Earlier this year, the Jeep brand introduced the first-ever Grand Cherokee with a third row of seats, labeling it the “L”. In addition to adding extra seating, this Jeep Grand Cherokee L also introduces us to the next generation of the legendary nameplate, so this isn’t just a slightly larger version of the current models on sale today. The L is almost entirely new inside and out, and while few people will buy the new three-row Jeep to go off-roading, being trail-capable has become a key component of the brand’s marketing.

With that in mind, the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L was engineered to offer comparable off-road abilities to the rest of the lineup. During the recent media first drive event, we made a stop at the company’s Chelsea Proving Grounds to spend some time on the off-road course in the new Overland model. The Grand Cherokee L will never be confused with a Wrangler, but this big SUV is better than expected, handling the tight trails, steep rock climb and deep water remarkably well.

Grand Cherokee L in the Woods

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland Rocks

The Chelsea Proving Grounds is a key location where every new Jeep is tested prior to coming to market, so as you might imagine, there is a massive spread of serious obstacles. Some aspects of the sprawling off-road area are copied from legendary off-road venues such as Moab and I have had the pleasure of testing many modern Jeep models in the man-made forests of the Proving Grounds.

Regardless of what model we drove on the road, we all had a 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland with the Off-Road Group for testing in the woods. The Overland with the Off-Road Group is the most off-road-purposed model right now, featuring the Quadra-Lift air suspension system, the Quadra-Drive II 4WD with an electronic limited slip differential rear axle, a variety of skid plates and package-specific 18-inch wheels wrapped in Michelin Primacy XC all-season tires. We set the suspension to its highest level before heading into the woods and selected the Mud/Sand Mode to begin the off-roading fun.

The off-road trails at the Chelsea Proving Grounds are designed to be tricky on a nice day, but when we were there, it was pouring down rain. As a result, the dirt paths were mud, the ruts were puddles surrounded by mud, the log pile was covered with mud and the rocks were covered with mud. Everything was wet, muddy and slippery.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland Grass

Of course, I easily made it through the dedicated Jeep course with vehicles like the Wrangler in the past, but the Grand Cherokee L is the largest vehicle I’ve ever taken through the tight trails. I went into the situation a bit concerned that the new three-row Jeep would take a ton of careful creeping around the many trees that jut out into the path. In fact, there are portions of the off-road testing area where you cannot take a Ram 1500 because the distance between the trees is too narrow for the full-sized truck to fit. To my surprise, the Jeep Grand Cherokee L was surprisingly nimble in the tight spaces, feeling more like the two-row models than any of the other three-row vehicles on the market.  Even with the relatively mild tires, the big Jeep had no issues traversing the muddy paths, even making short work of the slippery log pile in the middle of the course.

Really, the trails and log pile were no challenge for the Jeep Grand Cherokee L and we pretty much cruised through this section with ease. With the adjustable suspension set to the highest levels, even the deepest ruts posed no real challenge and at no point did the size of the L have a negative impact on the narrow trails. There were a few areas that tested the suspension travel with vastly uneven footing from one side to the other, but the big Jeep put on an impressive suspension articulation display.

Hitting the Rocks

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland Rock Climb

At the end of the off-road test course, we ran into the toughest obstacle for just about any vehicle. A long, twisting climb up a steep slope that is completely covered with large rocks. This is rock crawling at its finest, with a steady climb over the big rocks being punctuated by an even steeper slope of solid rock – all of which was wet from the rain. As you can see, the pictures taken by the Jeep photographers were captured on a much nicer day, but in all of these off-road pictures, imagine that it was pouring rain and that vehicles had been tracking mud around the course all day.

The entry point to the rock climb area wasn’t very steep, so it was pretty easy to get started, but as we made the right-hand turn, the hill got steeper and the rocks got bigger. This was where we started to put the skid plates and the Rock driving mode to the test, but the Grand Cherokee L Overland did a nice job of climbing over all of the wet rocks. There were points where drivers took a line that stuck them against larger rocks, forcing them to throttle-in and shove up over, but after watching many members of the media climb the hill, I didn’t see anyone who had to back up and adjust their line. Pretty much anything that the new Jeep ran into, it climbed right over.

The toughest part of the climb was the top of the hill, which was a steeper concrete peak with just enough space from the rocks to allow the Jeep to dig in on something other than large, loose rocks. The key issue was that the mud on the concrete peak made it very slippery, so we had to really hammer the throttle and let the tires dig in to clear obstacle. Some people had all four tires spinning and digging, but everyone made it to the other side. I suspect that a slightly more aggressive off-road tire would make the Jeep Grand Cherokee L considerably better in every off-road condition, but the standard all-season tires get the job done.

