Last week, I had a chance to spend a day driving the all-new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L around Metro Detroit, including a trip to the off-road testing area of the company’s Chelsea Proving Grounds. This is the first three-row model to wear the legendary Grand Cherokee name, but it isn’t just the current model with the rear end extended for an extra row of seats. This also isn’t just a Durango with Jeep features, nor is it related to the upcoming Wagoneer.
The Grand Cherokee L is a (nearly) all-new model, with only a few key components being shared with the two-row models that have been available for the past few years. The drivetrain bits, including the Pentastar V6, the Hemi V8, the 8-speed automatic transmission and the lineup of four-wheel-drive systems are not new, but the chassis, body and interior are all very different from the current two-row Grand Cherokee, and those news items lead up to a great SUV.
This is the best Grand Cherokee ever, and not just because it has room for a few more passengers.
Hitting the Road
Our drive time began at Detroit’s Eastern Market, where I hit the road in a 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve with the 5.7-liter Hemi. This is the very top-of-the-line model, and that is clear both inside and out. On the outside, this package includes a two-tone paint job with a black-painted roof, 21-inch wheels, premium lighting and lots of chrome trim. It looks like a proper, premium SUV and when you get inside, that high end feel is magnified. The combination of the light brown Tupelo leather with black trim and brushed silver accents looks very luxurious, while the spread of technology drives home that premium feel.
If should also be noted that I drove a 2021 Dodge Durango SRT Hellcat to and from the event, so I am very familiar with the feel of the three-row SUV already in the corporate lineup. Like the Durango, the Grand Cherokee L doesn’t feel like a huge three-row SUV, even in the tight, busy streets of Detroit. We began be twisting and turning our way through the busy market, then through some narrow city streets before getting out onto the highway. In tight quarters, the Grand Cherokee L is very nimble and at no point does it feel like a lumbering old school SUV, which is the issue with some other three-row models from other automakers. Really, it doesn’t feel like you are driving a bigger Jeep, and that is a good thing. At the same time, the ride and feel of the Grand Cherokee L is considerably more refined than that of the Durango.
The most notable aspect of driving the 2021 Grand Cherokee L on the highway is that it is whisper quiet inside. You rarely hear the Hemi engine and even the harshest of Detroit’s highway bumps hardly have any impact on the driver. There is also very little wind noise at highway speeds, making this one of the quietest vehicles I have tested. When coupled with the remarkably smooth ride, the Grand Cherokee L will definitely allow passengers to sleep peacefully on the open road.
However, to help prevent the driver from falling asleep at the wheel on long trips, Jeep has fitted the Grand Cherokee L with an advanced cruise control system that is just shy of an autonomous mode. On the highway with the cruise set, the system will automatically make all of the sweeping turns on its own. You have to keep your hand on the steering wheel, occasionally providing some input to keep the system active, but you don’t have to do much steering with the system engaged, which Jeep claims cuts down on driver fatigue. It takes some time to get used to, but once you have gotten a feel for the system, it makes the highway cruise more relaxing. I really like this system and I look forward to it being available on more Stellantis models in the near future.
After spending some time on the highway, our drive route took us onto the twisty country roads of southeastern Michigan. The Grand Cherokee L is obviously not a performance model and I suspect that few owners will be pushing the handling capabilities to the limit, but the new three-row handles country roads nicely. There is minimal body roll on tighter corners and the standard braking system does a nice job of bringing the big Jeep down to a stop when you nearly miss your turn.
The Hemi V8 with 357 horsepower and 390 lb-ft torque allows the roomy Jeep to pull hard from a stop and to accelerate well when in motion, so if you need to put the hammer down to pass slower-moving traffic, the power is there. The 8-speed transmission shifts so smoothly and quietly that under average driving situations, you may not notice gear changes. Although it is bigger and heavier than the current two-row models with the same Hemi engine, the Grand Cherokee L does not feel heavy under acceleration. Of course, it doesn’t pull as hard as the current two-row models with the mightier SRT engines, but the Hemi never feels underpowered in this new Jeep.
Finally, while on the road with the 2021 Grand Cherokee L, I got to experience the new UConnect 5 infotainment system with the beautiful 10.1-inch touchscreen display. I made a short video showing the various modes and functions of the infotainment system and the digital gauge cluster, which you can check out below.
The big touchscreen makes for easy adjustment when you are driving, whether you are making changes to the radio station, the navigation system or the climate control. While every aspect of the interior can be controlled from the touchscreen, there is also a dedicated panel below the screen for quick access to the interior temperature, fan speed and heated or cooled seats. Those allow you to adjust the temperature without changing screens on the infotainment system, but thanks to the UConnect 5 split-screen system, you can set up the screen to show two small panels – such as the radio station and the nav screen, but by swiping across the screen, you can immediately bring up the climate control panel or any other function. It is all programmable via a very user friendly program. It is very much like using an Android tablet, except this one is mounted on the dashboard of the newest Jeep.
