Grand Cherokee counters foes with 4Xe plug-in hybrid

John Gilbert

With constantly broadening competition, it seems as though time may be dealing a nasty blow to Jeep as the dominant maker of all-things off-road. While Jeep remains the cost-effective pillar of rock-climbing and all-terrain ruggedness, the list of rivals for its status keeps growing, and along with the usual Range Rovers, competitors from Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and the top European and U.S. builders like Ford keep nipping at Jeep’s heels.

The hot number in the class for 2023 is the Ford Bronco, which comes in two sizes, and includes all sorts of flashy models like the Raptor. It is hot-looking, and leads the league in being trendy, and the demand has soared enough to be a genuine concern for the folks at Jeep. So now, about the time we might start sympathizing with Jeep, along comes the 2023 Grand Cherokee with a 4Xe model — that’s right, a leap into the 21st century with a plug-in hybrid model that it costlier than most, but can reach lofty fuel economy figures like 56 miles per gallon with both gasoline and electric power combined.

The test vehicle I spent a week with recently was smartly trimmed with bright white paint and flashy striping that indicates it’s something beyond the ordinary. The Trailhawk term means that it has disconnecting stabilizer bars up front, and a select-terrain system with a twist of the console knob to select Sport, Automatic, Rock, Sand/Mud, or Snow. The Automatic setting works fine for normal highway driving, where, undoubtedly, the Grand Cherokee will spend most of its time.

But the capabilities are seemingly endless, and, like most modern hybrids, the electric moor assist from a rechargeable battery pack combines with the gas engine to help mileage but also to increase power. That works, whether you’re taking the family to Target or trying to scale a cliff in the Moab desert. The trick that Jeep engineers have come up with is to use the Chrysler-built 2.0-liter dual-overhead camshaft 4-cylinder direct-injected engine, which might seem a lightweight with such a heavy vehicle as the Grand Cherokee, but it becomes more potent by turbocharging — and it becomes still more potent when you add in the charge of electricity from the plug-in hybrid system.

The usual luxury inside the Grand Cherokee is upgraded with the luxury of leather and its neat stitching, which is the bright blue that is also used on the exterior trim, but with most Grand Cherokees, the fuel economy suffers from whatever engine from the big Hemi to the sturdy 3.6-V6 sucks a lot of fuel.

In the 4Xe, for example, if you drive it on the gas engine only, you can expect to attain 23 miles per gallon, according to the EPA estimates. If you spend the estimated three and a half hours to fully charge the battery pack with a 240 volt charger (Level 2) at home or at most charge stations, you can run a few miles on electric only, but the main purpose is to use the electric power to supplement the gas-engine power.

Jeep estimates that if you judiciously use the gas and electric power for your driving, you can get a combined 56 miles per gallon. That is, in a word, astounding for a Grand Cherokee. The Jeep Quadra-Trac all-wheel-drive system is installed, an d with the adjustable ride height, rear Quadra-Lift air suspension, and swaybars, you are ready for all the rugged terrain you’d like, without ever losing the luxury of the Grand Cherokee’s now-traditional benefits. In our driving, mainly in the City of Duluth with its steep hills and all-terrain-testing street surfaces, we got fuel economy readings of from 23.7 miles per gallon to 25.2. That’s a long way from the 56 that the EPA estimates, but I have no reason to doubt their figures.

The 8-speed heavy-duty automatic transmission and the shiftable 2WD to 4WD add to the vehicle’s versatility, and there are numerous neat features, such as the off-road surround camera built in to alert you if those boulders up ahead might be too big to challenge.

The base price on a Grand Cherokee is $65,250, and loading it up with all the Trailhawk and hybrid goodies, plus features such as the full panoramic power sunroof and the foldable rear third-row seat boost the test vehicle’s sticker to $72,630.

That’s a hefty price, but the ruggedness combined with the luxury inside, and the hybrid technology under the hood, makes it a comparative bargain next to some competitors — who might be all nipping at Jeep’s heels, but haven’t yet outperformed the civilized beasts that have evolved from the World War II issue Wrangler prototypes.