Once we cleared the rock climb, we headed into a water obstacle that was a cross between a very deep puddle and a shallow pond. With the added rain water, this water hazard was deep enough to come up past the bottom of the doors, but the Grand Cherokee L easily pushed through that and the interior floor was perfectly dry at the end of the run.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland Water

Simply put, I was shocked at how well the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L handled the off-road course, as even the Overland model with the Off-Road Group is a very mild setup as off-road packages come. Anyone who really plans to do any off-roading will probably want to upgrade their tires, but the suspension system and the advanced four-wheel-drive system with the Terrain Management drive mode system all work together to make this big Jeep a great off-road machine.

For the average driver who will never intentionally go off-roading, this means that you will likely never run into troubles, even on the roughest unpaved public roads. Deep ruts, flooding, a mud slide or even a fallen tree will not keep you from continuing on your path.

Stunningly Smooth on the Road

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland Rock Highway

While the off-roading portion of the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L media first drive event took place in Chelsea, Michigan, our drive route began in Detroit’s Eastern Market. This bustling shopping area is comprised of tight streets lined with delivery trucks and the parked vehicles of the many shoppers who come to the market daily. It is the kind of place where a large SUV can be cumbersome, but similarly to the off-road testing, the Grand Cherokee L doesn’t feel like a huge three-row SUV in the narrow city streets. The steering system is sharp and visibility is great for a vehicle of this size, so getting through the tight city streets was no problem.

Once we got out onto the highway with the Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve, we had a chance to experience the Jeep Active Driving Assist system, which is just shy of autonomous driving. The system handles acceleration and braking, like an average cruise control system, but it also controls the steering with an elaborate lane-keeping system. Most lane-keeping systems ease you away from the line, but they don’t really steer for you. The Jeep system handles the majority of the steering, even on long, sweeping turns. You do have to keep your hand on the steering wheel, otherwise the system chimes at you and deactivates, preventing people from using this is a self-driving system. As intelligent cruise control systems go, the Jeep system is a great one, making a long, highway drive more comfortable for the driver.

While on the open road, I was impressed with how smooth and quiet the ride is, even at highway speeds in harsh weather. Hardly any wind or road noise from the tires make it into the cabin, creating a whisper quiet environment for the passengers. Having tested many three-row SUVs, the new Jeep Grand Cherokee L is definitely one of the quietest on the highway. That allowed me to enjoy the incredible 19-speaker McIntosh sound system to the fullest, which is controlled by the 10.1-inch touchscreen.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland Rock Interior

Operating on the UConnect 5 software, this is the latest and greatest infotainment system from the Chrysler Group brands and it is another masterpiece. It has been created to function like a tablet with swipe functionality and customization options that let you create a layout that puts everything that you want at your fingertips. There are individual screens for every control system on the infotainment screen, but the custom screens allow you to put two menus – say media and navigation – on the same screen. With a quick swipe, the next screen can show climate control and phone access. It is a beautiful infotainment system and the McIntosh sound system is definitely one that audiophiles will want.

Finally, as we neared the off-road testing area, we spent some time driving around the twisty, rural roads of mid-Michigan. While we imagine that absolutely no one is going to buy a 2021 Grand Cherokee L for its on-road handling prowess, the big three-row SUV handles pretty nicely. There is minimal body roll on tighter corners and with 357 Hemi horsepower on tap, L is plenty quick for the segment. It is obviously no SRT model, but it also doesn’t slop around on the road like the pickup-based SUVs on sale today.

The Conclusion

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland Dirt

If you want a three-row SUV that offers impressive on-road comforts, premium interior technology and the ability to go off-roading, the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L Overland is an incredible vehicle. It is not an all-out off-road model, so it is still plenty comfortable for the daily drive on the highway, but if you want to hit the local ORV park on the weekend, this new Jeep will answer the call. We might recommend better tires for someone who is really serious about off-roading, but there is no question that the Grand Cherokee L Overland with the Off-Road Group package is every bit as capable as previous large Jeeps.

If you want lots more luxury, the Summit Reserve is one of the most impressive three-row SUVs I have tested, offering a luxury-level look and feel. This package comes with 21-inch wheels and low profile tires, so it would not be any good in the mud and rocks, but it does come with the same suspension and four-wheel-drive system as the Overland models. Swap to a set of aftermarket wheels and tires and the Grand Cherokee L Summit Reserve could make for a very swanky off-road rig. The only downside there is that the Overland has shorter fascias for extra clearance and skid pans to protect the undercarriage, neither of which are available with the range-topping Reserve models.

In the end, the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L introduces the next generation of the legendary nameplate with a bang, showing that the new Jeep is bigger and better.