“Respect the Grand and earn the seven slots.” That was the task given to the team developing the fifth-generation (codename: WL) Grand Cherokee lineup, which includes this three-row 2021 Grand Cherokee L and its two-row sibling arriving for 2022. The directive is Jeep-speak for “keep it comfy and classy but ensure it’ll go everywhere its ZJ, WJ, and WK predecessors could.” We just spent a day driving four variants of the L, cruising interstate highways, thrashing twisty roads, towing 7,200 pounds, and scaling boulder trails. It’s report card time.
Does the Grand Cherokee L Earn Its Seven-Slot Grille Off-Road?
Yes, and frankly, Jeep off-road capability is what the midsize three-row class is currently missing. A properly equipped 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland will surely rank as the most capable mainstream midsize three-row SUV offering, with a state-of-the-art low-range full-time 4WD system, screens that monitor pitch and roll angles, and a trail camera to provide a view of what’s just over the hill you’re cresting, complete with guidelines to indicate where the tires are headed.
On paper, ground clearance measures about the same as with the previous two-row Grand Cherokee, with the new L trailing only slightly in approach, breakover, and departure angles. With the standard steel suspension, these measures drop by 5.6, 0.8, and 2.5 degrees, but an Overland aired up on its tippy toes narrows those angles to differences of +0.3, -0.2, and -3.5 degrees.
All three available transfer cases employ active front-to-rear torque distribution with a front-axle disconnect for improved fuel economy. Stepping up to the Limited 4×4 adds the Selec-Terrain system, which has five modes to tailor various functions to different conditions (auto, sport, rock, snow, mud/sand). The Overland gets standard Quadra-Trac II, which adds a 2.72:1 low range and hill-descent control and Quadra-Lift air suspension for 4.2 inches of height adjustability. The most serious bushwhackers will add the Off-Road Group to get 18-inch wheels with off-road tires, skidplates, and Quadra-Drive II, which adds an electronically actuated limited-slip rear differential (Summit models also get Quadra-Drive II, but with less off-road-optimal 20- or 21-inch wheel-and-tire packages).
With ample spotter assistance, we traversed stacks of logs and an aggressive rock pile that most civilians would never attempt in a $60,000 SUV, making extensive use of the skidplates. We also crossed a frame-twist field that placed diagonally opposed wheels at a 24-inch height difference. The articulation and traction were impressive, especially given the unaggressive looking tread of the Michelin Primacy XC All-Season tires. A future Trailhawk model could do with knobbier tires, a skosh more ground clearance, and a lower (numerically higher) crawl ratio, as the Overland Off-Road pack’s 44.2:1 ratio frequently required so much accelerator input in some situations that when a tire finally surmounted an obstacle it was necessary to immediately jump on the brakes.
How Grand Is the Newest Cherokee?
The top-shelf Summit Reserve strives for Bentley-level grandiosity with diamond stitching on the door panels and the bolsters and of its perforated Palermo leather seats, waxed walnut wood veneers on the dash and door panels, and an over-the-top 950-watt, 17-channel, 19-speaker McIntosh sound system. And sure, it falls short of the Bentley benchmark with middle-row seats that must—sigh—be manually folded and slid to access the third row and in the quality of some plastic materials low on the dash and door panels, but let’s recall that this model tops out at less than $70,000.
We spent most of our drive time in the base Laredo model, which opens at $38,690 with rear drive or $40,690 with AWD, having climbed directly out of an example of its three-row sibling from Dodge, the Durango GT ($40,795 to start). The much newer Jeep instantly came across as the quieter, suppler-riding, and more refined of the two. Yes, the instrument panel upper surface is a soft-touch molded material, as in the Dodge, and the cloth seats whisper “Emerald upgrade at the rental counter,” but there is cut-and-sew trim on the dash and armrests, and the standard features content is reasonably grand: fully digital and reconfigurable 10.1-inch instrument cluster, adaptive cruise control with lane assist, and collision braking assist with pedestrian detection. The 8.4-inch standard infotainment screen gets a big black frame to remind you of the available 10.1-inch upgrade, and its pixel density is about half that of the larger screen’s, but it still looks bright and crisp and displays loads of information.
