I have been a loyal Jeep customer for several years now; I bought my current vehicle, a 2001 Cherokee, about a decade ago and it has been a great experience. Now – I’ll be honest; I’m a car geek. I read all the major auto magazines and I’m crazy about horsepower and Italian design and crazy fast skid pad tests. But, I bought my 2001 Cherokee because it’s most important to me to never be stuck. It’s not a fancy car and there are few bells and whistles; but it has a five speed standard transmission with an old-school, well proven four-wheel drive system that will barrel through just about anything. Ten years with that vehicle and you can imagine that the Jeep brand, to me, is rugged, reliable and low key in the gadgets and design departments.
Well, the time has come to upgrade, no matter how much I tell myself I’m being “frugal,” my friends have reminded me that there are other words for it. I spent much of this weekend comparison shopping for Jeep vehicles. I have to say that the Jeep brand has changed dramatically since my 2001 Cherokee.
The Patriot / Compass – I looked very briefly at these vehicles, more out of curiosity than anything else. I have read a lot about Jeep’s venture into the “Cute-Ute” segment. These car-based vehicles provide some all-wheel drive ability, but nothing more than you would get out of an all-wheel drive mini-van. They’re both based on the compact Dodge Caliber, and radiate as much enthusiasm for the trail as a wet cat on a cold day. Glancing inside confirmed what I had read and saw in the magazines; ho-hum styling and a plastic-y, cheap feeling cabin. I didn’t even bother to test drive, and honestly, I was glancing over my shoulder the entire time to make sure nobody saw me looking at these vehicles.
The Wrangler – This is the tried and true, closest-to-the-original Jeep out there. I was definitely caught up in a whirlwind of lust with a neon/lime green 2013 model that greeted me in the lobby of the dealership. Wranglers now come in two and four door models, and I think Jeep has the idea that the four door model will appeal to former Cherokee owners – a job that the very capable Liberty never quite accomplished (my theory on this is that the first generation Liberty had such a bubbly look to it that traditional Jeep enthusiasts were turned off). I’ve spent some time in the new Wranglers and they are a lot more refined than previous generations. Still, the wind noise, rugged ride, relatively small cargo area and tall step-in height make it just a little to impractical to be my only car. Plus, I don’t do a lot of driving, but I do make quite a few trips up to Tahoe and the Wrangler is not the best vehicle for long freeway driving.
The Liberty – This vehicle is handsomely styled, very capable and has a good collection of features and functionality. And it has been discontinued for 2013. I believe Jeep is moving to a cross-over vehicle to replace it, and they will let the Liberty name go for 2014. There were a couple of 2012 models on the lot and they offer great value for the price, but they were just a little smaller than what I was looking for.
The Grand Cherokee – I have read a lot about the new Grand Cherokee, and I’ve always liked the lines of the vehicle. Automobile Magazine’s long term test article is probably the best out there for a full description of what life is like with this vehicle. I test drove three this weekend – two with the new 3.6 liter Pentastar v-six cylinder engine and one with the Hemi v-eight cylinder engine. I also test drove two of the different four wheel drive systems. Both the six and the eight had great road manners – they still felt like a “Jeep” and not a sports car, but that was actually re-assuring to me; it telegraphed to me that I could expect the same “go-anywhere-never-get-stuck-ness” that I got out of my 2001 Cherokee. Between the two engines, the six cylinder actually ends up being a little smoother overall; it doesn’t have quite the “grunt” that the eight cylinder has, but with about 100 more horsepower than my 2001 Cherokee, it was more than capable. But beyond the driving experience, I was overwhelmed by the technology in these vehicles. I am a gadget guy, but I’ve been driving a vehicle that still has a tape deck. The Jeep’s navigation, onboard computers, instrument cluster, Bluetooth system and entertainment systems are unbelievable. It is like the best smart phone you can imagine combined with your dashboard. Awesome.
So – has the Jeep brand changed a little? Yes. I think rugged and independent will always be two attributes that apply to the brand (with the possible exception of the Patriot/Compass line). But, I think comfort and technology need to be married into the brand as well. Nicely done, Jeep.