true 6.1-liter. Producing 470 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and 465 pound-feet of torque at 4,300 RPM, the 392 adds an extra 50 hp and 45 lb-ft on top of what the 6.1-liter was already producing.
It isn't much quicker than the last generation, sprinting to 60 miles per hour in a factory-claimed 4.8 seconds.
The Grand Cherokee SRT8 does carry around an extra 362 pounds (5,150 versus 4,788), which means it isn't much quicker than the last generation, sprinting to 60 miles per hour in a factory-claimed 4.8 seconds. The "old" Grand Cherokee SRT8 could do sub-five-second runs out of the box as well, so all that extra power from the new 6.4-liter V8 isn't creating a much quicker SUV, at least according to the performance meter in the EVIC. Capable of measuring speed, braking, g-force, 0-60, 1/4-mile and 1/8-mile times, the performance meter told us that this particular Grand Cherokee SRT8 could reach 60 mph in 5.2 seconds, at least with yours truly as the particular person behind the wheel.
That's still impressively quick for an SUV, but start comparing it to the current crop of German super utes and you begin to see where the Jeep ranks. In addition to the Grand Cherokee SRT8, this motley crew consists of the BMW X5 M, Porsche Cayenne Turbo and Mercedes-Benz M63 AMG. The X5 M and and Cayenne Turbo both feature twin-turbo V8s in the 4.0-liter range producing 550 and 500 hp, respectively, while the M63 AMG used to be offered with a naturally aspirated 503-hp 6.2-liter V8 (it's on hiatus this year while an all-new M-Class gets fitted with Mercedes' new twin-turbo 5.5-liter V8 producing well over 500 hp). The point is that these Germans come packing more powerful, sophisticated and efficient powerplants than the Grand Cherokee SRT8.
This isn't to say the Jeep is slow, but there is a deficit of low-end grunt that you won't find in the turbocharged BMW and Porsche, and the Jeep's standard five-speed automatic transmission is anywhere from one to three cogs down compared to the competition. Thankfully, the transmission can be manually operated by a pair of nicely placed paddle-shifters that feel premium to the touch and engage with authority when you want full control. Unfortunately, you have little control over when the engine's cylinder deactivation system, called Fuel Saver Technology, kicks in and removes four cylinders from the equation. This usually happens during steady state cruising approaching freeway speeds, and it's accompanied by increased noise, vibration and harshness levels from the engine compartment. The system kicks in early and often to save fuel, which it does to the tune of 12 miles per gallon in the city and 18 mpg on the highway. We achieved around 14 mpg in mixed driving that skewed more city than highway.
Less power compared to the competition can be effectively countered with a higher level of handling, but here the Jeep again falls behinds its European classmates despite feeling quicker on its feet compared to the last generation. In addition to the aforementioned 20-inch wheels, the new Grand Cherokee SRT8 brings a 146-percent stiffer body to bear on its independent front and multi-link rear suspensions, Bilstein adaptive damping system and front and rear stabilizer bars. Jeep's Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive system does mute burnouts to a chirp at most, while the new Selec-Track system ties everything together and offers five preset modes: Auto, Sport, Track, Tow and Snow. Selec-Track has dominion over everything from the stability control and adaptive damping systems to the transmission shift points, division of torque front to rear, throttle sensitivity and cylinder deactivation.
We didn't feel significant differentiation between Auto, Sport and Track while driving on public roads, but expect what differences there are would appear in sharper relief on a track. Considering how few owners actually drive their SUVs off-road, we suspect most SRT8 owners won't regularly take their Grand Cherokee for on-track excursions, either. That means they'll be saddled with a stiff and bouncy ride over imperfect roads, even when the Selec-Track system is set to Auto, its most compliant setting.
The Brembo brakes have excellent pedal modulation and know the difference between slowing and stopping.
The Grand Cherokee SRT8 is also nerve-shredding to park. The long, flat and level hood obscures where the front end's corners are. Whether pulling into a traditional spot or performing the parallel kind of parking, we were constantly afraid of tapping the car in front of us or scraping those wheels on the curb. Fortunately, there is a backup camera and rear parking sensors, though we'd argue a set of proximity sensors up front would be even more helpful. The Grand Cherokee SRT8's traditional all-hydraulic steering system is thankfully accurate and feels nicely weighted at speed while offering plenty of assistance at parking lot speeds to easily turn those 20-inch wheels.
Another area where the Grand Cherokee SRT8 doesn't fall down is its Brembo braking system with six-piston calipers up front clamping 15-inch rotors and four-piston rears squeezing 13.8-inch rotors. Besides the bright red Brembo calibers providing a trumpet blast of color in a one-note ballad of black, the system can transition from 60 mph to sitting still in just 116 feet. They're not carbon ceramic or high-tech in any special way, but they got the job done with excellent pedal modulation.
The one thing we've yet to discuss is the Grand Cherokee SRT8's ace in the hole: price. With a starting price of $60,960, Jeep's entry in the super ute class undercuts the German competition by tens of thousands of dollars. The BMW X5 M starts at $86,900 and quickly rises with options. The Mercedes-Benz ML63 AMG isn't on sale this year, but began around $93,000 when it was for sale. And the Porsche Cayenne Turbo doesn't kid around with an MSRP of $107,100. So, you can see why Jeep doesn't care much if the Grand Cherokee SRT8 isn't the quickest, fastest, most superlative super ute on paper: It's the cheapest, by far.
The best values in the super ute segment are made by the world's two most famous off-road brands: Jeep and Land Rover.
The only super ute that may upset Jeep's bang-for-the-buck strategy is one we've yet to mention. It's not German and has been around a year longer than the Grand Cherokee SRT8. Give yourself a point if you guessed the Land Rover Range Rover Sport. Debuted as a 2005 model, the latest iteration offers your choice of a naturally aspirated 375-hp 5.0-liter V8 or a supercharged version producing a super ute-worthy 510 horsepower. It has an equally low $60,495 base price, though that rises to $75,390 for the supercharged version, and it comes standard with the cachet of being built by a surviving British automaker. It also pampers with luxury like only a Land Rover can, which is to say more and better than any Jeep.
The curious thing is that it's possible to argue that the two best values in the super ute segment are made by the world's two most famous off-road brands. Both have no business offering high-performance sport utility vehicles, and yet they do.
The 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8 deserves consideration if a super ute is what you crave, and we love it for being the only American offering in this silly segment that's otherwise all European. At times we wish it were as ridiculously quick as those other super utes, but something has to give with such a low base price, and anyway, where would you use the extra horsepower? These are still SUVs, after all, destined for a life of domestic service. At least the Grand Cherokee SRT8 can be had at a more approachable price.