The third-row’s 32.6 cubic feet of third-row space rank near the bottom of the midsize three-row class, below the Nissan Pathfinder (33.7) and above the GMC Acadia (32.6), Toyota Highlander (30.4), and Mazda CX-9 (29.9), but that measurement is made with the sliding middle-row seats at the back of their 7 inches of travel. The seat feels plenty spacious when the middle row is moved to give a couple of those inches back.
The intermediate Limited, Overland, and Summit trim levels each ratchet up the swellness, upgrading the Laredo’s cloth seats with first Capri, then Nappa, and finally Palermo leather, and troweling on luxury features like motors to actuate the liftgate and third row, an intermediate nine-speaker, 506-watt Alpine audio system, and more. Suffice it to say that this Jeep, like most Ram pickups, continues to rank Stellantis as the Audi of mainstream vehicle interior design.
How’s the Ride and Handling on-Road?
All grown up. Compared to the old two-row model, the L is 15.1 inches longer and about 13 percent larger overall on the outside, and yet Jeep has managed to keep the curb weights to within a percent of each other while also increasing torsional rigidity by 13 percent and bending stiffness by 18 percent. This rigid foundation supports a new three-link virtual steering axis front suspension, as well as a retuned multilink rear setup. The whole package feels more sophisticated and delivers on Jeep’s “glide ride” promise while cornering with remarkably flat poise and minimal tire squeal even on the off-road-optimized 18-inch Michelin Primacy XC footwear standard on Laredo models.
Ride quality is excellent on the steel springs and 18-inch tires. The air suspension standard on Overland and Summit models adds adaptive damping this year, further improving body motion control when executing left-right maneuvers or transiting dips and rises. But the motion control on the base suspension is darned good, too, and certain tilted-slab-type bumps that hit both tires at the same time seemed to “ring” the suspension more noticeably in the Summit Reserve variant. This could be attributed to the shorter sidewalls of its 275/45R21 tires, a striking natural frequency of the pneumatic corners, or both.
What About Straight-Line Performance?
We expect the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L with the Pentastar V-6 to perform identically to the two-row 2020 model, given that they share virtually identical power, weight, tires, and gearing. With V-8 models switching from a 3.09:1 axle ratio to the V-6’s 3.45:1 setup, the new model might possibly shave a tenth or two off its predecessor’s time. Naturally, this means the forthcoming two-row 2022 Grand Cherokee is likely to be quicker still, not to mention potential SRT models yet to come. The current V-6 motivates an empty Grand Cherokee with more than ample verve, and the 5.7-liter V-8 whisked a 7,200-pound boat up to speed with relative ease.
Fractionally larger front and rear rotors and calipers increase the pad swept area by 8 percent in front, 14 percent in the rear. This should improve stopping distances, but the real win is brake pedal feel. The brakes engage very near the top of the travel and their bite is linear throughout, which quickly builds confidence.
A note for trailering buyers: Jeep provides trailer-sway mitigation, but no built-in trailer-brake controller and no automatic adjustment of the blind-spot monitoring system to account for trailer length, so if you’re towing a long or heavy trailer, make sure it’s equipped with surge brakes and check those mirrors carefully when changing lanes.
Should You Buy a 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L?
If you seriously plan to leave groomed gravel roads to explore truly unbeaten paths, absolutely. If you need to tow more than 6,000 pounds, probably. And if you’re not routinely transporting the JV basketball starting lineup, sure. And about that brief given to its development team? Based on this first experience, the new Grand Cherokee can consider its seven-slot grille earned and its badge respected.
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|2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Specifications|
|LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD/AWD/4WD, 6-7-pass, 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||3.6L/293-hp/260-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6; 5.7L/357-hp/390-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,550-5,300 lb (mfr)|
|L x W x H||204.9 x 77.9 x 69.7-73.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||6.5-7.7 sec (MT est)|
|EPA FUEL ECON||14-19/22-26/17-21 mpg|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||177-241/130-153 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.90-1.16 lb/mile|