I can’t confirm that the “Trail Rated” 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee will plow through 18 inches of water without conking out.

I won’t swear that it can step over 10-inch logs without getting hung up on a hunk of timber.

And I have no idea if it can climb up the side of a peak with the aplomb of a Sherpa mountain guide.

I can’t confirm any of those capabilities because during a week behind the wheel of a new Grand Cherokee Laredo, the closest it got to going off-road was a gravel driveway.

But I can tell you unequivocally that the Grand Cherokee excels on the terrain where it is most likely going to be driven most often: in stop-and-go traffic and on the interstate at 70 mph.

Actually, “excels” might not be enough of a superlative to describe the Grand Cherokee’s on-road performance. After spending nearly 15 hours in a Laredo 4×4 during a 900-mile round trip on mostly highways, I anointed the Grand Cherokee one of the best SUVs I’ve ever driven on the highway.

Think Range Rover at half the price. The Grand Cherokee’s road manners are that good.

It is quiet enough for the driver to carry on a conversation with a backseat passenger without either raising their voice at 85 mph. It rides as smoothly as a luxury touring sedan. And it holds the road well enough, tracks unerringly straight enough and responds competently enough to make driving long distances a tireless proposition.

I’ve tested some similarly utilitarian crossovers with comparable characteristics. What distinguishes the Grand Cherokee is that it comes with Jeep’s pedigree, which means that while it may not run circles around most competitors, it can probably run over them.

Everyone knows Jeep’s reputation for building vehicles with remarkable off-road prowess. I’ve driven Wranglers over boulders and through ponds. I’ve seen older Grand Cherokees make their way unabated through axle-deep mud.

So while I can’t personally vouch for the capabilities of the 2011 Grand Cherokee, there’s little doubt in my mind that it has exceptional off-road chops.

For one thing, it won Four Wheeler Magazine’s prestigious “Four Wheeler of the Year” award.

And it can be configured to earn Jeep’s “Trail Rated” badge, something the company bestows based on a vehicle’s capabilities in five areas: ground clearance, traction, maneuverability, articulation and water fording.

It’s obvious that most drivers couldn’t care less about fording anything deeper than a shallow puddle produced by a spring shower. But for those who do — say folks who travel to fishing holes or hunting cabins in the woods, or those who tow motorcycles or snowmobiles — transportation options have greatly diminished over the past few years.

When the Grand Cherokee debuted in 1992, it launched an SUV craze that lasted around 15 years.

High fuel prices ended it, and most of today’s vehicles that look like SUVs are no more capable of serious off-roading than your uncle would be of performing in Cirque du Soleil if he put on makeup and a pair of tights.

The Grand Cherokee, on the other hand, is special because it delivers true off-road capability in a vehicle that’s also a pleasure to drive on pavement.

Increased approach, departure and breakover angles (34.3, 29.3 and 23.1, respectively) mean that it can climb and descend steeper hills and larger obstacles than its predecessor.

If that’s not important to you, you’re also unlikely to appreciate the Grand Cherokee’s new “Quadra-Lift” adjustable height air suspension system. Or Selec-Terrain, which adjusts up to a dozen different powertrain, braking and suspension settings to automatically dial in optimum performance for driving in things like sand, mud, snow or rocky terrain.

But drivers who need or want those things in a vehicle will appreciate the Grand Cherokee’s larger wheelbase and overall length, which add four inches of rear-seat legroom, increase cargo space by 5.6 cubic feet and make for easier entry through the front and rear doors.

They’ll also appreciate the Grand Cherokee’s more powerful standard, 3.6-liter V-6 engine (290 horsepower, 260 pounds-feet of torque) and its improved fuel economy.

If your Toyota Prius-owning friends mock the Grand Cherokee’s fuel economy — the EPA ratings range from a high of 16 city/23 highway mpg for a 2WD V-6 model down to 13/19 for a 4WD V8 — just ask them if they can tow up to 7,200 pounds.

That’s the tow rating of my V-8 powered Grand Cherokee Laredo X test vehicle. Its 360-horsepower, 5.7-liter V-8 used to be touted as a Hemi, but the only place you’ll see that word on the 2011 model is under the hood. Nevertheless, the robust thrust of that V-8 was evident every time I hit the throttle.

Given its prodigious power, I was pleased that the Jeep averaged over 19 mpg during my test drive.

In fact, I was pleased with almost everything about the new Jeep Grand Cherokee, which costs less than its predecessor despite having more standard equipment. My only real complaint is that I didn’t get a chance to test its off-road capabilities, but maybe Jeep will invite me to drive one next year at one of its Jamborees.

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

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