Factoid of the day: Seven out of 10 new luxury SUVs sold these days come with three rows of seats.
Until now, that’s been a big problem for the folks at Jeep and their beloved Grand Cherokee, which has only ever come with two.
Now you’d think that minivan-style seating for six or seven wouldn’t be too big of a requirement for a rugged 4×4 designed to climb mountains and plug through an Everglade swamp.
But these days, it seems adventurers want to take their buddies with them on hiking, biking, kayaking and fishing expeditions, while urban families want the “just-in-case” flexibility of big-bus seating.
So, after 11 long years of production, the Grand Cherokee is finally available with a third row. It’s called, somewhat un-imaginatively, the Grand Cherokee L. As in L for Long.
It does beg the question: What took you so long?
The wait has definitely been worth it. While the new “L” is a whopping 15 inches longer than the regular two-row Grand Cherokee, it’s not simply a stretched version of the existing model.
For this new Cherokee, Jeep has developed an all-new platform that’s stiffer and wider for better handling and agility, and one that offers truly stretch-out, third-row accommodation.
How accommodating? Flip forward the brilliant “tip-‘n-slide” second-row pews – either twin captains’ chairs or a three-across bench – and step right into the back.
I’m a hair under six feet tall but could sit back there without my kneecaps brushing the seat in front. Or having them pressed to my chest. Sitting back there for that long trip to grandma’s house wouldn’t be a problem.
Of course space, and plenty of it, is the other key benefit of having a trio of seat rows.
Fold flat the second and third rows and you get a shipping contained-sized 84.6 cubic feet of load space. Pin curtains to the windows, throw in an air mattress, and you’d have the perfect weekend, off-the-grid Airbnb.
Design-wise, Jeep hasn’t strayed too far from the successful Grand Cherokee formula.
That trademark seven-slot grille is a little wider and more upright than before, and is flanked by new, slimline LED headlights. Below there’s a new, oversized, chrome-ringed air intake for a beefier look.
Jeep designers have also done a fine job of avoiding the prom-night stretched-limo look. The sloping roof-line and lovely chrome strip that follows its swoopy line, gives it a sleek, stylish profile. This is one good-looking Jeep that’s still unmistakably a Grand Cherokee.
Not all is new. Carried over are the slightly geriatric 3.6-liter V6 and 5.7-liter V8 engines, both of which lack the smoothness, refinement and responsiveness of the latest turbo motors.
The V6, which debuted back in 2011, is good for 293-hp and 260 lb-ft of torque, but these days feels over-worked and out-of-breath trying to move such a hefty three-rower.
My choice would be the more muscley, more refined V8 with its 357-hp and 390 torques. Especially if you have a boat to tow. But its 14mpg city economy is embarrassing.
Yet coupled to an excellent eight-speed automatic, and with Jeep’s must-have QuadraTrac all-wheel drive and retuned steering, this new Grand L is a true delight to drive on and off road.
It rides smoother too, courtesy of that redesigned chassis and the available QuadraLift air suspension that can raise the ride height by as much as 4.2 inches.
Model-wise there are four flavors of Grand Cherokee L to pick from. The new range kicks off with the airport-rental-desk $36,995 Laredo 4×2 and soars up to the leather-lined, super-high-quality Summit 4×4 Reserve at $63,635.
In between there’s Altitude, Limited and Overland versions with two-wheel drive or four. But hard to imagine a Grand Cherokee L without 4×4.
Yes, there are plenty of three-row rivals in this hot, mid-size luxury class – Acura MDX, Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade, Nissan Pathfinder. But none have the rugged, off-road prowess of the Jeep.
It might just have climbed its way up to the top of the class.