First drive: 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L summits three-row SUV peak

The Jeep Grand Cherokee finally comes with a third row. Dubbed L as in large and in charge, the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L offers more space without sacrificing the style that has helped it define the SUV segment since its 1993 launch. 

Stylish and rugged, sophisticated yet brutish, the timeless design of the Grand Cherokee has helped make it a recurring winner of The Car Connection’s Best SUV To Buy. Yet it hadn’t been redesigned since 2011. So much has changed. Without a three-row SUV to compete with every other automaker, ranging from the Subaru Ascent newcomer to the Ford Explorer segment stalwart, not to mention all the luxury family liners, Jeep now fills the lineup gap with its bestseller. 

Off-road capable yet with luxury-level elegance in the cabin of the Summit Reserve I tested, the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L establishes a new benchmark for the fifth-generation Grand Cherokee five-seater that debuts in August. 

The $64,280 Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve range-topper foreshadows what’s to come with the return of the ritzy Grand Wagoneer full-size SUV. There’s money to be made, and three-row SUVs all but mint the green. 

From the outside, that price might make you blush; only the Hellcat-powered Grand Cherokee Trackhawk is more expensive, and it’s made for power and track days, not power lunches and play dates. 

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

The seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel arches over 21-inch wheels, and broad vertical face remain, but slender LED headlights and taillights bookend a longer body that looks as much like the Grand Wagoneer concept as the Grand Cherokee classic. The JGCL is more than 15 inches longer than the Grand Cherokee with a wheelbase stretched by 7.0 inches to accommodate the two seats in the third row. It’s 2.2 inches wider, though the redesigned five-seater will likely match the girth of its platform mate. 

The extra length seats seven passengers or six with the available captain’s chairs in my tester. There’s 17.2 cubic feet of space behind the third row, which is competitive for the segment, though the standard Grand Cherokee holds 36.3 cubic feet behind the rear seats. Fold down the 50/50-split third row, preferably with the power buttons that collapse headrests and fold both rows of seats, and the space behind the second row expands to 46.2 cubes. 

More importantly, the Grand Cherokee L fits six adults in comfort. Only the largest passengers might want more head room in the third row, but leg, hip, and shoulder room are ample thanks to the comfy, reclining second-row captain’s chairs that slide more than 7.0 inches. The third row seats don’t recline, however, so they might be too upright for longer trips.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

The Summit Reserve treats second-row passengers on par with front riders with heated and cooled seats. A nifty center console flips open to create a flat floor, but Jeep missed an opportunity by not including cupholders in the upside down position. Third-row riders get cupholders and USB-C/USB-A ports on the armrests above the wheel wells.

Up front, the Summit Reserve bridges the canyon between the Grand Cherokee and Grand Wagoneer. Gorgeous Palermo leather seats contrast quilted nappa leather on the doors, and open pore walnut wood underscored by a chrome band separates the lower and upper dash. Some fashionistas might want more variance between the caramel-colored leather and blonde wood, but Jeep has options.

The 10.1-inch touchscreen, with brilliant camera views, oversees a center console covered in high-gloss black plastic, but the climate controls are firm buttons and dials. 

Instead of mechanical levers or chunky dials, the GCL tries an elegant, almost German attempt at suspension and drive mode controls. Two switches on the console can be pressed up or down a number of times to illuminate the desired setting. It’s sleek, almost delicate, compared to American-made SUVs, off-roaders, and trucks.

The settings vary the character from comfy cruiser to muscle machine with a range the Dodge Durango can’t match. Five drive modes fill the Selec-Terrain system with Auto, Sport, Rock, Snow, and Mud/Sand modes. 

Sport mode gets the most out of the 293-hp 3.6-liter V-6 used widely in Jeep’s lineup. The throttle responds quicker, and the battle-tested 8-speed automatic transmission shifts when expected based on your inputs. The max torque of 260-lb ft comes on as early as 1,800 rpm, so the JGCL responds quickly despite its size. Shoppers who want more rumble don’t need to stray to the Durango SRT; the JGCL can be equipped with a 5.7-liter V-8 rated at 357 hp and 390 lb-ft. 

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L

I didn’t have the opportunity to off-road it (read about our off-road test at Motor Authority), but the Summit Reserve comes standard with the most advanced four-wheel-drive system of three systems offered. It has a 2-speed transfer case that requires a shift to neutral before settling into 4L and an electronic limited-slip rear differential that routes up to 100% of the available torque to the rear wheel with the most traction. 

The available air suspension automatically matches the drive mode, or it can be manually set in five positions that lift or lower the Grand Cherokee L by a total of 4.2 inches. The normal ride height with 8.3 inches of ground clearance increases in Off-road 2 to a Wrangler Rubicon-like 10.9 inches for up to 24 inches of water fording, Jeep says. In Rock mode, it raises so high above the big wheels you can see the upper control arm in the front or the four-corner air springs in any wheel well. 

With adaptive dampers, the suspension is tuned for comfort as much as clambering. Park mode lowers the clearance to a minivan-like 6.5 inches, so getting in and out does not require a boost or grab handle, and Sport mode automatically lowers the suspension by 0.8 inches for better aero. It’s still a big three-row SUV subjected to physics, so cornering like you’re in a Trackhawk will lead to problems. For on-road purposes, the suspension soothes the road like a woobie and induces naps for toddlers and adults alike.

The dual nature of the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L balances off-road bonafides with impressive road comfort unlike every other three-row SUVs without a Land Rover badge. It’s a welcome and overdue addition to the Jeep lineup to keep families in the brand.

Comments are closed.