Motoring: Performance for every lifestyle

2013-04-08T00:00:00Z Motoring: Performance for every lifestyleAndy Mikonis nwitimes.com
April 08, 2013 12:00 am  • 

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT

In many ways, the original Jeep Cherokee SRT8 answered a question no one asked. It was loud, raw and fast, qualities not typically found in a SUV. Tenacious all-wheel drive grip applied in a manner Jeep's founders probably never imagined kept the power of the hotrodded SRT Hemi V-8 to the pavement. Its brash character endeared the buyers who stepped up for its limited production run.

When the Grand Cherokee was completely redesigned in 2011, fans waited with bated breath until the return of the SRT version was confirmed for 2012. Now for 2014, the Grand Cherokee SRT enjoys a number of improvements that all Grand Cherokees will see. Chrysler is trying a new strategy of major reinvestment in refreshing its award-winning vehicles sooner than would normally be expected.

SRT, which stands for Street and Racing Technology, is Chrysler's high-performance arm, now labeled as its own brand. Ralph Gilles, president and CEO of SRT and senior vice president of Chrysler Group design, introduced the 2014 Grand Cherokee SRT to the media in Austin, Tex. "It does absolutely everything," he said. "It's outstanding in any weather, every day... Safe, capable and flexible." Indeed, even though the emphasis is still on performance with its 470-horsepower 6.4-liter V-8, the Grand Cherokee SRT has picked up one mile per gallon thanks to its Eco mode, which changes engine and transmission programming. It also sees a 44-percent increase in towing capacity to 7200 pounds. SRT still had the sport, and Jeep brought back the utility.

The most significant mechanical change is the new 8-speed transmission designed by ZF and found in many high-end European luxury vehicles. All 2014 Grand Cherokees get it, as well as other rear-wheel drive offerings from Chrysler Group. In February, Chrysler announced a $375 million investment and 1,250 new jobs for Tipton and Kokomo, Ind. plants building this transmission and a 9-speed unit for the Dodge Dart.

Visually, the SRT gets similar updates as other 2014 Grand Cherokees. The panel around the redesigned headlights is blacked out. Gilles said "the design was intended to give the SRT8 a distinctive face." The rear spoiler was crafted to "decrease drag and stabilize downforce." It was so efficient that it is used on the base vehicle. Inside, the SRT gets a unique steering wheel for the first time, and instead of only black, a new color choice called Sepia.

A review of an SRT product would not be complete without some track testing, so SRT arranged the use of Austin's recently completed Circuit of the Americas, the first track in the US purpose-built for Formula One racing. But first was a 54-mile loop to get a taste of the Grand Cherokee SRT on the road. A perfectly comfortable and tractable driver, the SRT averaged an indicated 16.2 mpg of mostly highway driving, with a few stoplights and traffic snarls.

On my first stint on the track I opted to use the paddle shifters on the steering wheel. Next time out, I got to ride along with none other than Gilles, a skilled track driver who competes regularly. He said he preferred to leave it in drive; in the sport setting the transmission will provide rev-matching downshifts, and will hold off upshifts on corner exits. In my later laps I did the same. Eight gears is a lot to keep track of, especially in an unfamiliar vehicle on an unfamiliar course.

Riding along also gave me a chance to see the SRT pages in action, which show real-time torque and horsepower readings, as well as cornering, acceleration and braking forces. They are displayed on the new 8.4-inch screen in the center of the dash, but a racetrack is not where you want to take your eyes off your driving, so the information is automatically stored.

Traction control was off in the track setting, though some stability control was still in use. You don't feel the interventions unless you get really out of line, and often the way out is to apply more throttle. This Jeep is very fun and forgiving on the track. Gilles said the US will receive about 3800 of the 5200 units produced. Base price is $62,995, and includes one day of professional driver training at selected tracks around the country.

Lamborghini Drive Experience

Some people travel the country touring baseball fields. Auto racetracks could be another type of sporting venue appropriate for such a pursuit. Though unlike the baseball stadiums in most cases, many tracks offer opportunities to actually get out there. One of those is the Autobahn Country Club in nearby Joliet, Ill. The 3.56-mile track is designed to be split in two, so club members always have the use of one side, while the other is available for rentals or Autobahn's own events, some of which are available to the public. My last visit was to attend the Lamborghini Drive Experience with some select consumers. In fact, I've driven the Autobahn track in the past with consumer events held by Jaguar and Audi as well.

After a presentation offering a taste of the Lamborghini lifestyle, and some representative Italian cuisine, it was out to Autobahn's North Circuit to test four flavors of the Lamborghini Gallardo. A professional driver would lead the caravan in a fifth Gallardo, and each driver would get a lap behind the lead car, followed by a cool-down lap at a lower speed to help dissipate heat from the car and its brakes. Rather than a group of prospective sports car buyers, my session's participants were invited by a financial institution. So, you never know where an invitation could come from. Unfortunately, they were admittedly new to high performance driving, so the formation soon fell apart. Luckily, since the arrangement allowed each driver a turn up front, I was able to experience the 3.9 second zero-to-60 mph acceleration provided by the Gallardo LP 570-4 Spyder's 570-horsepower V-10 engine, and the cornering grip of its all-wheel drive.

Lamborghini has an entertaining story of its founding. Ferruccio Lamborghini was a successful manufacturer of farm tractors. While servicing his personal Ferrari automobile, he saw some room for improvements. He approached Enzo Ferrari with his advice, only to rebuffed. So, he started his own car company, and launched one of the greatest rivalries in sports car history.

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