Exceptionally well with all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD) and suitable tires. Not so great in standard rear-wheel drive form. Not as well as you might imagine with all-terrain tires. And worse than you might imagine with high-performance “three-season” tires.
All that variety is part of the appeal of this handsome, capable and popular midsize crossover SUV. Along with the Toyota 4Runner, Grand Cherokee is the only five-passenger vehicle in the segment whose two-wheel-drive variants are rear-wheel drive, not front-wheel drive. (That holds for the Dodge Durango, too, although it’s a seven-seater and in fact is essentially a Grand Cherokee stretched to accommodate a third-row bench.) With the weight of the engine and transmission over the tires that provide traction, front-wheel-drive vehicles generally have better slippery-surface traction than rear-drive vehicles in which the back tires are comparatively unloaded.
We enjoy the dry-road handling balance that rear-drive provides. And fitting a quartet of dedicated winter tires improves immensely any vehicle’s traction in snow. Short of that, if you live where snow accumulates, AWD or 4WD is highly recommended. Grand Cherokee Laredo, Limited, Overland, and Summit models equipped with their base engine, a V-6, use Jeep’s Quadra-Trac I 4WD. This is actually an AWD system that maintains a 48/52 front/rear torque split. It can also automatically direct traction laterally, through braking action, to sustain traction. In all, it’s a fine snowy-condition system that requires no driver input.
Optional with the V-6 and with Grand Cherokee’s turbocharged diesel V-6 engine, and standard with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, is Quadra-Trac II 4WD. It can automatically transfer up to 100 percent of the torque to either axle, potentially increasing your ability to claw through deep snow. It also includes low-range gearing, which is most advantageous in off-road driving. Optional with the V-8 and diesel is Quadra-Drive II, which is Quad-Trac II fortified with a limited-slip rear differential and an adjustable air suspension that can increase Grand Cherokee’s already impressive 8.6 inches of ground clearance to a generous 10.8 inches.
Grand Cherokee’s new-for-2017 off-road-optimized Trailhawk model comes with Quadra-Drive II. And the high-performance-specialty SRT model gets its own AWD system designed for maximum grip on dry roads and even racetracks. The SRT system shares with Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II the advantages of Jeep’s Select-Terrain system. This provides the driver a console knob to dial in powertrain settings calibrated for maximum traction in snow, sand and mud, or rock; there’s also a sport setting. It’s another important hedge against getting stuck.
Do not overlook the vital role tires play in snow traction. In general, the narrower the tire, the better it’ll cut through, rather than ride on, snow. Tread type is critical, too. Within the Grand Cherokee line, the 17-inch tires standard on Lardeo and the 18-inchers optional on Lardeo and standard on the Limited will do best in snow. They’re relatively narrow, but just as significant, they have all-season tread designed to maximize grip in all wet and dry conditions.
Standard on the Overland and Summit and optional on the Limited are 20-inch tires that are significantly wider than the 17s and 18s, although they do have all-season tread. The Trailhawk is available with 18- and 20-inch tires with all-terrain tread, which isn’t as adept in snow as all-season tread. The SRT comes with extremely wide all-season 20-inch tires, their snow-worthiness compromised slightly by the dry-road performance bias of their tread. Least proficient in snow would be the SRT’s optional 20-inch skins, designated “three-season” tires because their tread and rubber compound is not designed for optimal grip in temperatures below 40 degrees or so.
Lastly, remember than no drive system or tire type can overcome the laws of physics, especially in the traction-compromised environment of snowy pavement. Yes, the right drive system and tires help you get going and keep moving in snow. But they won’t help much if you’re injudicious with cornering speeds or brake modulation. Don’t succumb to a false sense of confidence or you’ll be among all those SUVs first to occupy ditches when the white stuff flies.