2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit EcoDiesel Road Trip

They call us snowbirds. Like our geese, we migrate south to avoid the cold, bask in some rays, eat and drink everything in sight and return north to mate. Well, the randier snowbirds, that is.

You should see some of the rigs we drive down there. Enormous. Many are from Quebec, where they know a thing or two about RV’s. Rather than staying for the season, we – my partner Susan and I -- just went for two weeks to Florida via Jeep Grand Cherokee. It seemed plenty big until we saw one being towed toy-like behind a purple Prevost motorhome.

We like a smaller footprint, however, but we weren’t short of creature comforts in the $76,830 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit EcoDiesel.

There are very few enhancements that can be made to the Summit (a rear entertainment system is one, which it had), that appropriately perches atop the Limited and Overland trim levels. It has heated and cooled front seats and a heatable steering wheel, adaptive cruise control and blind spot monitoring with cross-traffic alert, a Harman Kardon 19-speaker audio system and active noise cancellation, a power liftgate and premium leather upholstery with suede headliner, 20-inch aluminum wheels and illuminated sill plates. Along with its high, low and auto drive ranges, it has an air suspension that lowers the vehicle to assist with entry and exit, and raises it for off-road excursions. It’s very well equipped.

And it has the smallest engine in the Grand Cherokee fleet, a 3.0L V6 turbodiesel that makes 240 hp at 3,600 rpm and a mighty 420 lb-ft of torque at 2,000 rpm. Like the big 5.7L Hemi V8, it’ll tow 7,200 pounds with 4WD (2WD not available in Canada). An eight-speed automatic transmission manages the gears and an electronic limited slip differential looks after the rear axle.

Leaving Ottawa and two-feet of snow in our front yard, we headed for Ontario’s Thousand Islands region along the St. Lawrence River, and Alexandria Bay (or A-Bay, as the locals refer to it). There’s not much to be seen at A-Bay, except for an oddly located 130 meter observation tower you can ascend for ten bucks (in season), and a very busy border crossing that deposits you at the northern terminus of the I-81.

That is the highway most people in this part of the world, including endless convoys of tractor-trailers, use to quickly get south.

We took the I-81 down to Winchester, Virginia, via Syracuse and Binghamton, New York, and Scranton and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The northernmost section between the border and Syracuse is actually quite scenic for an Interstate, hugging the eastern shores of Lake Ontario for almost 100 km (you can encounter two metres of snow here at the wrong time of year…).

Once underway, our Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel’s Quadra-Lift air suspension settled into its “Aero” mode and the engine loafed along at about 2,000 rpm. We switched to American units for speed, venturing no more than five mph above the 65 mph limit in deference to the numerous state police visible along the highway. We passed and were passed rarely.

Pretty much the entire instrument panel of the Grand Cherokee can be customized, the speedometer toggling between a large conventional analogue gauge and a digital readout in large or small format, for instance. You can also see what’s playing on the satellite radio, check fuel consumption and range, and follow navigation directions among other options. The fuel gauge, sensibly, is fixed in place at the right, and the tachometer (which I’ve come to think is a waste of space in all but high performance vehicles with a manual transmission) is on the left.

Atop the centre stack is your major display, a 21-cm (8.4-inch) touchscreen that electronically manages your climate, phone, navigation, radio, media, apps and additional controls using virtual buttons along its base. Many of these features can also be adjusted via redundant hard switches and knobs below the display and via steering wheel mounted buttons.

The seats are multi-adjustable as well – for rake, distance and lumbar – but they’re not quite as gee-whiz as those found in some of the Grand Cherokee’s competitors where thigh length and side bolsters can also be changed. I found them satisfactory; Susan not so much, although she wasn’t seriously complaining.

We activated the Adaptive cruise that maintains your set speed until its grille-mounted forward radar encounters a slower moving vehicle ahead. It then reduces your speed to match, leaving a safe distance between you and it. You can then simply move into the passing lane and your vehicle will resume its set speed and continue on. You can get pretty good at this, making for a very smooth and safe ride if it’s not too busy, and if someone pulls in front of you suddenly, the system will quickly activate the brakes (you can override the Adaptive Cruise at any time by touching the brake or the accelerator).

