This has been the winter to try men's souls to badly paraphrase a historical saying. It's been so tough that even the annual winter awards judging event for the New England Motor Press Association had to be postponed due to, well, winter, before the Grand Cherokee could be annointed.
You know it's a bad winter when a hardy group of automotive journalists gets cowed by the weather, especially when we're driving the very vehicles designed to laugh in the face of all that winter can throw our way here in New England. Fortunately it didn't stop us for long and we were able to gather for judging on a recent Saturday in Middleborough, Mass., a town probably best known for once being the home of General Tom Thumb.
Fittingly, some will accuse automotive journalists of being mental midgets, but in this case our collective brains made the right choice in the selection of the 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee as the Official Winter Vehicle of New England. You're not going to find a more complete package at an affordable price that can take anything winter throws its way, as well as the remaining three seasons.
I've waxed enthusiastic about the Jeep Grand Cherokee in the past. When it first came out, I summed it up as the American Range Rover in a review in the Boston Globe and it's a sentiment shared by a lot of other journalists. I've driven the Grand Cherokee in difficult conditions off-road, as well as the Range Rover, and it performs just as ably for tens of thousands of dollars less.
The Grand Cherokee has three new 4x4 systems as well as a terrain system with a choice of five settings (including snow, which has been more than put to the test this winter in New England). The Quadra-Lift air suspension system can raise the ride height to 10.7 inches or lower it to 6.6 inches. The Jeep Wrangler, a much less sophisticated vehicle with serious off-road chops, has a maximum ground clearance of 10.6 inches.
The driving pleasure is enhanced by an all-new 3.6-liter, Pentastar V-6 that produces 290 horsepower and 260 lb. ft. of torque while getting 22-mpg highway and 16-mpg city in four-wheel drive. Just to beat the Range Rover comparison to death, it gets 18-mpg highway and 12-mpg city from its only available engine, a 5.0-liter V8.
While this didn't play into the final judging decision, a factor in the Grand Cherokee's favor has to be price. Pricing has dropped across the board from 2010 to 2011 on comparable models in most cases by a few hundred dollars (always better than a price increase). The Laredo 4x2, the base model, costs $30,995 – a $495 drop from 2010. The most expensive Grand Cherokee is the Overland 4x4 trim level that costs $42,995. (A 2009 Overland 4x4 cost $45,625 – no 2010 model was made.) All prices include destination.
Here is the complete list of the other winners.
- Pick Up Truck: GMC 2500 – Right now the buying public is blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to pickups. There's not a bad one among the bunch. Ford seems to get all the hype but GMC is an equally good truck and the judges declared it a little better.
- Compact SUV: Hyundai Tucson – the Korean automaker just continues to wrack up the awards and this is a deserving one. The Tucson is truly an SUV that gets every element right and is fun to drive.
- SUV $25,000-$35,000: Ford Explorer – I'm in the decided minority who is not wowed by the new Ford Explorer. I don't think it's better than the last generation but that's because I don't think the world needed another crossover. There was still room for a truck-based sport utility vehicle but Ford disagreed. Ford's been wrong before but it does seem to have a good handle on crossovers.
- Premium SUV $35,000-$50,000: Volvo XC60 – I'll respectfully disagree with my fellow judges on this one. The Infiniti EX 35 is far superior to the Volvo XC60. It's more comfortable, better handling, and not loaded with suspect technology that will be expensive to fix like the automatic braking feature that kicks in when you're driving below 19 mph. It's been plagued with problems.
- Luxury SUV over $50,000: (Tie) Land Rover HSE, Infiniti QX56 – The judges got this one half right. The QX56 is simply amazing in the land of luxury SUVs. It's roomy and comfortable and even manages to deliver decent fuel economy for a vehicle its size. The Land Rover HSE feels top heavy to me.
- AWD sedan or wagon (overall): Subaru Forester – The WRX STI should have won this award and I'm surprised it doesn't show up on the list anywhere. It's an amazing sedan that some people were probably turned off to because of its large wing. The Forester is nice but it's bland. It was the safe choice.
- $25-$35,000: Dodge Charger – This vehicle in all-wheel drive with the new 3.5-liter V-6 is a true competitor to the BMW 5 series for thousands of dollars less. Don't underestimate the new Charger.
- $35,000-$60,000: Mercedes Benz E350 wagon – Practicality and luxury combined into a nice package that negates the need for a crossover utility vehicle. Affluent soccer moms of the world should get the E350 wagon to stand out from the crowd.
- $60,000 and up: BMW 7 series – My heart is always going to belong to Audi in this class with Mercedes-Benz being a close second.
- Yankee Value Award: Suzuki SX4 – It wins this award year after year because it simply has no competition. It is the most affordable all-wheel drive vehicle on the market. It is the perfect commuter car for wintry climes.
- Best People Mover: Toyota Sienna AWD – There is no other minivan with all-wheel drive. Honda consciously made a decision to get out of the all-wheel drive market because of a low take rate.
- Best all weather sports car: Porsche 911 Turbo – This is a car without a lot of competition at least in terms of vehicles that were available for review by members of the New England Motor Press Association. There may be better sports cars out there for winter driving but this was the best among those available for testing.