2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L First Drive Review: A three-row SUV worth the wait

Chris Davies - Jun 17, 2021, 9:00am CDT
2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L First Drive Review: A three-row SUV worth the wait

When you arrive late, you can either slink in through the back door, or make a dramatic entrance: Jeep chose the latter. The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L may be the first three-row of its lineage, but arrives to a crowded market of strong rivals. That it manages to stand out among that group is a testament to just how big an improvement this SUV is over its predecessors.

The three-row SUV space is big. Huge, in fact. Almost 75-percent of the full-size SUV segment is made up of six- or seven-seaters, and the fact that Jeep wasn’t competing there had become a liability.

It’s notable, then, that the all-new Grand Cherokee starts out with this three-row model. There’ll be a two-row version eventually, and indeed an electrified Grand Cherokee (also with two-rows), but Jeep is pulling out all the stops to court the audience that’s actually opening its wallet.

Pricing kicks off at $36,995 for the Laredo 4×2, with 4×4 a $2k upgrade on each trim. The Limited 4×2 is $43,995, the Overland 4×2 is $52,995, and the Summit 4×2 is $56,995. Jeep’s flagship 2021 Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve 4×2 starts at $61,995; expect to pay $1,695 destination on each.

There’s no mistaking it for anything other than a Jeep. From the seven-bar grille, to the high shoulder-line, to the short overhangs and rear-drive proportions, the Grand Cherokee L’s heritage is clear.

Familiarity, though, is no drawback here. I think the new Grand Cherokee L is very much color dependent: with some hues, the truncated grille segments look a little odd, but with its LED lighting front and rear and the optional blacked-out roof it’s distinctive and crisp among the big SUV competition. Lest you forget what it is, or where it’s made, Jeep makes sure to slap a big name-badge across the doors, and an American flag.

Pride in a good product, though, can’t be argued with. On that level, it’s tough to speak ill of this new Jeep. There are two engines, starting with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 on the Laredo, Limited, Overland, and Summit. It’s good for 293 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, rated for 6,200 pounds of towing, and is paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission as standard. 2WD models are rated for 19 mpg in the city, 26 mpg on the highway, and 21 combined; the 4WD version drops a point on the city and highway numbers, but keeps the same combined rating.

Optional on the Limited, Overland, and Summit 4×4 trims is a 5.7-liter V8. That bumps power to 357 hp and torque to 390 lb-ft, and nudges towing capacity to 7,200 pounds. It’s rated for 14 mpg city, 22 mpg highway, and 17 mpg combined.

There are three all-wheel drive configurations, too: Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II, and Quadra-Drive II. Quadra-Trac I has a single-speed active transfer case, and can push up to 100-percent of power to the front or rear axles. Quadra-Trac II adds a two-step active transfer case, has improved low-range performance, and is standard on the Overland. Finally, Quadra-Drive II has a two-speed active transfer case and rear electronic limited-slip differential: it’s optional on the Overland 4×4 with the Off-Road Group package, and standard on the Summit.

At the same time, there’s also Jeep Quadra-Lift air suspension, also standard on the Overland. That can adjust the ride height across 4.2 inches, including dipping the Grand Cherokee L down to make loading and unloading easier.

Jeep is, understandably, keen to prove its new model is no pretender when it comes to the rough stuff. The result was an off-road course tougher than any luxury SUV will ever face in typical use: jagged and haphazard rock piles, unruly log piles, and chassis-testing twist fields. As I crept adeptly through with the aid of spotters I concluded it was a textbook example of overkill – Jeep happily agrees that basically nobody will use those capabilities in practice – and evidence of just how useful the front-facing camera is, even if owners only ever use it to avoid parking lot curbs.

Happily the adventure abilities don’t impair how refined the big Jeep is on normal roads. I spent my time in the Overland mid-range trim, with the V8 engine option, and came away impressed with how refined the Grand Cherokee L feels.

It’s compliant but not squishy, partly down to Jeep’s efforts to keep curb weight about the same as the smaller outgoing model. That same stiffness that leaves the SUV so capable on the off-road course also leaves it stiff and reassuring on asphalt: there’s no body twist to unsettle or leave those in the third row feeling seasick.