The blind spot indicators set in the mirrors (yellow triangles) discretely illuminate if someone’s approaching (maybe a little too discretely, I thought). They’re definitely more noticeable at night. Susan liked all the tech, especially the smart cruise.

We were making time on this first leg; there’s not much reason to stop (sorry, Scranton), and after all, sunshine and sandy beaches await. We used to line up accommodation en route. If you don’t know, there are several coupon programs in the US (HotelCoupons, TravelCoupons, etc.), booklets for which you can pick up at the Welcome Centers located as you enter each state (and at some restaurant chains and gas stations as well). The idea is that you identify your location (in this case, Winchester) then look to see which hotel is offering a special discount.

There were several in Winchester; we chose a Wingate. The rub is that you can’t pre-book; it’s walk-in only, and they may have run out of “coupon” rooms (we’ve only had that happen once, a couple of years ago). The upside is that you can get great deals, even better than Expedia and the like. If you can’t find the booklets, you can use your phone to show them the coupon. We don’t have such programs in Canada that I know of. Pity.

Anyway, the Wingate was fine and Winchester was a gem. An historic town, many of its buildings were built in the late 1700s. Always trying to stay away from restaurant chains, we found Sweet Nola’s, and got a taste of authentic Creole cooking (even though we were a bit far north for that cuisine).

Leaving Winchester we took a couple of detours. One was a two-hour drive along the Skyline in Shenandoah National Park. Still no leaves on the trees in mid-March, but fabulous views and hardly any traffic. Surprisingly, the Byrd Visitor Center was open, and offered excellent exhibits chronicling the establishment of the park in the late 1800s.

Then it was down to the 77, another scenic highway stretch through Charlotte and Columbia, North Carolina en route to the I-95 well below the hubbub of Washington DC. We could have stayed somewhere off the I-95, but chose instead to go to Charleston, South Carolina, a great walking city on the Atlantic coast.

From Charleston, you can easily make Florida but again we dawdled. This time it was in Beaufort (pronounced Bewfud), a small city of 12,000 steeped in history, taken early in the US Civil War by the Union army who used many of its builidings (some dating back to 1710) as hospitals, officers quarters and supply depots. In other words, Beaufort was spared the demolition that befell many southern US cities at that time, and the historic centre looks much as it did 200-300 years ago.

As an aside, numerous movies have used Beaufort, SC for location scenes. The scenes from Forrest Gump’s famous Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, for example, were filmed there, and its dock survives. Shrimps, by the way, are the seafood of choice in the entire “Lowcountry” area.

By now we’d figured out how to program the navigation system with voice commands. As with many vehicles, you can’t punch in an address while on the move in a Grand Cherokee. You either stop or use voice activation, whose special commands your co-driver will have to learn via the manual. Honestly, without that manual I don’t think we ever would have figured out how to input an address using voice commands, but once the code was cracked it worked a charm.

“Enter State:” Florida

“Enter City:” Satellite Beach

“Enter Street:” Shell

“Enter Number:” You get the idea.

I know… simple. If you know what to say.

We’d booked an Air BnB and stayed a couple of nights in a small apartment right on Satellite beach. We also spent a day at the Kennedy Space Center, where activities alternated between totally amazing and really dated. We spent a lot of time in lines, but overall it was worthwhile.

Exploring the region, we now experienced the Grand Cherokee at slow speeds rather than highway cruising. The growly engine recalled a friend of ours who was looking at diesel SUVs and bought a Volkswagen Touareg TDI instead. Because, she explained, along with a couple of other reasons, she found the Jeep noisy.

I’ve got to admit that if your test drive includes a lot of stop-and-go city driving, the Grand Cherokee’s EcoDiesel engine can seem a bit harsh. It’s only when accelerating slowly from standstill, however, as on the highway the entire vehicle is just about silent.

We got used to the low-speed engine noise, as one typically does with such things, although really, that initial expression of power does seem more in character with the Grand Cherokee than would a smoother, softer engine note. This vehicle looks powerful, feels very sturdy and exudes an aura of capability even though it’s packed with luxury features.

And having driven Grand Cherokees on extreme off-road trails, I can attest to the fact that they can indeed walk the talk, so the muscular sounds the engine would make as it casually traverses a fallen tree, for instance, would seem fitting and even reassuring to some buyers.

