First Drive: Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT

THERE are niche markets and there are very niche markets, but the market for upscale SUVs with muscle car engines is just about as niche as it gets in this country.

The Grand Cherokee SRT8 is the sort of car that makes your inner child dance with excitement. The Jeep website even lets you listen to the sound of the engine. You just don’t get that sort of mechanical, analogue pride in Europe any more and it’s brilliant.

Closer to home you’ll find endless safe car marketing. Nobody likes treading waters that could get them accused of being irresponsible. Emissions this; safety that. It’s all pretty dull. Putting the engine noise on a car website is effectively inviting you to drool over how fast and powerful it sounds. Fantastic! No other SUV appeals to the heart in the same way as the SRT.

But as with all big American V8 cars they’re better in the flesh. A huge 6.4-litre engine is the centrepiece, packing a punch big enough to put a hole in the moon.

The unit, with eight whopping 800cc cylinders, is known as a Hemi; a name coined in reference to the hemispherical shape of the top part of the combustion chambers. The technology harks back to the turn of the 20th century and is a long-standing tradition of the Jeep-Chrysler group. It’s a new-age hit of the old school.

Very new-age, since the latest Hemi has cylinder deactivation technology that shuts down four of the cylinders under medium or light loads. At steady motorway speeds the sheer natural torque from the four active pistons – still a 3.2-litre four-pot remember – is enough to maintain speed.

It’s equally modern inside the cabin. It’s stuffed with luxuries like sat-nav, heated leather and suede seats front and rear, a heated leather steering wheel, parking sensors, forward collision warning, adaptive cruise control and more.

There’s also a damping mode selector that allows the driver to choose between harder, fast driving-biased setups and more comfortable options. There are dedicated modes for driving in snow and towing heavy loads, too, but leaving the system in ‘Auto’ and letting it work its adaptive magic is usually the best option.

Putting the Hemi’s ample power to the road is a six-speed automatic gearbox that matches the instant, monumental torque from the engine perfectly. The four-wheel-drive system and wide, grippy tyres create huge traction, and the net result is the ability to plant your foot into the carpet from a standstill and find two things. Firstly, the blood in your face suddenly migrates to the back of your head, and secondly 62mph will be gone after just five seconds. The power-to-weight ratio is far from the best you’ll find, but the sheer force of the acceleration is earth-shattering.

But for all this the SRT rides much better than might be expected. It’s been made much torsionally stiffer than its predecessor and really feels it. It’s more controlled all the time and feels much more cohesive.

Heavily-assisted steering means the front end, complete with that superlatively weighty Hemi, feels deceptively light on turn-in, but there’s a wealth of mid-corner poise that lets you hustle the big Jeep around corners like nobody’s business despite a little inevitable body roll. The only blight on the handling front is how the SRT follows imperfections in the road, especially the grooves worn into many parts of the left lane of the motorway network.

A large fuel tank means that a right foot blessed with the discipline of monks can extract a range of up to 450 miles – in theory at least. This isn’t an economical car. Keeping to 60mph on the motorway brings up 28mpg on the trip computer but if you often succumb to the irresistible bellow of that classic V8, expect that average to drop to 15mpg.

At a shade under £59,000 this isn’t a cheap car, but then no truly niche and desirable car ever is. But it’s very well equipped, and to specify one of its European rivals with their large diesel engines up to a similar standard the budget would need to rise well above this. And in the end the big diesel SUVs from the big German manufacturers will only return 10mpg or so more than the SRT.

What the SRT offers in return for a bit of leap of faith is huge, huge character and a really enjoyable ownership proposition. For the small number of people who want their luxurious, powerful SUVs to have more in the way of charm and charisma, the SRT is a fantastic choice.

FACTS AT A GLANCE:

Model: Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT8, £58,995 on the road.Engine: 6.4-litre normally-aspirated petrol V8 producing 461bhp and 465lb.ft.Transmission: 6-speed automatic gearbox driving all four wheels.Performance: Top speed 160mph, 0-62mph in 5.1 seconds.Fuel economy: 20.0mpg.CO2 rating: 328g/km.

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