Strong in the sense that the economic woes of 2008 are far behind this reorganized company, with Italian parent company Fiat now in control of Chrysler, and of U.S. cousins Fiat and Alfa Romeo (sadly, there were no Alfas for us to test that day!).
Vibrant in the sense that when you enter an FCA product, unique interior architecture lets you know the upcoming driving experience will not only be fun, but all of your convenience needs will be met as well.
And determined to remain deep in the horsepower and off-road prowess battle.
Let’s begin with the latter. Mother Nature purposely rained on the event that day to show she is in charge, with a Nor’easter and Hurricane Joaquin drenching much of the east coast. But there they were, with most of the Jeep and Ram lineup, ready to get down and dirty at Summit Point’s off road course. As we approached the impressive array, my first choice for the off-road course, a four-door Wrangler, was already occupied. I made a beeline to the Grand Cherokee two vehicles down, as my 6’9” frame generally dictates which vehicles I get to drive. I wrote earlier that I was sad there were no Alfas present. In reality, I can’t fit behind the wheel of anything they build.
Back to the Grand Cherokee. On the off road course, we were led by an experienced Trail Master, and each vehicle had an off road expert riding with us. I teamed up with Mary Moore of Shebuyscars.com, who was a newbie to the whole off road thing. The conditions were pretty miserable, with moving water about two-three feet deep in some areas, mud galore, and plenty of hills with extra slippery rocks.
Our test vehicle was the 2016 Grand Cherokee. As we drove to the off road course, I noticed the subtle sounds of a diesel engine. Our instructor, Rod, confirmed our Grand Cherokee was equipped with the 3.0-liter six cylinder with 240 horsepower and a stump pulling 420 pound-feet of torque. With the 3.0L EcoDiesel V6 engine, combined with the advanced eight-speed automatic transmission, the Grand Cherokee can deliver up to 30 highway mpg, drive up to 730 miles on one tank and tow a Best-in-Class 7,400 pounds.
So off we go, and the going would have been tougher had we not been in one of Jeep’s pound-for-pound off road champions, but not before we switch to 4WD Low and configure “Selec Terrain” Traction Control for the muddy terrain we were about to encounter. Selec Terrain allows you to dial up the best computer parameters for your current situation. We chose the “mud” setting and off we went.
Now while we were ‘roughing” it, the Grand Cherokee coddled us with heated and cooled leather seats, dual zone climate control, U-Connect telematics with 8.4 inch screen, and of course country music on SiriusXM Radio.
Fording heavy streams and cutting through some seriously deep mud were possible because the Grand Cherokee features advanced Four-Wheel Drive (4WD). There are three 4WD systems available:
Quadra-Trac I is fully automatic, with a single-speed transfer case offering a continual balance of torque distribution. If wheel slippage occurs, the system seamlessly transfers torque to the axle needing the most power.
Quadra-Trac II offers all-speed traction control to help keep you on course. If wheel slippage occurs, torque can be routed to the axle with the most traction. Low-range provides rock-crawling prowess.
Quadra-Drive II gives you class-leading capability with its Electronic Limited-Slip Differential (ELSD), which transfers up to 100% of torque to the wheel(s) if needed, to give you year-round traction on wet or dry surfaces. This system is capable of sending 100% of power to one wheel if that is the one the system determines will get you out of trouble.
Our tester had Quadra-Trac II, and it showed that even a “lesser model” Grand Cherokee is a serious warrior off road.
After getting the best of Mother Nature, one serious obstacle remained: A steep hill climb with exposed rocks. No worries, as our Grand Cherokee was also equipped with Jeep’s Quadra-Lift air suspension system. Quadra-Lift gives you control of your suspension by raising your vehicle’s ground clearance up to a maximum of 10.8 inches. You can also lower it 1 inch for easy entry, exit and loading. The system will raise the vehicle from back to front to help keep headlights focused down on the road.
We made it to the top, and after a round of high fives, we did the whole course again with Mary at the wheel. With the expert instruction offered, Mary aced the course, with a big assist from the Grand Cherokee!
Next up were road drives. The roads surrounding Summit Point are narrow, bending and of varying elevations. Not the kind of course where the 707 horsepower Hellcats thrive without an abundance of caution. But when a Hellcat is present, one MUST get behind the wheel! Other vehicles on my “must drive” list were the all-new Fiat 500X Crossover, the redesigned Chrysler 300, and the Ram diesel. In total, there were at least 25 cars designated for route laps, with each brand having its own access lane so the blend of brands was not confusing.
Last up was the highlight of the day, on track driving.
After an intense driver’s safety meeting, we were ready to go on the track. Due to the nasty weather, the safety meeting stressed the following:
- Drivers would be accompanied by an instructor
- No passing allowed
- Keep two wheels on the track at all times, lest you meet the unforgiving walls at Summit Point
- Take it easy, yet explore the potential of the vehicles!
So off we went in a Fiat 500 Abarth, Challenger Scat Pack, Viper, Charger, and Grand Cherokee SRT. Driving in heavy rain on a racetrack gives you new respect for the electronic safety systems built into today’s vehicles. The Dodge performance cars (Challenger, Charger and Viper), also have selectable Electronic Stability Control so your driving experience can be fully controlled by computers, or not at all for the seriously talented driver. The Viper GT for example features five ESC modes!
With common sense applied, we had a blast on the track and were still able to achieve more than 100 mph on the straights.
For the brave among us, “hot” laps were available from racing certified instructors in the Viper GTS. With special rain tires and road holding ground effects on the GTS, this ride was a pure adrenalin rush!
With prices starting in the $16,000s for the Fiat 500 and Dodge Dart, all the way up to more than $100,000 for a full-tilt Viper GTS, FCA has a vehicle for you!
Thanks to FCA for a fabulous day on the track, in the mud and on the road!