2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Review: Jeep's All-New Three-Row Is a Well-Rounded Surprise

After 11 years of the same old Grand Cherokee, the new three-row model is one of the most pleasant sucker punches I've ever received.

grand cherokee L lead
Peter Holderith

The current, fourth-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee has been on sale for more than a decade and, despite Jeep's best efforts to boost its upmarket, five-passenger staple, its age is beginning to show. Not aesthetically, mind you; with just a minor facelift along the way, the Grand Cherokee is still somehow as sharp-looking as it was when it debuted at the New York Auto Show back in 2009. It's only starting to feel a little old because it's missing something vital these days: a third row. That's changed—along with a whole lot more—in the new 2021 Grand Cherokee L

To really capitalize on how important that third row is, Jeep debuted the three-row Grand Cherokee L ahead of its smaller two-row sibling, which we'll see at a later date. My experience with most midsize, three-row SUVs is the third row gets stuffed into a modestly appointed trunk and then treats those passengers as an afterthought. I was wrong here. Not only did the new Grand Cherokee L's interior impress, but so did its roominess. And hell, just about about everything else in the truck, too. It was comfortable on-road, capable off-road, and was an overall pleasant vehicle to pilot. 

Jeep

I was only able to spend a few hours behind the wheel for this evaluation, but Jeep's gonna sell so many of these things. I just know it.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L, By the Numbers

  • Base price: $38,690
  • Powertrain: 3.6-liter V6 or 5.7-liter V8 | eight-speed automatic | rear-wheel drive with optional four-wheel drive and low range
  • Horsepower: 293 @ 6,400 rpm (V6) | 357 @ 5,150 rpm (V8)
  • Torque: 260 lb-ft @ 4,000 RPM (V6) | 390 lb-ft @ 4,250 rpm (V8)
  • Curb weight: 4,524 - 5,279 pounds
  • Max seating capacity: 8 (dependent on configuration)
  • Cargo volume: 17.2 cubic feet behind third row | 46.9 cubic feet with third row down | 84.6 cubic feet with second and third row down
  • Maximum towing capacity: 7,200 pounds with V8, 6,200 pounds with V6
  • EPA fuel economy: 19 mpg city | 26 highway | 21 combined (2WD V6) 
  • Breakover/Departure/Approach angle: 22.6° | 23.6° | 30.1° (with optional air suspension)
  • Quick take: It may look a bit fancier and less approachable, but it's a refreshing restart for Jeep's iconic SUV.

Grand Cherokee's New Groove

The Grand Cherokee is more than just a civilized Jeep, it's intended to be the accessible luxury Jeep, with the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer now at the top of the pyramid. It gets its own platform seated above the regular Cherokee in Jeep's lineup and is offered with more goodies, including an optional V8, luxury features like heated and cooled seats, and more. With a fresh RWD platform to work with, Jeep says its design team went back to the original 1960s Wagoneer for inspiration, adding a more upright seven-slot grille and greenhouse, a longer hood, and straighter lines along the body that accentuate its classical ambitions. If the new Wagoneer is being called America's Range Rover, then the 2021 Grand Cherokee L is our Range Rover Sport, third row and all. Point being, the Grand Cherokee is moving upscale, and the new look reflects that whole cloth.

Jeep

The new Grand Cherokee L is the first time we're seeing a third row in this truck, which means it's entering one of the most saturated markets in America. This extra row wasn't just squeezed back there, though. It's been massaged into the platform carefully, combined with classic Jeep attributes like available four-wheel drive and ample power to conquer diverse terrain. Both of these were seemingly a given going in, but what was less expected was how well the car was executed as a whole.

A Modern Interior

Inside, it's refreshing to see Jeep make a car that feels this modern and works this well after producing the previous-generation Grand Cherokee for 11 whole years. (Though, you could argue that was enough time for Jeep to really hone in on what worked and what didn't work.) The 2021 Grand Cherokee L scans as brand new, and this is especially true on the inside. The interior of this car wasn't the most high-design thing out there, but it looked modern and had nice, upscale wood detailing, which was optional. Also optional were the heated and cooled massage seats, a welcomed feature. But the lower, flatter beltline that gave the cabin an open, almost airy feeling is standard.

