Jeep’s overdue three-row return
THE GOOD
  • Handsome styling
  • Impressive off road
  • Strong towing capability
THE BAD
  • Costly options and trims
  • V6 feels weak
  • Cheap interior bits

Overshadowed by the upcoming range-topping Wagoneer, the new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L makes the brand’s return to the three-row SUV segment in more than a decade.

Given the immense popularity of sport utilities of all sizes, it’s something of a surprise that it’s taken Jeep so long to launch a larger model. This extended version of the Grand Cherokee certainly holds a lot of promise, but buyer beware: spec yours carefully or risk an eye-watering price of admission.

Power: 6/10

The standard engine in the Grand Cherokee L is the brand’s venerable 3.6L V6 – claimed to be Canada’s best-selling engine, if only because Jeep, Ram, Dodge, and Chrysler stuff it into darn near every product in their respective lineups. It’s a solid mill that’s been around a while and has been lauded for its combination of decent power, smoothness, and efficiency. Its 290 hp is respectable, but those who’ve grown accustomed to the abundance of low-rev grunt afforded by turbocharging will find the Jeep’s 257 lb-ft of torque soft, especially when propelling this 2,252-kg (4,965-lb) three-row. For what it’s worth, each of this Jeep’s primary competitors offer more standard output, with some trumping it by a very significant margin.

Most of those competitors also offer nine- and 10-speed automatics compared to Jeep’s eight-speed automatic. Like the engine, this transmission has been around a while and has proven to be a decent companion to the 3.6L in most applications. But here – possibly to cope with the L’s greater mass; or possibly because this was a pre-production unit being tested – it tended to drop several gears with even modest throttle application, causing a startling amount of revs and accompanying engine noise when only moderate thrust was called for. Beyond those bizarre occurrences, overall shift quality was smooth.

For Grand Cherokee L Overland and Summit models, Jeep also offers an optional 5.7L V8 that ups the output to 357 hp and torque to 390 lb-ft, which should quell any complaints – although a Lincoln Aviator powered by its twin-turbo V6 dispenses even more output for similar money.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

Rated at 13.0 L/100 km city, 9.4 highway, and 11.3 combined, the V6’s consumption rates are mid-pack within its three-row class, and are virtually the same as the smaller, lighter Grand Cherokee, suggesting the new design with its active shutter grille helps aerodynamics at speed. The V8 is, of course, thirstier, though much like the V6 it runs on regular-grade gasoline.

Practicality: 9/10

Passenger space for all three rows is quite good within the class, and the uncommonly boxy profile equates to ample head room and excellent outward visibility all around. The third row will only accommodate two passengers, and while cabin width and headroom are decent, legroom is doubly snug due to the fact that there’s little space to put one’s feet. Accessing the third row is easy thanks to a second row that folds and slides well forward, leaving a sizeable opening to crawl through. Cargo space is competitive, too, with a decent 487 L available behind the third row that’s better than many premium machines this size, although it falls short of most mainstream offerings like it.

The Overland trim tested proudly wore its “Trail Rated” badge on its front fenders, and its air suspension allows ride height to be raised for off-road duty, with better ground clearance than any of its competitors. It’ll even ford water as deep as 610 mm (24 in) or so. Your humble author tackled a trail that would stymie most of the current crop of SUVs like this during testing, but the Jeep didn’t even break a sweat.

Should you have eyes on towing, the Grand Cherokee L is rated to pull 2,812 kg (6,200 lb) with its V6 and standard tow package, but the V8 version bests all like it with a 3,266-kg (7,200-lb) tow rating.

Driving Feel: 7/10

Whereas many makers seem to be building their SUVs to drive like top-heavy, tightly sprung sport wagons, Jeep has taken a different approach and sought a luxurious ride for the Grand Cherokee L. It still manages to keep its cool when driven sensibly, even around curves, but there’s a softness to the suspension that emphasizes the Jeep’s mass, and it suits this machine just fine. Braking power is strong, although the pedal feel of my tester was non-linear and a bit grabby at low speeds.

Comfort: 9/10

Jeep’s air suspension works brilliantly here to absorb nearly any bump or pothole a frost-heaved Canadian road can throw at it, and with my tester wearing the off-road package 18-inch wheels and tires (instead of the standard 20-inch rollers) there’s extra cushioning from the tall tire profile. Add to the supple ride the acoustic front and side glass, plenty of sound insulation, and the optional 19-speaker sound system, and suddenly driving around just to listen to your favourite tunes becomes an enticing pastime.

