This 30-MPG Jeep Could Have Been the Tesla SUV -- Almost

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Jeep Grand Cherokee (JGC) offered by Fiat (FIATY) subsidiary Chrysler is a large two-row (five-seat) SUV that unlike most other SUVs these days is "trail rated" and truly ready for off-road performance. It's basically the American Range Rover.

For many years, the JGC badly trailed the competition in terms of overall comfort and refinement. Finally, those dark years are over. In an overhaul that recently entered production, the JGC got three things that has put it near the top of the SUV game:

  1. The interior was improved on all fronts, including new electronics and infotainment.
  2. The transmission is now a German 8-speed, sort of like BMW, Mercedes and Audi.
  3. The new optional engine is a diesel, yielding 30 miles per gallon on the highway.

So what we have here is a car that is assembled in Detroit but has an Italian diesel engine, and a German 8-speed automatic transmission. David Ricardo must be smiling from his grave because this is international comparative advantage at its finest.

The JGC is a car with off-road capabilities that most people probably don't need, and almost no other quiet and comfortable car offers. It has higher ground clearance, more aggressive approach and departure angles, and more settings for off-road behaviors, than most other non-exotically-priced off-roaders such as the Mercedes G and equivalent.

These superior off-road capabilities make the JGC suitable for people who face harsh physical obstacles where they drive. Perhaps you are a farmer, a hunter, oil driller or live where there is lots of snow. You might live in North Dakota, Montana or Alaska.

Normally, this kind of vehicle could never exceed 25 mpg on the highway, typically yielding less. One of the reasons is that all of this high ground clearance and 4x4 capability adds weight and reduces aerodynamic performance.

The addition of a diesel option for the JGC has now improved both the torque and fuel economy materially. It is rated at 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. In 850 miles of driving over 11 days, I achieved 21 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.

The diesel engine is a $4,500 option and will therefore take a long time, and many miles, to pay off. That said, in recent years diesel versions of all other cars have yielded better second-hand values. I suppose this will be the case here as well.

The body and interior of this newest JGC are its strong suits. The JCG looks great, with excellent proportions and details all-around. For example, it is not too wide, and it seems to be just the right length to carry five large people in excellent comfort, with just the requisite amount of luggage space. It is obviously very tall -- much taller than anything you will ever need if you stay on any kind of road.

The driver's seat is wide, hard and relatively flat. When I first got into it I thought I was going to dislike it. I immediately took it for a 350-mile drive at 70 miles per hour across the deserts, farm lands and mountains of the American West, and my back felt great upon completion.

The seating position is good but not perfect. My only complaint is one which applies to many other cars as well, including in particular Fiat-Chrysler's own Fiat 500, and that's the lack of sufficient distance between the pedals and the steering wheel. Either the steering wheel needs to be able to telescope closer to the driver, or the pedals need to be adjusted away from the driver.

The steering wheel looks cheap, and it's clearly not something from BMW or Mercedes, which excel at steering wheels. That said, it works just fine -- and it's heated.

One of the best attributes about the JGC is how well-organized the various controls are. Both the physical buttons and knobs as well as the on-screen controls are some of the very best in the business. Obviously it doesn't match Tesla's (TSLA) vehicle on-screen controls, but everything else is basically friction-less, metaphorically speaking. The JGC's infotainment system beats most or all of the German, Japanese and American premium car brands.

The dashboard and insides of the doors strike a balance between looking good and being made of cheap plastics. The small pieces of wood might be totally unnecessary as they look more realistic than most, and they don't really match the cheap plastics.

Cheap plastic -- and it's not as cheap as, say, in the Chevrolet Volt -- does have the advantage of being insensitive to bumps and scrapes, such as when you kick the door open. Combined with the superior layout of all the various controls, buttons and levers throughout the entire interior, it makes the JGC into a car that doesn't annoy or confuse anywhere.

The gear selector is one of the best-designed in the business, even though it takes space on the center tunnel. The AUX and related connectors are ideally placed right in front of the gear selector. Space for phones, keys and related trinkets is good, although not as good as in the Chevrolet Volt.

Moving to the back seat, the positive attributes continue. It's very easy to get in and out, and space is excellent for three people -- knee, foot and headroom alike. There are even two USB jacks. The mechanism for folding the rear seats is the best (i.e., simplest) in the business.

What about the driving impressions? The diesel engine has more power than anyone will ever need unless you are towing near the 7,200-lb capacity. Unless you are towing something heavy and have four linebackers traveling with you in the car bringing a luggage-full of gold bars, this diesel engine will hum effortlessly at 1,800 RPM and not break a sweat.

However, as with all non-electric cars, the engine vibrates, makes noise and requires that extra second to deliver its power. An electric motor this is not.

Unlike the Mercedes E 250 diesel, the JGC diesel doesn't have an auto start-stop feature. So the engine keeps vibrating until you manually shut it off. Likewise, as with other non-electric and hybrid cars, it also doesn't recover energy when you lift off the accelerator. There is no regen braking, and no battery for propulsion energy storage.

It takes a few hours to get used to driving the JGC coming from a regular car, given its height and weight. This is far from a nimble sports car, but soon enough you feel confident driving it. Watching it deliver 30 mpg on the highway also makes you feel pretty good.

Adjusted for the non-electric motor, the JGC is very quiet. In addition, the body's build quality seems extremely solid -- totally competitive with the finest premium brands from Germany and Japan.

On the one hand, the JGC diesel resides inside a severe competitive climate. It competes against VW Touareg, Mercedes ML and BMW X5. However, none of those have the combined off-road skills and towing capacity of the JGC.

The Land Rover LR4 has the off-road chops to match the JGC, but no diesel engine in the U.S. -- not yet, anyway. If you're willing to sacrifice the diesel engine as a competitive requirement, the landscape opens up dramatically including the Chevrolet Tahoe and the expensive Toyota (TM) Land Cruiser.

The JGC Limited 4x4 starts at around $38,000, but with the $4,500 diesel option as well as some other options you really want it ends up around $48,000. This is a good value given its unique attributes and surprisingly strong execution in terms of lacking annoying faults.

On the other hand, from a competitive perspective, the JGC diesel doesn't have a direct competitor in the U.S. market right now. A truly off-road capable luxury five-seat large SUV that can tow 7,200 lbs and has a diesel engine? JGC diesel is a class of its own.

While this car is totally inappropriate overkill for the regular suburban commuter in most warm/mild U.S. climates, it is the ideal vehicle for the rural farmer living in under many feet of snow, and with a need to go hunting in the forest and tow a heavy boat. With the caveat that I tend to prefer electric cars such as Chevrolet Volt, BMW i3 and Tesla Model S, I give the Jeep Grand Cherokee diesel a strong recommendation for the right kind of buyer with these kinds of extreme needs.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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