The decision was not made in haste. When faced with the wooded entrance to Malagash Road — the unmaintained, but publicly open, “class 4 road” in Reading, Vermont — I deliberated for a minute or two. On one hand, this was clearly going to be the more difficult route to take, though it’s the way the sat nav deemed the most efficient. On the other, this is what I came to Vermont to do: test the off-road capability of the nearly $60,000 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit Diesel. I thought I knew what I was getting into, for the most part — I put the adjustable air suspension in its highest setting, turned the terrain response system to “mud” mode and ventured forward.
Malagash Road started off somewhat predictably. It’s a downward-sloping trail, one car wide, rutted from other off-roaders. Small boulders and logs stick out from the earth, while ruts and pits hinder smooth driving — it’s all a delicate balancing act, made more difficult by the topsoil, soft from the melting of the winter’s snow. To traverse it safely, a spotter is recommended. My co-driver stepped out to guide me over the technical obstacles that littered the path, and I simply pointed the nose of the Jeep where instructed in order to avoid beaching it on a peak or a rock, then progressed slowly.
And in the face of this mild technical challenge, the Grand Cherokee performed without a hiccup. Its adjustable Quadra-Lift air suspension gave the necessary ground clearance to crawl over the heinously rough surface of Malagash Road in relative comfort, and the low-end torque from the 3.0-liter V6 turbodiesel engine gave me a considerable amount of control to safely traverse obstacles. It was incredible, really. Modern manufacturers love to tout the off-road legacy and capability of their SUVs; the Grand Cherokee actually put its money where its mouth is.
Engine: 3.0-Liter EcoDiesel V6
Transmission: 8-Speed Auto
Horsepower: 240 @ 3,600 RPM
Torque: 420 lb-ft @ 2,000 RPM
Towing Capacity: 7,400 lbs
Fuel Economy: 22 City, 30 Highway
Halfway up Malagash Road, I came to a halt and muttered, “well, shit.” The rutted trail almost instantly turned into a ravine. The incline became incredibly steep, and the soft mud turned into a river bed with large, flat boulders jutting out from the ground. It would take a seasoned pro, armed with purpose-built tires, an aftermarket suspension and a winch to make it through. We had to turn back.
But executing a k-turn and cruising back wasn’t exactly an option. We had been traveling downhill on a trail that was flanked by trees just feet from the Jeep’s doors. Getting out would require backing up 50 feet of muddy trail, up an incline littered with rocks, branches, logs, ruts and pits until we could reach a clearing where we could turn the Grand Cherokee around. Only a feathering of the throttle was needed to call on the low-end torque, while the Grand Cherokee’s Selec-Trac system (similar to Land Rover’s Terrain Response system) was able to find traction in the perilous muck.
For many, the tried-and-true Range Rover is the benchmark for a luxurious and refined SUV with rugged off-road chops, but the Grand Cherokee has mastered that dichotomy, too.
Nearly 45 minutes later we found our way out of trail and back on track to our destination: the home of Peter Vollers, proprietor of Vermont Overland and a veritable off-roading guru. When we explained we had attempted to follow the sat nav’s ill-advised directions down Malagash, Vollers was stunned. According to him, it’s “the most difficult trail in the region.” Vollers had a variety of off-road tests planned for us: a stream crossing, a pit test and a hill-climb. Each was a cakewalk compared to the nightmare that was traversing Malagash. With the Grand Cherokee battle hardened and splattered in a thick layer of Vermont mud, we headed back to New York.
Once you spec the Summit with a 4×4 system and a $5,000 diesel engine, the price climbs to $57,290. That’s steep for a Jeep, but you get everything you could possibly want: supple Natura leather, open-pore wood, heated seats (front and rear), Harman Kardon premium audio, radar-guided cruise control and blind-spot monitoring to name just a few. And at the end of the day, the Jeep’s accoutrements make it a solid long-distance cruiser. What’s more, the diesel’s fuel consumption is incredible. Even including our off-road excursions and equally hellacious NYC traffic we got a commendable 27 MPG average our entire trip. Jeep claims that you can get up to 730 miles of range on one tank.
For many, the tried-and-true Range Rover is the benchmark for a luxurious and refined SUV with rugged off-road chops, but the Grand Cherokee has mastered that dichotomy, too, and for thousands of dollars less. America — Jeep especially — is no stranger to the luxurious off-roader. Hell, Jeep invented it. And when equipped in its highest trim, with its torquiest engine, the Grand Cherokee is proof that great off-road machines still come out of Detroit.