2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4X4 — Even better

But its reputation for handling on the highway has not been the best. DaimlerChrysler has fixed that with the redesign of its Grand Cherokee for the 2005 model year.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that my mother is a proud Grand Cherokee owner of several years. I've driven her vehicle enough to make some comparisons with the new model.

The ride on the older Grand Cherokee isn't bad. But the handling and response of the new Laredo version we tried was more carlike, despite the size of this vehicle. Turning radius is tight; the Jeep stays relatively flat through corners, and driving just seemed smoother.

The Grand Cherokee is also surprisingly quiet despite large outside rearview mirrors, which have a reputation for producing a lot of wind noise. And visibility out the sides and back is excellent.

One reason the new Grand Cherokee rides differently is its redesigned suspension, a longer wheelbase (by 4 in.), and 2.5-in. wider track. The vehicle still employs a unibody chassis but replaces the old front solid axle with an independent axle sprung on upper and lower control arms, said to give 8% better wheel travel. The solid axle in the rear uses a five-link suspension, which is a revision of the earlier setup.

The test vehicle carried a 3.7-liter V6 (which also comes in the Jeep Liberty and Dodge Ram) and a five-speed automatic tranny that incorporates a manual shifting gate. You are not going to burn up the drag strip with this 210-hp powerplant,but acceleration into traffic seemed OK, as was performance at cruising speed. Buyers whose lifestyles include a lot of towing or heavy work, though, may be more interested in the optional 4.7-liter V8 or 5.7-liter V8 Hemi.

The Laredo 4X4 version we tried carried standard features that include air conditioning, 17-in. tires and wheels, an eight-way power driver's seat, radio/CD changer, a driver info center, 60/40 split folding rear seat, and remote keyless entry. The AWD package for V6-powered Jeeps is the Quadra-Track I, which is in operation full time. That means no driver controls for low range or high range. Electric clutches in the center differential distribute torque to the four tires for best traction. But the Quadra-Track II system, optional for V8-powered models, has a two-speed manual transfer case and a locking low range. This might be a better way to go for serious off-roaders. There is a third system called the QuadraDrive II that combines the two-speed transfer case with electronic limited-slip differentials.

The Grand Cherokee also underwent a big change in the passenger compartment. Older models sported interior surfaces and upholstery that was quite dark. The new design, in contrast, is decked out in two tones of much lighter colors. It is more contemporary looking, thanks partly to texturing on plastic dash parts and some nice trim. Most operator controls are via knobs rather than pushbuttons, a feature we liked. The cloth seats were comfortable and there is plenty of headroom. Legroom for backseat passengers has improved as well.

We had only a couple of gripes. The plastic steering wheel is finger-numbing cold on frosty mornings. For buyers in northern climates we'd suggest either the interior package that includes a leather-wrapped steering wheel or an aftermarket wheel cover. And my big feet would sometimes hit underdash components when using the brake.

The base price of the V6-equipped Laredo is $28,100. Our test vehicle carried a $1,580 upgrade package that included such features as an auto-dimming rearview mirror, power front seats, fog lamps, security alarm, a premium audio system, automatic on/off headlamps, and heated foldaway outside mirrors. The adjustable roof rail crossbars, which looked like they could be handy, added $125. And supplemental side curtain air bags front and back came for an additional $645. The total with a destination charge came to $31,090.

Finally, it is worth noting that the NHTSA gives the Grand Cherokee high marks for rollover resistance. Our experience is in sync with the regulators on this point. The Grand Cherokee did not feel the least bit top heavy or tippy.

— Lee Teschler