But as I say, you also get this feeling of solidity on the highway (the Summit EcoDiesel is the heaviest Grand Cherokee at 2,437 kg). The doors thunk, the liftgate uses fat struts as it powers up and down, the sills are thick, the chunky 20-inch wheels give it real presence and overall the angular design makes it look really formidable. We saw many on the road; they’re easy to identify.

Our Florida trip subsequently took us to West Palm Beach on the Atlantic side and Sarasota on the Gulf side where we stayed with friends who had taken the plunge and bought one of those inexpensive foreclosed properties that were so available a few years ago. The value of those properties is now rising, and the US dollar, you may have noticed, is killing ours. So now our friends look pretty smart!

West Palm, I should mention, has recently become plagued with three-kilometre long freight trains that trundle through the centre of town at all hours, day and night. Our rental was a mere two blocks from a railway crossing where locomotives are obliged to sound their horns multiple times as they go through. We’re talking 110 decibels from these horns, plus the sound of the train itself. It’s absolutely deafening (there’s a petition with tens of thousands of signatures imploring the state to “do something about it”) and it seems the number of trains will be increasing.

So, if your vacation destination is anywhere near the Florida East Coast Railway tracks, you’ve been warned!

We took three days to return to Ottawa, making about 900 km per day. Largely the same route, but without the excursions. You may have heard that diesel fuel is expensive in the US, but we were paying between US$1.69 and $2.19 per US gallon (about $0.56-$0.75 cents Canadian per litre). With some left in its 91L tank, a fill-up typically cost US$40.00, and we consumed 7.6L/100 km at between 112-120 km/h on the highway. Canada’s Energuide pegs the Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel at 11.2/8.4 L/100km, city/highway, so we were beating the highway estimate even though our vehicle departed with only 900 km on the odometer (it was brand new, in other words).

I can’t say enough about what a pleasure it was to drive the 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel on a long trip. You can go pretty much anywhere in this vehicle (literally) but as a highway cruiser you and your rear seat passengers (if you have any onboard) will be well served. And if you tow, there’s a hitch package standard.

What could be improved is the UConnect display. Large as it is, the display presents too much information and too many controls. It looks cluttered at first glance and obscures its map with too many virtual controls along its base (a third of the screen, in fact, is used by the controls). It requires, in my opinion, a proximity sensor to activate the controls when required, and hide them when not in use. Other companies have this feature on much less expensive vehicles, and it’s the best solution.

The Grand Cherokee could also use more storage space between the seats. As it is, you have a small cubby at the base of the centre stack, two drink holders in the console and one more in each door. What’s needed is a useful container below the armrest, but the large CD/DVD player occupies that space. I know disc players are being eliminated from modern dashboards now, and I get that, but there should be a better location for this player. Under the passenger seat?

I should note that this Grand Cherokee arrives with a 110-volt outlet, a full range of input jacks, and it’s Siri ready if you have an iPhone. The factory UConnect interface, however, is very good, pairing one’s phone without issue.

Finally, the opening angle of the rear door leaves something to be desired. Check the picture and you’ll see what I mean. If the door would open wider, it would make access to the rear seat easier both for passengers and for cargo management.

The Grand Cherokee Summit EcoDiesel arrives with several other features not mentioned above, including bi-xenon headlights, heated rear seats, dual-pane panoramic sunroof, satellite radio with one year subscription, Quadra-Trac II 4WD system, forward collision warning. with Active Braking, Hill Start Assist, Hill Descent Control and Park-Sense Front/ Rear Park Assist with Stop.

The vehicle comes with a transferable five-year/100,000 powertrain warranty and 24-hour roadside assistance and is built in Detroit, Michigan. The engine is assembled in Ferrara, Italy. Competitors are few, including the Audi Q5 and the aforementioned Volkswagen Touareg TDI (although at the time of this writing, both are not available due to emissions issues), BMW X5 Xdrive35d and Mercedes-Benz GL350 BlueTEC.

For 2017, look for an updated front fascia, grille and LED fog lamps for the Grand Cherokee Summit models, and additional standard features.

Pricing: 2016 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit EcoDiesel
Base price: $67,645
Options: Granite Crystal Metallic $195, Rear DVD Entertainment $2,150, 3.0L EcoDiesel engine $4,995
Federal A/C tax: $100
Destination: $1,745
Price as tested: $76,830