October 17, 2011

Confession #32: You’d never feel the same way about a microwave as you do about a Swiss Army knife

2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland
(Chrysler Group LLC photo)
I met someone the other day who described his perils in car shopping. It didn’t start well, as he went out, hungover and somewhere in the Boston suburbs where the accents get thick, on a windy Saturday morning. He wandered into some dealerships, looking at some lightly used cars and then questioning their smells. Then he tried some new cars and came away unimpressed by just about everything he drove. But coming from his Porsche Cayman into something large and with four-wheel drive, I’d probably feel similarly. He did, however, like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but came away feeling a little cold about it, perhaps like it was a little too sensible despite its go-anywhere capabilities.

The Grand Cherokee was a founding member of the ’90s suburban grocery getter, the SUV, and perennial also-ran to the Ford Explorer. Both kind of lost their way and popularity in the 2000s, but recently reinvented themselves. Jeep took the Grand Cherokee back to its roots and made something that was just as good on-road as it was off. Yes, you have to select a few option packages to get the Grand Cherokee “trail rated” these days, but it’s still as capable as any Jeep before. What’s more, it finally has the quality of materials befitting of a $40-50,000 car, which is what the upmarket Overland models cost now.

2011 Ford Explorer Limited
(Ford Motor Co. photo)
The Explorer wandered over in a different direction. Ford remade for 2011 the poster child of the mid-1990s American Dream into the suburban staple of this decade: the three-row crossover. The Explorer has been offered since 2001 with seven seats, but the newest version has no truck DNA left in it. The chassis is from the minivan-like Ford Flex, itself based on an old Volvo. It’s all very sensible. Ford’s even giving it an optional 2.0-literturbocharged four on front-wheel drive models for better fuel economy – but most versions have a normal V6.

Land Rover Terrain Response control
(Land Rover North America photo)
Ford never made the Explorer into the off-road champ the Grand Cherokee always was, but the newest model probably has the least adventurous pretensions yet. It’s a grocery getter through and through, essentially a minivan that’s been made slightly less useful thanks to a higher floor and step-in. And no matter what, even with four-wheel drive and a selectable terrain management system (a knock-off of Land Rover’s Terrain Response) it’s still equipped for surfaces no more arduous than Sepulveda Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Happily, the Grand Cherokee is still up for more challenging terrain. It too now has the option of a terrain management system, as well as air suspension with adjustable ride height. Trail Rated models get skid plates and other clever off-road mechanicals. Just having those things is confidence inspiring, and even the most butterfingered of off-road drivers would likely have trouble getting the thing stuck.

This is why I have a somewhat irrational affection for the Grand Cherokee and other serious off-roaders – the Wrangler, Land Rovers, etc. You’re never going to need 90 percent of their abilities. Even in Boston, the roads are usually plowed shortly after a big snowstorm. But you know with a car like this you’re never going to be stranded for any other reason besides lack of fuel. It’s like an elaborate Swiss Army knife – really, all you need is a blade for opening up tough plastic packaging. Sometimes, a pair of scissors or a corkscrew comes in handy, but you’re rarely going to use any of the extras. It’s still nice to know, though, you won’t be caught short when someone brings a bottle of two-buck Chuck on a camping trip.

The Explorer, along with just about every other three-row crossover out there today, lands in the appliance category. It’s about as functional, and interesting, as a microwave. It’s a very clean, simple machine but essentially one with a limited range of talent. It’ll do things more efficiently than the Grand Cherokee, but ask it to go beyond the tarmac and you’ll be pushing the Explorer to the edge of its abilities. Ask a microwave to do much more than heat up some Easy Mac, and you’ll run into some problems.

2012 Land Rover Range Rover Evoque
(Land Rover North America photo)
It’s likely this guy will shortly sign the check for the Grand Cherokee soon. He’s still thinking about it, unlike the Audi Q5 or the Ford Edge or any car-with-a-tall-body.

Of course, this was before I reminded him about the Volkswagen Touareg. Or the new Range Rover Evoque. Or even the Volvo XC70, though I don't think he's brave enough to go for a wagon this time around. Sometimes, too much choice is a bad thing.