The seats, covered in Nappa leather, are heated in the first two rows, while the fronts are also ventilated. With the optional massage feature, they proved to be exceptionally comfy, even after a few hours on the road (and trail).

Features: 9/10

Optioned up as my tester was, the Grand Cherokee L rivals some truly premium machines in terms of its feature count. Four-zone climate control, head-up display, night vision display, and a panoramic sunroof are all present. But Jeep’s engineers used cameras to great effect around – and inside – this three-row. Beyond the 360-degree views afforded, there’s also a trailer hitch zoom perspective, and a ceiling-mounted camera that can show front-seat occupants what the rear-seat passengers are up to. The back-up camera even has its own washer nozzle.

Safety: 9/10

It’s also chock-full of safety features, including the usual assortment of airbags, but also plenty of active safety functions with adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automated emergency braking, and lane-keeping. Beyond that are parking sensors to help prevent low-speed incidents. Impressively, Jeep has made all of the active safety features (except for the surround-view cameras and night vision) standard equipment even on the entry-level Laredo trim.

Neither the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the not-for-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) had published safety ratings for this new model at the time of writing.

User Friendliness: 8/10

Jeep has done a good job in the past keeping its controls and infotainment system operation simple. For the most part, this new Jeep carries on with that tradition; however, the optional 10.1-inch touchscreen system here often lagged in its response to inputs. There’s a wireless charge pad, onboard Wi-Fi hotspot, plus Android Auto and Apple CarPlay with wireless connectivity. Steering wheel controls are intuitive, and I’m always happy to see proper volume and tuning knobs, both of which are here along with actual buttons for climate control and seat heating – something Jeep hasn’t always done.

Styling: 8/10

Overall, there’s little to criticize with the Grand Cherokee L’s dash and control layout from a functional standpoint, and its interior looks good, too. The large dash screen dominates the design, as is typical these days, but the look is contemporary and upscale. However, for such a premium machine, some of the materials – like the expanse of shiny plastic on the lower dash, and the fake wood trim – don’t live up to expectations at this price point.

The Grand Cherokee L’s exterior drew mixed responses from onlookers. Some didn’t care for the new nose treatment with its slightly canted-forward and squat Jeep-specific seven-slot grille, but I think it looks great. There’s no question it’s a Jeep, that’s for sure. The side profile is certainly boxier and longer than the Grand Cherokee, but it seems an appropriate middle child between that model and the larger Wagoneer that’s on its way.

Value: 7/10

Starting at a little more than $52,000 before freight and taxes for a Laredo trim, the least-expensive Grand Cherokee L is a well-equipped value-leader for those willing to forgo much of the fancy-pants trappings of the higher trims. With a starting price of nearly $70,000, my mid-trim Overland was optioned up to more than $80,000 once destination fees were factored in, and there’s both Summit and Summit Reserve trims that can push the cost to $90,000.

Those are big bucks, and while the Grand Cherokee has always straddled an interesting part of the segment offering enough cachet for country club acceptance, yet also the off-road credibility to be at home on the trails, there’s no shortage of very impressive competitors in both the mainstream and premium segments.

The Verdict

Jeep has loaded up the Grand Cherokee L with lots of features and an abundance of technology, creating a spacious, practical, and comfortable SUV. The brand and style hold enough cachet to tangle with the likes of the Lincoln Aviator, Acura MDX, and Buick Enclave, but none of those machines provide the off-road capability of this Jeep, giving the Grand Cherokee L a unique positioning within the three-row SUV segment.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 3.6L   Model Tested 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland
Engine Cylinders V6   Base Price $68,995
Peak Horsepower 293 hp @ 6,400 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 260 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm   Destination Fee $1,995
Fuel Economy 13.0 / 9.4 / 11.3 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $80,265
Cargo Space 487 / 1,328 / 2,396 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row  
Optional Equipment
$9,175 – Luxury Tech Group IV, $1,995; Advanced Protech Group II, $3,595; Off-Road Group II, $1,095; Uconnect 5 Nav, $2,195; Velvet Red Pearl Paint, $295