Road test: 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8

Outrageous, inappropriate, macho, muscular, over the top, addictive, stupid — these are just a sampling of the words I’m juggling to find the most fitting description for the Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.

Seldom in three decades of testing and reviewing have I been more conflicted about a vehicle, one that amazes with performance capabilities engineered into it far beyond what a sport-utility vehicle should drive and handle like yet one that also has me wondering at the sense of it all. The Grand Cherokee SRT8 is both the über Jeep and the antithesis of everything for which the storied brand stands.

Essentially, Chrysler Group’s Street and Racing Technology (SRT) division has taken Jeep’s proven mid-sized Grand Cherokee, a popular- selling SUV, and given it the full hot rod treatment, much as it has with the Chrysler 300, Dodge Challenger and Dodge Charger (all, unlike the Jeep, with legitimate historical performance bona fides).

Let’s start with the basics: At the heart of this transformation is the new 6.4-litre Hemi V8 with Fuel Saver Technology (insert snort of disbelief here) that pounds out a robust 470 horsepower and 465 pound-feet of torque — an improvement of 50 hp and 45 lb-ft of torque over the 6.1L Hemi V8 it replaces. Mate said Hemi to a five-speed manumatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters and an on-demand four-wheel-drive system.

Then there’s the SRT-tuned adaptive damping suspension managed by a new Selec-Track system, which interacts with multiple systems (stability control, adaptive damping, transmission shift strategy, transfer case torque proportioning, electronic limited slip differential performance, throttle control and cylinder de-activation) to automatically “tune” the Grand Cherokee’s driving dynamics. Among the five dynamic modes that can be driver selected for specific conditions is Track, the most extreme high-performance suspension option, which switches off the traction control system and “locks down body motion for the ultimate handling experience,” according to Chrysler. Assisting in the handling duties is a set of very wide, very grippy P295/45ZR20 Pirelli Scorpion Verde all-season run-flat tires.

The Jeep’s stopping ability is handled by red-painted Brembo six-piston calipers on 15-inch vented rotors up front; four-piston calipers on 13.8-inch vented rotors at the rear.

The end result: a 2,336-kilogram SUV that accelerates to 100 kilometres an hour in 5.4 seconds, pulls off an 80-to-120 passing move in 3.8 seconds and stops from 100 km/h in 44.6 metres. In addition, according to Chrysler, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 will top out at 258 km/h and pull .90 g on a skid pad. Those figures will embarrass more than a few high-end sport coupes and sedans.

Indeed, the SRT-enhanced Jeep oozes a testosterone-fuelled muscularity from every pore and crevice. There is literally nothing to it that could be described as mild-mannered. From the front — body-colour wheel flares and side sill cladding, one-piece front fascia and screened grille, underbody belly pan with integrated brake ducting and sculpted hood with functional heat extractors — to the rear — liftgate spoiler and rear fascia with air diffuser — the SRT8 has the looks to match its brawn. And that brawn …

The Grand Cherokee SRT8 joins that rarefied list of high-powered sport-utes — the Porsche Cayenne Turbo (500 hp), Range Rover Sport Supercharged (510 hp), Mercedes ML 63 AMG (518 hp) and the BMW X5 M (555 hp) — that defy convention. Nail the throttle and the SRT8 blasts off the line like it was shot from a cannon, with an accompanying basso profundo bellow from the pipes that never fails to elicit a grin.

That should be expected, though. What’s not expected is the way it corners, with tenacious grip and, after the initial will-it-or-won’t-it weight transfer, startling composure typical of a sports car, not a heavy, tall-riding SUV.

The Jeep’s cornering capability doesn’t come at the expense of a crushing ride, either. Yes, it’s firm, but, with the adaptive damping in default Automatic mode, it’s more than livable. Ditto the steering.

Inside, the SRT8’s cabin contains a full suite of luxury and convenience features, with a sporty theme that keys in on SRT-exclusive appointments. Front and centre for the driver is the leather-wrapped and heated steering wheel with its flat-bottom surface — très racer chic. Paddle shifters flank the sides, while all audio and vehicle information centre controls are accessible from the spokes. The SRT-styled Nappa leather and suede seats, heated, ventilated and with deep bolsters and adjustable headrests, prove exceedingly comfortable for long hauls while keeping one’s butt firmly glued in place when the Jeep is let off its leash. Carbon-fibre accents are incorporated into the instrument panel and door trim panels and racing-style brake and pedal pads complete the high-performance look.

Actually, congrats are due Jeep’s interior designers — there is nothing garish about the SRT8’s cabin. The disparate bits are well integrated and the quality is top-notch, which means the overall theme works.

With a price starting at just more than $55,000, the SRT8 is the most expensive Grand Cherokee in the lineup, yet it’s a veritable steal compared with the likes of the aforementioned European super-utes (some $35,000 to $40,000 less than the Range Rover, BMW and Mercedes and less than half the price of the Cayenne Turbo).

So, what is it about this vehicle that has my shorts in a knot? It’s this: More than those Euro utes, what makes any Jeep special is a genuine go-anywhere off-road ability, built into every model since Day One more than 70 years ago. In trying to establish bona fides as a performance entity to rival that of Mercedes’ AMG and BMW’s M, SRT has traded the Grand Cherokee SRT8’s Trail Rated status for muscle car-like acceleration and sports car-like cornering capability — and truly abysmal fuel economy. I averaged 18.6 litres per 100 kilometres during a week that saw a preponderance of in-town driving, the worst of any vehicle I’ve driven in years.

In short, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 is a fast, thirsty, track-capable Jeep that is really well screwed together. But who races Jeeps on a track? And why should something that earns a gold star from the Friends of OPEC be desirable in this day and age? While the motor head in me thinks this Jeep is cool, the rational side no longer sees the point.


Type of vehicle: Four-wheel-drive mid-sized SUV

Engine: 6.4L OHV V8

Power: 470 hp @ 6,000 rpm; 465 lb-ft of torque 4,300 @ rpm

Transmission Five-speed manumatic

Brakes: Four-wheel disc with ABS

Tires: P295/45ZR20 all-season run-flat

Price: base/as tested: $55,095/$61,330

Destination charge: $1,500

Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km: 17.1 city, 11.4 hwy.

Standard features: 20-inch forged aluminum wheels with run-flat tires, Nappa leather-faced seats with suede perforated inserts, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, dual-zone climate control, power windows door locks and mirrors, media information centre with 6.5-inch touchscreen, GPS navigation and 20-GB hard drive, flat-bottom steering wheel with paddle shifters, power tilt and telescopic heated steering wheel, SmartBeam HID auto-levelling headlamps, active damping suspension, electronic limited slip differential, performance-tuned steering, sport mode, monocromatic exterior with body-colour door handles, grille, sill extension and spoiler

Options: Luxury Group ($2,995), includes Adaptive Speed Control, blind spot monitoring/rear cross path detection, forward collision warning, power liftgate, leather-wrapped interior items, deluxe door trim panel; dual-panel panoramic sunroof ($1,495); SRT high-performance audio ($995), includes harman/kardon audio system with 19 speakers and 825-watt amplifier; Trailer Tow Group IV ($750)

2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8.
Photograph by: Chrysler, handout