Finally, my favorite aspect of the infotainment system is the 19-speaker, 950-watt McIntosh sound system, which sounds great whether you listen to metal, country, hip hop or pop. The roomy cabin of the Grand Cherokee L makes for a great acoustical home to this premium sound system, making this a star attraction of the range-topping Jeep.
The odds are good that few people who buy a 2021 Grand Cherokee L will plan to do loads of off-roading, but with this being a Jeep, the engineers made sure that it could handle rough terrain. To experience just how well the new three-row SUV handles some treacherous off-road conditions, we headed to the company’s Chelsea Proving Grounds, where we hit the trails. Every new Jeep model is put to the test on these trails prior to going on sale, with elements taken from some of the most challenging off-road playgrounds in the world. For example, portions of the Jeep test trail are copied from the Rubicon trail in Utah.
The off-road testing began with a drive along a worn, muddy trail with deep ruts that allowed us to experience the suspension travel. While I drove a Summit Reserve model to the off-road testing, we switched to Overland models for the muddy fun. Not surprisingly, the new Grand Cherokee L made short work of the basic trails, easily handling the loose footing and deep ruts, even as it poured down rain. Along the way, we made our way over a steep log pile and carved through some very narrow wooded passages. Frankly, I was more impressed with the L’s agility in the tight off-road spaces than I was in its ability to handle the muddy, uneven trails.
There really weren’t any serious challenges for the Grand Cherokee L in the first half of the off-road course, but the end got a whole lot tougher. The first major obstacle was a steep rock climb hill with lots of large, loose rocks that shift around as you cover ground. There was also a turn on the rock climb, so you had to go slowly around the turn, then tackle an even taller incline to reach the top of the hill. It was tricky under normal conditions, but when I hit the trails, it was pouring down rain.
As a result, not only were the rocks wet, but we were carrying mud from the trail, up onto the rocks, making them even more slippery. While the Overland comes with tires which are better suited for off-roading, they are far from proper off-road rubber and at times, I had to really dig in to clear some of the larger rocks. However, I made it to the top of the hill without having to back down and reposition. You can watch an example of the latter stages of the rock crawl hill in the video below.
Next, we climbed over a few smaller hills before hitting the water crossing. The water looked to be a couple feet deep, coming up over the bottom of the doors. We came down a steep hill into the water and powered through, climbing the slick bank on the other side. This was a very simple obstacle for the Grand Cherokee L, but it made for great action footage, showing the water-fording abilities of the new Jeep. You can watch a Grand Cherokee L crossing the water in the video below.
Finally, we drove along a rocky bank, with the passenger’s side tires up on the steep bank with the vehicle leaning hard to the driver’s side, as those tires were on flat ground. I pushed the new Jeep to what felt like an extremely aggressive angle and it pulled across the rocks with no problem.
Although most Grand Cherokee L owners won’t go off-roading, anyone who does will be pleasantly surprised at how well it conquers tricky obstacles.
Towing a Boat
Finally, I did some towing with the Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve with a 7,000-pound boat hooked up out back. We spent time on both paved and unpaved roads within the proving grounds and the Hemi-powered Jeep pulled the big boat effortlessly. We even headed to a skidpad, where we went through a slalom of cones and performed a hard acceleration test with a boat in tow.
Not surprisingly, the Grand Cherokee L handled the twists and turns smoothly with complete control and on the hard acceleration test, the laden Jeep got up to highway speed in a surprisingly short amount of time. In other words, the Grand Cherokee L is surprisingly nimble and quick with the added weight out back, making this a great option for anyone looking to tow a trailer of this weight.
The Final Word
The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L is very impressive in every way. It is smooth and quiet on the open road, with solid acceleration from the Hemi V8 and impressive handling capabilities for a vehicle of this size. The cabin is plush, comfortable and packed with technology which I am sure will win awards, including an excellent sound system and the latest, greatest generation of the UConnect system. There is an extra row of seats with leg room for 6-foot-tall adults, but that extra space comes without any perceivable compromise and driving dynamics AND it is a pretty great off-roader for a vehicle without a true, dedicated off-road package.
Even if this Grand Cherokee only had two rows of seats, all of the other features would make it the best Jeep to wear the name, but the combination of great driving dynamics, premium features and room for 7 or 8 people makes this the best three-row SUV on the market today for those who don’t want an family vehicle that drives like a truck.