ITâ€™S NOT EVERY day an invitation for an SUV launch arrives in my in-box listing Kyalami race track as the venue, least of all from American off-road giant Jeep. But then again, the new SRT8 Grand Cherokee is not your average SUV: itâ€™s a track bred performance machine with a huge 6.4-litre Hemi V8 delivering 344kW and 624Nm of torque. Jeep is already touting the big SRT (which stands for Street and Racing Technology) as the best-performing and handling Jeep ever made with a claimed 0-100kph acceleration time of five seconds, a quarter-mile sprint covered in the mid-13-second range, a top speed of 255kph and braking from 100kph to zero in 35 metres.
The 2.3-tonne behemoth has already lapped a sodden NĂĽrburgring in 8min49secs in the hands of the Ring Queen Sabine Schmitz, which despite being almost 25 seconds slower than the likes of BMWâ€™s X6 M, is nevertheless faster than both the Porsche Cayenne GTS and the supercharged Range Rover Sport V8. The good news for fans of American muscle is that according to Trent Barcroft, CEO of, Chrysler South Africa, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 represents one of several SRT models that will find their way onto our shores in the months to come.
The newcomer is also likely to add to the growing number of Jeep sales in SA that has occurred since the recession. Along with stablemates Chrysler and Dodge, Jeep has seen a 34.5% increase in year-on-year sales, of which almost 71% is attributed to Jeep volumes. The Grand Cherokee has seen an 81.3% increase, while Wrangler is 21% up on last yearâ€™s figures, as is the five-year-old Cherokee at 39%. Jeep also continues to sell every Compass it imports and South Africa is now the fifth highest volume market for Jeep vehicles in the world â€“ larger even than all the European markets.
Looking at the SRT8, its bling factor is one of its best-selling points, offering a commanding, no-nonsense presence due its exclusive SRT, body-colour wheelarch flares and sill cladding. The body sits 25mm lower (ground clearance now measures 203mm) than the standard Grand Cherokee and features a body-coloured grille, a gloss-black belly pan with integrated brake ducting, and a heavily sculpted bonnet with dual air intakes for added engine cooling.
At the rear, the SRT influence continues with a new tailgate spoiler that Jeep claims reduces drag and improves downforce, while a new one-piece rear apron encapsulates a separate diffuser along with the access cover for an optional tow bar. One of the biggest criticisms of the previous generation was the central location of its exhaust pipes that inhibited the fitment of a tow bar. For 2012, the dual sport exhaust system features four-inch trumpeter tail pipes located either side of the vehicleâ€™s rear. The range-topperâ€™s chassis also boasts a 146% increase in torsional rigidity over the standard version, thanks to more than 5400 welds in the body alone, including with a 53% increase in spot welds and a 42% increase in arc welds. There has also been a 38% increase in structural adhesive.
On the track, the tension throughout the SRTâ€™s chassis highlighted the work the engineers have done to the platform. Pirelli has also come on board and tailored its 295/45ZR20 Scorpion Verde All-Season run-flat tyres as standard fare. The Italian boots performed very well under the rigours of the test session, with little noticeable squeal, degradation or fade, remaining predictable and fairly consistant throughout the three lengthy track sessions. Kyalamiâ€™s sweeping turns and swooping elevation also allowed me to sample the SRT8â€™s Bilstein adaptive damping suspension, which is managed by Jeepâ€™s new Selec-Track system. Selec-Trak tailors the stability control, adaptive damping, transmission shift patterns, torque-split proportioning, electronic limited-slip diff, throttle control and cylinder deactivation in accordance with the required dynamic settings of the driver. One can manually choose between five modes â€“ Auto, Sport, Track, Snow and Tow â€“ for specific driving conditions.
I started in the vehicleâ€™s natural Auto setting that offers the most compliant ride and a 40:60 front-to-rear torque split. I then switched to Sport, which improved body control, but eventually preferred Track when lapping the circuit. In this mode the suspension stiffens even further and flattens the SRTâ€™s body roll through turns, reducing dive under heavy braking, all of which resulting in more direct response. Both Sport and Track offer a torque split of 35:65. The remaining two modes offer a 50:50 split and tailor the transmission settings for greater efficiency when towing (Tow) or traversing lose surfaces (Snow).
It was pleasing to see the SRT engineers have opted for a fully-hydraulic steering system with a new, heavier-duty pump and revised gearing for more direct response on turn-in and greater on-centre feel and response. Six-piston Brembo brake calipers are employed up front, while four-piston Brembos anchor the rear.
Inside, specification levels are high, the SRT8 coming fully-specced with features including a heated steering wheel with paddle shifters, Nappa leather throughout, suede seats, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, blind-spot monitoring and a powerful 825W, 19-speaker Harman Kardon audio system as standard fare.
Although my driving impressions were limited to Kyalami track time, I feel that for its comparatively low price of R799900, the SRT8 is great value considering its performance and level of standard specification when compared with its R1million-plus rivals in the premium performance SUV segment.