Unbridled steed: 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT

Farm Forum

Ask someone to describe a “sport utility vehicle” and the verbal picture they paint will most likely be a boxy vehicle, in a woodsy location. Jeep has been knee-deep in this market for decades, and most of the brand’s lineup fills that bill. But, there’s another side to this segment: SUVs packing high performance.

Though they, too, are boxy like their backwoods brethren, these SUVs are far more comfortable at the drag strip than at a trail head. Hot-rod SUVs are “halo vehicles,” low in production, high in profile. Recently, I drove Jeep’s latest addition to this class-the 2014 Grand Cherokee SRT, which comes in around $60,000.

This model was formerly known as the SRT8. If you’re wondering where the 8 went, we found it-in the underbelly. The outgoing model’s dated, 5-speed transmission has been replaced by a new, 8-speed unit. The addition of three cogs to the Jeep’s transmission pays wide ranging dividends. The electronic, 8HP70 transmission is fully electronic, with on-the-fly shift mapping. The transmission evaluates your current driving, then selects from a menu of over 90 shift maps to create a shifting strategy to driver needs-whether that’s enhanced performance, or better mileage.

It’s linked to a powerhouse Hemi engine, which is a carryover from the 2013 edition. The 6.4-liter V-8 has an output of 470 horsepower and 465 lb.-ft. of torque. With eight gears to spread across, the Hemi has a broad power band, responsive at any speed. The transmission program includes rev-matching downshifts to smooth the cog-to-cog transitions, and there’s an onboard Launch Control function, if your travel plans happen to include a local drag strip.

Launch Control optimizes powertrain and electronic traction aids to allow quicker, more consistent times. Grand Cherokee SRT’s sub 5.0-second 0-to-60 mph capability is plenty quick, for a 2.5 ton SUV. Regardless of speed, the engine’s exhaust note is a constant companion, from idle to pedal-to-the-metal sprints. Another benefit of the new 8-speed transmission is added towing capacity. Combined with a strengthened rear differential, SRT when equipped with the Trailer Tow Group ($995), can tow as much as 7,200 pounds-a 44 percent improvement over the previous model.

Not surprisingly, owners pay for this power at the pump. The transmission’s ECO mode adjusts transmission mapping and can also deactivate four cylinders (when not needed), to conserve fuel. Nonetheless, the EPA estimates the Grand Cherokee SRT will return 13 miles per gallon city and 19 mpg highway. Overall, my fuel economy averaged 14 mpg.

It’s never fun to shell out for gas, but this is less likely to be an issue here than in other segments. After all, buyers of specialized performance vehicles like the Grand Cherokee SRT tend to be far more concerned with performance than the pump.

Past generations of SRT-tuned Jeeps felt uncomfortably tall in the saddle when cornering at speed. With a lowered ride height and a heightened attention to suspension tuning, the latest edition feels far more planted. Handling grip now belies its size-and could embarrass a number of smaller automobiles. Ride quality is judged to be comfortable, though the roads where my test took place were quite smooth.

Unlike most vehicles with this kind of performance, the Grand Cherokee SRT is four-season friendly. My tester was equipped with Jeep’s Quadra-Trac, on-demand All Wheel Drive system. A center console knob allows the driver to select from five dynamic modes. “Auto” mode apportions torque 40 percent front, 60 percent rear. “Sport” mode splits the power 35/65, front/back, while “Track” mode takes it one step further, at 30/70. Finally, “Snow or Tow” each go 50/50. Though my drive was far removed from the snow season, with a simple change to tires with an all-season tread, Jeep’s SRT would be on firm footing to deal with slick road conditions.

The interior combines the upscale practicality of a Grand Cherokee with some SRT-specific touches. The leather-wrapped instrument panel and center armrest lend a luxury feel. SRT will hold 6 footers in both rows, and cargo capacity ranges from 35 to 69 cubic feet. Rear visibility is better than many SUVs, as the rear headrests will bow forward when the seats aren’t in use.

For 2014, SRT gets a

Uconnect touchscreen, with 8.4-inch display. The list of standard, safety and convenience features includes Forward Collision Warning, a front/rear park assist system, blind spot and rear cross path detection, and a rear backup camera.

The new Grand Cherokee SRT earns high marks for high performance and high tech. But, it’s also versatile enough for everyday use, all year round-something that can’t be said for many vehicles harnessing this much horsepower.