With the V8’s 357 horses it’s fast but not especially sporting. The engine sounds distant and muffled; there’s none of the hearty grunt that eight cylinders typically aim for. Straight-line speed is ample and the refined tuning means there’s minimal body roll come the corners, but even in sport mode the Grand Cherokee L feels focused on comfort.

I suspect that’s the right decision on the part of Jeep’s designers. As, too, was their focus on the cabin: this interior feels a level above anything we’ve seen from the company in memory. Layout, trim choices, and technology all punch above their weight and, indeed, the Grand Cherokee L’s price tag.

For maximum-lavish you’ll want the Summit Reserve, which has double-diamond stitched leather, massage seats, waxed walnut wood accents, a 19-speaker McIntosh audio system, and heating/ventilation for both the first and second rows. Even the more attainable trims, though, feel considered and refined. Jeep’s 8.4 or 10.1-inch Uconnect 5 touchscreens are large and responsive, there’s real metal trim – albeit a little more hard plastic below the interior belt line – and the switchgear strikes a great balance between sturdy and special.

The new infotainment system is a nice improvement. Uconnect has been capable and fast for the last couple of generations, but a little overwhelming in its interface. For this fifth-gen version, Jeep revamped the graphics and made customization easier: you can drag shortcuts to the top bar for persistent access to things like the surround camera, rearrange the home screen with widgets to avoid so much menu-hopping, and wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto coexist more harmoniously with Uconnect 5 than is the case with most infotainment systems.

Alexa is built-in, and the center console screen plays nicely with the standard 10.3-inch digital cluster and optional 10-inch head-up display. You may have to spend a little time setting it all up initially, but the Grand Cherokee L supports multiple driver profiles for easy recall. Sadly there’s no profile sync across Jeep’s cloud, and while the redesigned owners app is faster and looks much improved, you can’t remotely configure the infotainment with it yet.

It’s not just glitter that Jeep gets right, though. The basics, like space and room for cargo, are pitch-perfect too. There are 6- and 7-seat configurations – the former with plush captain’s chairs in the second row – but even those relegated to the third row won’t be too disappointed. Jeep promised it was sized for adults and sure enough that’s the case: at 5’8 my knees weren’t around my chin and my head was still some way from the roof, and 6+ footers were similarly accommodated.

Getting in there, too, is straightforward with the tip-and-slide seats. The second and third rows will drop down, of course, including the second row center console in 6-seat versions, for a big, flat load floor. With all the seats up there’s 17.2 cu-ft to play with; that expands to 46.9 and 84.6 cu-ft as the two rows drop down.

For towing, the V6 is rated for up to 6,200 pounds, and the V8 up to 7,200 pounds. With a sizable boat hooked up to the back – and coming close to that maximum limit – it’s impressive just how little impact it has on the Grand Cherokee L’s acceleration, handling, or braking. Were it my boat I probably would’ve taken Jeep’s slalom a little more sensibly, which goes to show both the capability of the SUV and why you should never loan me your boat.

As for times when you don’t want to drive, there’s a slight stumble. Adaptive cruise is standard, along with lane management, front and rear parking alerts, blind spot warnings, rear cross path alerts, and forward collision warnings with auto-brake, and you can add on night vision and a 360-degree camera. Jeep’s Hands Free Active Drive Assist, though, won’t be ready until after the Grand Cherokee L is in dealerships, and while the SUV supports over-the-air software updates you won’t be able to retroactively add that feature to models without it. If you want the ability to drive on highways without your hands on the wheel, you may want to wait a little longer.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Verdict

Patience in that situation, though, may be tough to muster. Jeep’s first three-row SUV is mighty appealing, not least because it keeps the automaker’s personality while not forcing you to compromise on comfort and day-to-day usability simply so that you can also boast about your off-road capabilities. Where the third-row seating in some rivals can feel like an afterthought, the Grand Cherokee L embraces a family by avoiding the “but why do I have to sit back there?” squabbles.

It’s a shame that Jeep has no plans to make a three-row electrified version, at least at this stage, and the delay in hands-free driver-assistance is frustrating. All the same, there’s much more to like about the 2021 Grand Cherokee L than there is to complain about. Distinctive styling, a flexible and nicely designed cabin, and unarguable off-road credibility help warrant the “Grand” in its name.


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