2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L first drive review: What the L?


The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of the most popular SUVs available today, and for good reason. Not only does it look great, this rugged vehicle provides immense off-road capability, a coddling cabin and plenty of refinement. Accordingly, whenever Jeep redesigns this mountain goat, it’s big news. And for 2021, that’s especially true, since the newly minted Grand Cherokee L is pumped up in stature and now comes with a standard third-row seat.

The addition of that new bench allows the Grand Cherokee L to seat up to seven people (a six-passenger configuration is offered, too), greatly increasing its versatility. And this third row isn’t just some kids-only zone — life-sized adults fit with plenty of space for knees and noggins, and the bottom cushion is a decent height above the floor. Of course, the second-row chairs are even nicer to plunk your backside down on and the outboard ones tip up and slide for easier access to those rearmost seats.

To accommodate a third row, the L is 15.1 inches longer than the outgoing standard Grand Cherokee and the wheelbase has been stretched by 7 inches, alterations that contribute to the vehicle’s longroof look. Naturally, if you don’t need extra seats or prefer a more manageable vehicle, Jeep will offer a traditional two-row version, but it won’t arrive until later this year.

It’s debatable whether the new Grand Cherokee L is more attractive than its predecessor. The L’s gaping lower air intake and curiously angled grille look strange, especially on a body that’s otherwise cleanly styled and handsome. Matching those fresh looks, the 2021 Grand Cherokee L is built on a new flexible architecture, a unibody structure comprised of more than 60% high-strength steel, which gives this off-roader an almost unyielding backbone. To reduce weight, the vehicle’s closures, like the hood and liftgate, are made of aluminum.

I’m not totally sold on the Grand Cherokee L’s exterior styling, but designers knocked it out of the park with this Jeep’s interior. The layout, materials, comfort and tech are all primo. The range-topping Summit model comes with lovely Nappa leather or super-premium Palermo cow hides if you nab the Summit Reserve package. You can also get beautiful open-pore wood accents and even Berber floor mats. A familiar rotary shifter is standard equipment, though its metal construction and artfully milled edges make this dial feel like a piece of jewelry. A suede-like headliner is offered, too, as is a 19-speaker McIntosh audio system. In higher-end models, this Jeep’s interior is luxury-car nice, enough to give vehicles like the Acura MDX and Lincoln Aviator a run for their money.

This interior rivals those of some luxury cars.

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The Grand Cherokee L’s symmetrical dashboard arcs from door to door, bringing to mind a bird’s outstretched wings. In the middle is either an 8.4- or 10.1-inch touchscreen, both of which are home to the Android-powered Uconnect 5 infotainment system. With pretty graphics and loads of functionality, this multimedia array is easy to use and supposedly five times faster than its predecessor. A 10.3-inch digital instrument cluster is bundled at no extra charge and you can even get night vision.

Standard safety tech includes automatic emergency braking, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability. Active Driving Assist, basically adaptive cruise with lane centering, is available on Overland models and standard on the Summit trim. This hands-on system works phenomenally, keeping the Jeep locked in its lane and adeptly varying speed based on traffic conditions. Capacitive sensors in the steering-wheel rim know if you’ve got a hand on the wheel or not, popping up an orange warning in the instrument cluster if you don’t have at least a couple fingers making contact. Taking things a step further, Hands-Free Active Driving Assist will be offered in the 2022 model year. This should function like GM’s excellent Super Cruise system, providing hands-free convenience on approved motorways.

Along with a two-row variant, an electrified version of the Grand Cherokee is under development, too. But for now, the Grand Cherokee L is offered with two friendly and familiar engines. If you’re well-versed in the Stellantis powertrain lineup, nothing here will surprise you. The base offering is a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. It delivers a respectable 293 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque, enough pork and beans to allow this SUV to tow up to 6,200 pounds. As smooth and quiet as ever, this bent-six provides enough oomph for most customers in normal diving, even if it doesn’t make the Grand Cherokee L feel particularly vigorous.