For an extra $1,995, the car I drove had driver aids available like lane-centering that kept you nicely in the middle of a lane and radar cruise control, which was seamless and simple to use. With four distance settings to choose from, a simple button to turn it on or off, and smooth braking and acceleration, it was a hands-on system. Thankfully it was touch-sensitive as opposed to pressure-sensitive, and very responsive at that. If you keep your hands off the wheel for too long, the vehicle will softly jerk the brakes, letting you know it's time to get back to driving. 

Pairing my phone was likewise painless. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are both standard, and the optional 950-watt, 19-speaker McIntosh-branded sound system was among the best I've heard in any car at this price point (base cars get a six-speaker system, though a nine-speaker system is also available). There were also enough USB ports—12 total conventional and USB-C—to festoon the back of a well-made motherboard. Even the third-row passengers get one of each type of port to themselves (also an option, but one that's available even on the base model). All of those things were embedded in an interior that looked and felt new. There weren't old bits of plastic—a very 2010 look—hanging around here. 

One of the most impressive parts was a bit more subtle, though: the packaging. All passengers get adequate head and legroom, even in the third row. A six-foot-four Jeep representative sat in the third row to prove this. He didn't have a ton of room to stretch his legs, but his knees had a few inches to move and his head was clear of the vehicle's headliner. Jeep's reps said the rear end of the car was designed meticulously to make this sort of space available, and it shows. I also didn't have to crawl between the two second-row seats to get into the back; the seats swivel forward and up to ensure there's enough room for even a fair-sized adult to get back there without much fuss. The space and level of comfort in every row was impressive, with optional four-zone climate control and standard pillar-mounted HVAC vents for every rear passenger improving comfort considerably. 

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The Grand Cherokee L's third row.

Speaking of options, there are quite a few depending on which trim you get. A base model won't fetch much luxury: cloth seats, plastic trim, and swathes of piano black plastic are what you get. Likewise, a smaller, 8.4-inch touchscreen is standard, but the 10.1-inch option—which is pictured above—is available on any trim above Altitude (the second-lowest). This may make the base model seem something of a raw deal, but that's not the whole story. Even that 8.4-inch infotainment system comes standard with wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Just the same, a slew of standard safety features get included in every Grand Cherokee L: adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning with lane-keep assist (not lane following), blind spot monitors, parking sensors, and automatic braking for pedestrians at low and high speeds. 

There are six trim levels for this truck: Laredo, Altitude, Limited, Overland, Summit, and Summit Reserve. The options grow and the interiors look more and more luxurious as you wade through them. Real wood trim, night vision similar to what's available on current Escalades, and other nice-to-have technology all gets thrown in as you're willing to pay more. The Overland, starting at $54,690 when equipped with four-wheel drive is when things start to get serious. The Overland is the lowest trim available with the V8, and indeed the off-road focused model. If you want a really nice Grand Cherokee L, the Overland is where you're going to have to start.

A Jeep Must Off-Road

The Grand Cherokee L has a few available key features that make heading off the beaten path easier than ever: an advanced four-wheel-drive system with low range, an electronic limited-slip rear differential, and a five-position air suspension system, among other things. High-strength steel skid plates are also on the menu to make sure nothing under the car gets banged up. The Overland trim Jeep let me wheel around an off-road test track was equipped with all of these features and it never felt stressed in any situation (albeit on a course Jeep itself curated.) It's worth noting that without all of these fancy features, you get 8.5 inches of ground clearance and two-wheel drive as standard.

Peter Holderith

The air suspension uses a closed-loop system so it won't ever get clogged. Two big, blue air tanks are located below the rear cargo floor and can lift the vehicle high enough to clear any obstacle shorter than 10.9 inches. It's also used in other ways; the lowest setting basically lets the car down onto its bump stops to make the process of entry and exit easier. For this reason, it was only selectable at very low speeds. On the highway, the Grand Cherokee L can also adjust itself to an ideal aerodynamic height, saving a small amount of fuel. (Jeep said it's something around a 10th of a mile per gallon). This may not seem like much, but combined with other optimizations, it could add up—especially on a truck available with a 5.7-liter V8.

