Photos by Sean Klingelhoefer
Any question over RACER testing a Jeep is half answered within five seconds, which is more than enough time for the SRT Grand Cherokee to hit 60mph from standstill. The rest of the answer comes at the first turn. With suspension ” and body movement ” reined in by having the dial in the center console turned to ?Track,? the Jeep pivots into the apex with the alacrity of a performance car. Then, just as suddenly, the corner is dismissed and the all-wheel-drive traction sends this 5,150lb monster snarling off into the distance.
Er, did that just happen…?
?Pretty incredible, right?? grins Tommy Kendall as he dances his four-wheeled partner around Riverside, Calif.’s sinewy Adams Motorsports Park as if it was an overgrown sports car. ?It’s one of those vehicles that can do anything and everything you want of it, anywhere, any time.?
Which is why, as a member of the SRT Motorsports Viper GTS-R ALMS squad, he chooses to drive one of these as his company vehicle. Quite a perk.
?I think all but one of my teammates chose this,? muses Kendall. ?Sure, everyone’s going to say I’m biased, but I think this is a fantastic daily driver to the extent that, even if I didn’t have ties to SRT, I’m not sure I’d find a better way to spend $63k on a five-seater that can get up and go hard.?
SRT, of course, is the performance brand of the Chrysler Corporation, and its badge can be found on the most powerful models of the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger, Dodge Challenger, Jeep Grand Cherokee and, of course, the Viper. Uniting the first four in that list is a common powertrain, a 6.4-liter (392 cu.in.) Hemi engine, which delivers 470hp and 465lb-ft. of torque.
And while the SRT nomenclature is relatively new, first seen on 2004 models, the Hemi ” named after each cylinder’s hemispherical combustion chamber ” is steeped in Chrysler Corp. lore. The first of its cars to use this engine design emerged in 1950, when the unit was given the dramatic name FirePower. But by the mid- to late-’60s muscle car boom, the word ?Hemi? was synonymous with a combo of power and reliability. Kendall, a hot-rodder at heart, is pleased SRT embraces its parent company’s heritage.
?Hemi is almost a brand in itself, and evokes performance,? he observes. ?Over several decades, it’s earned the reputation of delivering potency and durability, and SRT is smart to promote that history. You know, the fact that the basic engine design has endured so long and can still be made efficient enough for SRT vehicles to meet regs and take on major rivals is something to be very proud of.?
So the Grand Cherokee SRT’s pace isn’t in doubt, but if all it could boast was a 0-100mph time of under 12 seconds, it would have very one-dimensional appeal. A vehicle at the upper end of the SUV market has to satisfy a broad range of people and perform a variety of roles well. The aim of this car is to deliver the proverbial iron fist in a velvet glove, while the other hand massages and pampers ” and doesn’t reach for your wallet too often. That’s a tricky blend to get right.
?Yeah, it’s a part of the market where the answer to a question is always, ?Yes,’ says Kendall. ?Do you want more power? Yes! Do you want more comfort and refinement? Yes! Do you want better fuel economy? Yes!
?OK, on the car-buying spectrum, a high-performance SUV is never going to jump out as being very green, but this Jeep has Fuel Saver technology, which deactivates four cylinders when you’re cruising, and that’s a big help, as is the new 8-speed gearbox which was new for the 2014 model year. But it also offers a cosseting environment: it’s comfortable and civilized enough to travel huge distances.?
This combination of talents is vital to maintaining the Jeep SRT’s ability to go head-to-head with prestigious rivals from Europe (it has no obvious homegrown competition) which cost $20-40k more.
?Everything’s getting better in a hurry to keep pace with market demands,? says Kendall. ?If you compare this 6.4-liter Hemi with, say, the 6.1-liter version that was in 2010 models, you get significantly more power and torque, but also improved gas mileage at the same speed. Now, with eight gears, the mileage has gotten better again. In top at 70mph, the old five-speeder was pulling 2,400rpm, but now, in eighth, you’re only at 1,900. That’s a win-win.
?Actually,? he continues, ?let’s call it a win-win-win, because the 8-speed ‘box also improves refinement in every way. The ratios are stacked closer together, so obviously there’s less of a jump between cogs, but also each new iteration of software gets better at matching ratios to torque curve. It would be easy to program software to upshift smoothly at 30 percent throttle, and it would be easy to program it to shift crisp and snappy if the car was always driven at full throttle. But gearbox software has to deal with all extremes. SRT worked hard to get this compromise perfect. There’s less disruption to power delivery as it goes up the gears, and then on a change down, it blips the throttle to match revs with the ratio, so there’s more of a seamless feel as you’re slowing.?
No question about it, that new 8HP70 gearbox is a big leap forward for the 2014 Grand Cherokee SRT, and yet it’s likely to be the car’s agility that most surprises those who assume an SUV can’t be fun.
?The handling, I think, is pretty amazing for a car like this,? says Kendall. ?If you open the hood, you’ll see the engine is situated quite low, and as far back as possible, while the front axle is about as far forward as it can go. Also in its favor are the 20in. tires’ huge collective contact patch and the limited slip rear diff, which together produce a huge amount of grip.
?If you’re on a track you’ll find that, like most all-wheel-drive cars, it’s natural tendency is eventual understeer. But with the settings turned to Sport or, in particular, Track, the stability safeguards are dialed way back, so you can provoke it into neutrality or even tail-out. But?the road-holding is so good with the SRT, you have to be going very quick to reach those limits.?
On its Auto setting, the suspension returns to ?the stiff side of comfortable? as Kendall puts it, and though you’ll hear it at work over bigger pavement scars, the crucial thing is that it doesn’t transmit that to the cabin beyond twitching the steering-wheel. This insulatory quality to the damping heightens the upscale feel of the car’s cabin, above and beyond the plethora of gadgets such as a forward-collision warning system and the highly impressive 8.4-in screen satnav/radio/wifi control. With heated/ventilated leather/suede front seats, a complete absence of rattles and very low wind noise at speed, the Grand Cherokee SRT feels cohesive and complete as a luxury vehicle. Knowing you can also hit the right pedal and have huge speed and remarkable cornering ability more than doubles its appeal.
?I’m not surprised so much work went into it,? shrugs Kendall. ?SRT ” and Chrysler in general ” is populated by enthusiasts. That sounds like a given, but I assure you, it’s not! Whereas everyone who works for a motorcycle brand loves motorcycles, car companies aren’t necessarily a direct equivalent. But SRT is full of car lovers. And the Grand Cherokee may be the ultimate expression of that, because it checks so many boxes.?
RACER thanks Adam Matthews at Adams Motorsport Park, Riverside, Calif., for loan of the track.
This article is adapted from a feature appearing in the Fall issue of RACER magazine, on sale now. Click here to learn more about the Racing Business & Technology Issue
Click here for video of Tommy Kendall testing the limits of the SRT Grand Cherokee.
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