Both a 3.6-liter V6 and 5.7-liter V8 are offered.

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Of course, if you need more gusto, a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 is on the menu, too. Smooth, spirited and supremely sonorous, it provides a 357-horse stampede and 390 lb-ft of twist, enough for this SUV to drag 7,200 pounds. If you don’t mind the added cost — both up front and at the gas pump — this is the powerplant to get.

Rounding out the Grand Cherokee L’s drivetrain is a standard eight-speed automatic transmission. Engineers have years of experience with this gearbox and its tuning is just about perfect. The transmission shifts quickly and seamlessly, plus it’s more than willing to drop a few gears when you need to boogie. Torque gets routed through this cog-swapper to either the rear wheels or one of three different four-wheel-drive systems.

A V6-powered Grand Cherokee L with rear-wheel drive is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city and 26 mpg highway. Combined, expect 21 mpg. Opting for four-wheel drive reduces the first two figures by 1 mpg each, though the combined rating is unchanged. Hemi-powered Grand Cherokees, which come standard with four-wheel drive, are rated at 14 mpg city, 22 highway and 17 mpg combined.

Uconnect 5 looks great on the optional 10.1-inch touchscreen.

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This Jeep’s on-road performance is admirable. Acceleration is brisk, especially with the Hemi. And thanks to a range of NVH improvements — things like acoustic glass, special door seals and enhanced active noise cancellation — the Grand Cherokee L’s interior is always serene. The available air suspension enhances dynamics and improves off-road performance by allowing the body to be raised several inches. The vehicle’s ride quality is soft, even when fitted with 21-inch clodhoppers that come in the $3,000 Summit Reserve Group options package, yet body roll is minimal when pushed through corners. The steering is light but reasonably precise, which makes the Grand Cherokee L feel smaller than it actually is.

Off road, this three-row SUV is a Jeep through and through, an incredibly capable mountain goat despite its bulky dimensions. Properly equipped models have up to 10.9 inches of ground clearance and can drive through an impressive 24 inches of water. This SUV’s off-road geometry is praiseworthy, too. Speaking in maximum figures, the approach angle is 30.1 degrees, breakover angle 22.6 and its departure measurement clocks in at 23.6 degrees.

Of the three available four-wheel-drive systems, Quadra-Drive II is the most advanced. It includes a two-speed transfer case and an electronically locking rear differential. If slippage is detected, this system can automatically redistribute torque to the wheels with more traction. Quadra-Drive II is available on Overland models and standard on the Summit trim.

Yep, it’s a Jeep alright.

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Crashing over rocks on a particularly gnarly section of off-road course at Stellantis’ Chelsea, Michigan proving ground makes me appreciate the available high-strength steel skid plates, which shield delicate underbody componentry from rough terrain. Bashing into and scraping along boulders causes me to wince in pain, though the spotters never bat an eye and neither does the Grand Cherokee L. Helping tailor this SUV’s behavior to various conditions, the Selec-Terrain traction-management system has five modes: auto, sport, rock, snow and mud/sand. Hill-descent control automatically checks the Grand Cherokee L’s speed, even in reverse.

The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L is assembled in Detroit and goes on sale this month. It will be offered in four trim levels: Laredo, Limited, Overland and Summit. Of course, that’s just the start until there’s a Trackhawk model or a plug-in hybrid variant or whatever else Jeep’s engineers may be cooking up.

An entry-level, rear-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee L starts at $38,690 including $1,695 in delivery fees. Opt for four-wheel drive and you’ll be spending an additional $2,000. My V6-powered Summit tester checks out for a hefty $66,275, a figure padded by the $1,995 Advanced ProTech Group, the $245 Luxury Tech Group, a shimmering Diamond Black Crystal Pearl-Coat paint job for $345 and, of course, the pricey Summit Reserve package. That’s a lot of hard-earned scratch to spend, but thanks to the Grand Cherokee L’s refinement, capability and sumptuous interior, that figure is not unreasonable, especially compared to some of its luxury competition.