Seventeen years ago, the auto industry was on the cusp of the hybrid powertrain era. Honda was first, with the tiny two-seat Insight, followed quickly by the Toyota Prius.
Both cars featured very nontraditional styling yet each packed a revolutionary battery pack/gas engine combination meant to exact greater fuel economy for buyers. There was an additional cost for this technology — still is — so buyers had to weigh the probability for a reasonable return on their investment or else their fuel economy savings would be consumed by the higher initial price. Early adopters aside, the technology advocates who purchased these vehicles despite any perceived shortcomings, it appears for all intents and purposes that the hybrid powertrain is a viable alternative for our transportation fleet and is here to stay.
Are we now on the verge of our second powertrain option that will sway the marketplace? If the latest exposures are any indication, we are, and this technology will make just as significant an impact in the marketplace — in ways that are not yet evident.
We are talking about diesel-powered cars and trucks for consumers. Diesel, you know, the first internal combustion fuel, before gasoline. Diesel, the fuel that powers America’s heavy equipment, large trucks, locomotive engines, as well as much of the world’s other vehicles, is making serious inroads in all segments of the market. From compact cars to crossovers and pickup trucks, we are going to start seeing more diesel engine options for our personal vehicles.
Why you ask? Diesel has more energy BTUs than gasoline or natural gas motors, so it can produce more power per gallon of fuel. Diesel is readily available across much of the country, plus the latest clean-diesel engines are 50-state certified to meet all emissions standards — and in some cases — even beat gasoline engines for clean running. Lastly, today’s diesel engines use small twin scroll turbochargers, and even multiple turbochargers, to accomplish impressive torque ratings that produce the added power for acceleration with heavy loads as well as strong tow ratings. With low revolution compression inline four, V-6 and V-8 engines working slowly, these motors also consumer less fuel than their similarly sized gasoline counterparts — as much as 40 percent less.
Under these paradigms, Jeep has reintroduced its Grand Cherokee Eco-Diesel. Where the first Grand Cherokee diesel (2008) was a joint effort from Mercedes-Benz when Daimler owned both Chrysler and Mercedes, this current 3.0-liter turbo-diesel is a result of the collaboration between new owner Fiat and Chrysler. This motor also will appear in the Ram 1500-series pickup, the first light duty pickup in America with a diesel engine.
But why the Grand Cherokee you ask? Chrysler has strategically positioned the midsize Grand Cherokee as both an entry-level five-passenger wagon for mainstream American drivers, as well as a premium crossover that can really compete with the BMW X5, Mercedes ML-series, plus the Porsche Cayenne/VW Touareg as well as the Land Rover Range Rover. While that may seem like a big leap, stretching from a $29,000 starting price for rear drive models, up to the latest Overland trimmed ($54,780) wagon featuring the same lavish features as the more expensive big boys — for thousands less — the Grand Cherokee carries it off with aplomb.
Jeep sold over 174,000 Grand Cherokees last year, many of them the high-end trim editions for premium dollars. The long-running top selling premium SUV/Crossover has been the Lexus RX — which also does some class stretching with entry level front-drive models posting Toyota-like starting prices. Lexus sold almost 104,000 RX wagons last year; add the BMW X5 and the Mercedes ML sales and you barely eclipse the total of the Grand Cherokee — just for a little perspective.
But adding the Eco-diesel does more than complement the other three Grand Cherokee powertrains — the stellar 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6, the Hemi V-8, plus the SRT-Hemi V-8. The Eco-diesel V-6 will help the Grand Cherokee reach ever more restrictive fuel economy standards — a tough nut to accomplish in a vehicle that weighs over 5,200 pounds.
Jeep accomplishes a huge gain in fuel economy ratings with the Eco-diesel because of the engine’s vaunted torque rating — as much as the much-larger Hemi V-8 — but by also adding a high-output version of the credible ZF 8-speed automatic transmission now popular in the auto industry. Eight separate gears let the diesel remain in its operating sweet spot; low revolutions keep the Eco-diesel at or under its torque output peak of 2,000 rpms. For gas engines, this is where their torque curve generally starts.
So what are the numbers? A gas-engined Grand Cherokee with the 290-hp V-6 engine earns EPA fuel economy estimates of 17/24-mpg with the new eight-speed automatic. Our Overland trimmed GC, all of the bells and whistles, the best four-wheel drive system, all of the power systems, the big sunroof, and plush heated leather seating all around, gets an EPA rating of 21/28 mpg with a combined number of 24 mpg. Our Steel Metallic GC was practically brand new and got to drive around Maine, and to Massachusetts, during the throes of winter with slimy roads and low temperatures and returned a 1,200-mile average of 25.3 mpg. This mileage is close to our recent VW Touareg TDI.
My last GC review with the new V-6 gas engine, also in winter, returned only 19.5 mpg.
On one 78-mile stretch — from Augusta to Ellsworth via Belfast — the GC’s trip computer indicated 32.0 mpg, and we didn’t spare the horses in the name of efficiency either. Given the constant variance between actual and calculated fuel economy, (on all vehicles) this trip would have accurately returned 30-plus mpg if not for the other urban driving mixed into this tank of fuel. That feels real.
On the highway early one Saturday morning running hard to a rendezvous in Massachusetts, the Grand Cherokee Eco-diesel flies with vigor. It is quiet and so smooth, the eight-speed automatic never shifting out of top gear for hills, passing trucks, or even pushing the envelope on time. The diesel engine is only audible on start-up, when it’s cold, something you can avoid by using your remote starter, which is so smart it automatically knows when to use the glow plugs. Other than that, you never know you are piloting a diesel.
Throttle response is stellar. A gentle push on the right pedal and the GC surges ahead. No roar, no drama, just a powerful push in your back as the turbo-diesel’s 420 pound/feet of peak torque arrive on the scene.
Of course, the Overland trim brings a lot of features to the table too. Heated steering wheel, dual-stage heated seats with cooling, selectable Quadra Drive II four-wheel drive, ride height adjustments, laser-guided cruise control, auto-dimming headlamps, navigation, blind spot detection, 506-watt stereo with Sirius HD radio, power tilt and telescoping wood and leather steering column, power liftgate, forward collision warning system (works good too) plus a whole lot more make this a very nice alternative to your typical BMW, Mercedes or Land Rover selection.
The Eco-Diesel engine adds $4,500 to the Grand Cherokee’s $46,195 Overland base price. A larger battery, larger disc brakes, plus an integrated DEF fluid tank are included. The GC Eco-Diesel has the same tow rating as the Hemi-powered Grand Cherokee — 7,200 pounds.
Is this the new standard for a premium crossover? The size, the performance portfolio, the features available, the powertrains now accessible — all for prices that are significantly below the more established competition. Why, this is 95 percent of a Land Rover for 60 percent of the price.
The Grand Cherokee has won the New England Motor Press Association’s Winter Vehicle Award three straight years. This Eco-Diesel model with the new eight-speed automatic could very easily make that honor a fourth time in a row for Jeep.