I didn't have the opportunity to drive a V6-powered Grand Cherokee L, but the V8 version had more than adequate levels of power and torque. The transmission was also nearly perfect in normal usage, with barely perceptible shifts that only become noticeable when the vehicle was in low range or when gears were selected manually. But even then, everything was working so nicely together off-road that it was hard to notice. Jeep's four-wheel-drive system on the Overland, which it calls Quadra-Trac II, has an active transfer case to distribute torque as needed and adjusts itself several times a second. The system will also disconnect the front axle completely when you're trying to save fuel back on the asphalt. 

Off-road, the Grand Cherokee L was pretty impressive, although the course was pretty carefully curated to avoid some of the harsher obstacles. That's not to say it was a cakewalk. One obstacle was a steep incline made up of loose rock, which seemed to be something of a challenge for the truck. It slipped on some of the slicker features and the nature of the ever-changing surface introduced some unpredictability the four-wheel-drive system had to manage aggressively, moving torque to the wheel with the most grip. Conversely, a 30-degree cambered slope other vehicles in the segment might not want to touch gave the Jeep little trouble.

Overall though, its off-road performance made me confident of the truck's abilities whether or not I would ever actually need them. If I needed to head into the wild in the future, I wouldn't worry about it, the truck had a slew of features at my disposal to prepare me for it. Everything relating to off-road prowess seemed to be considered very early on in the design of the vehicle, and something like the Overland trim wasn't just added for people with "active lifestyles" who take a spin up a rutted dirt road every now and then, even though it's perfectly suited for that too. The performance here was clearly baked into the vehicle's systems, which put me at ease and helps explain why the Grand Cherokee has remained so popular all this time.

Jeep was smart enough not to let us attempt this course on any vehicle not equipped with the Off-Road Group package, though. If I got a lower, two-wheel-drive trim without the air suspension, bash plates, and limited-slip differential, I'm confident the truck would've struggled a lot more. The basic 3.6-liter V6 would've probably been fine and it's equipped with a similar eight-speed transmission, but heading out onto a loose surface, I want an LSD, something not available on anything below the Overland. I can't stress enough that if you're seriously going to take this thing off-road, you're going to have to pony up at least $54,690 for the third-highest trim.

Peter Holderith

On-Roading the Grand Cherokee

It's equally interesting how having all of these rugged features translates to on-road performance. The air suspension is one of those "have your cake and eat it" features, where it helps with off-roading but also improves the ride on paved surfaces. The off-road attitude of the Grand Cherokee L melts away on a paved surface. The vehicle's handling was about as tight as it can be on the road for an SUV of its size and comfort, power from the 5.7-liter V8 enabled easy merging and passing on the highway, and the steering had a fair amount of feel. The off-road features exist in addition to a normal, luxurious SUV. Modern technology dictates that you don't really have to compromise when you want a vehicle that's reasonably good at two distinctly different things.

Highway cruising is where the truck really shone but it was pretty good around town as well, despite its size. The lowered beltline meant good visibility and the car has a slew of cameras, including one for the digital rearview mirror. That's a feature right out of GM's playbook and it works very well here, too. The relatively big tires on the Overland trim also handled any curbs or potholes I encountered with little fuss, something I tested without really trying to on the streets of Detroit.

Six Trims

Here's the kicker to all of this: The Grand Cherokee L is available in so many trims (six total) and with so many options that you can mix and match to your heart's content. The price spectrum is wide and your budget and requirements will be accommodated. A base model Laredo will cost you just $38,690. The off-roading Overland model is $54,690. And the $65,930 Summit Reserve model is damn near Escalade-levels of nice in a car not much larger—with length being the exception—than the outgoing Grand Cherokee. Want to go even further? A top-trim Summit Reserve, fully optioned, is $71,760. Compared to the Laredo, that's right around $33,000 in options alone. 

The midsize, three-row SUV segment is a popular one, so there's a lot of competition—especially from Chevrolet, Subaru, Volkswagen, Honda, Toyota, Hyundai, and Kia. Jeep finally joins their ranks by offering a modern three-row competitor of its own. And the new Grand Cherokee L is something of a force to be reckoned with. I'm not sure if I would spend over $70,000 to have one in my driveway, but the nice thing is even a mid-range model like the Overland I drove was packed with technology and as comfortable as nearly any other vehicle on the road. Quiet, capable, powerful, I'm certain this three-row Jeep will be a big hit. It checks too many boxes to ignore, and it's a great way to usher in a new generation of Grand Cherokee.

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Got any questions about Jeep stuff I might've missed? Send me an email: peter@thedrive.com