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2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee Flex Fuel Road Test

by Martha Hindes

2012 Green SUV Buyer's Guide - Road & Travel Top 10 Picks

Audi Q7 TDI Clean Diesel

Jeep Grand Cherokee FFV

BMW X5 xDrive 35d Diesel

Lexus RX 450h Hybrid

Hyundai Tucson Hybrid

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

The longstanding "It's a Jeep thing" mantra of America's original sport utility vehicle probably seems out of place when speaking of green vehicles. Sure, Jeeps are toughies known for their gutsy credentials, their ability to crawl over log piles and down through gullies with rock-solid determination, and have launched an uncountable number of offroad trips during their storied history. But the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee sport utility has earned the right to be considered earth friendly in the process.

It's a transition we might not have expected. As Road & Travel vehicle testers, we witnessed -- a dozen or so years ago -- the first time a midsize Grand Cherokee negotiated the fabled and treacherous Rubicon Trail in California's High Sierra mountain range that can put lesser vehicles out of their misery in short order. It was something the largest, most luxurious Jeep simply wasn't supposed to be able to accomplish. But it did. And a vehicle doesn't do that kind of work on fumes.

Fast forward to 2012 and the Grand Cherokee, in the second year of a total revision -- a shade bulkier in size and more upmarket in guise -- hasn't lost its chutzpah. But what it has gained in the interim is bound to make Mother Nature a bit happier. Besides the expected more premium upgrades in trim with leathers, electronics and beautifully crafted interiors and a boldly-redesigned exterior, there's a flexible fuel capability that can use organic-based fuels as its power source. That's a kind of full-circle giving back to the natural world it has long tried to conquer.

The FlexFuel -- or FFV -- Grand Cherokee has a no-nonsense power plant, the kind necessary for those unlimited explorations. And to accomplish that, this is no sissy SUV. The base 3.6-liter V-6 under its belt that generates a hefty 290-horsepower, of course gets the best mileage of the two engines, with a 17-city/23-highway mileage rating. (The 5.7-liter, 360-HP V-8 lags at 14/20.)

Mechanical improvements for 2012 include an electro-hydraulic power steering system for the V-6 and new, six-speed automatic when in manual mode for the V-8.

But the Grand Cherokee's workhorse attitude benefits from the ability to fill up on regular gasoline alone or a mix of gasoline and liquid methanol called E85 (for its respective 15 percent to 85 percent ratio). That's the less polluting biofuel manufactured from vegetation rather than non-renewable fossil fuels. (The Grand Cherokee meets stringent LEVII emissions standards in such environmentally-progressive states as California and New York, and clean fuel certification in 45 other states.)

The most earth friendly of the four Grand Cherokee models is the more basic front-drive Laredo that lacks the off-road "skid plates" to protect its underbelly during wilderness treks or the transfer case that allows it to crawl along in low gear. But even this model can outdo most competitors. And since even Jeeps live the vast majority of their lives on pavement, the Grand Cherokee needs more than grunt power to keep its owners happy.

Here again is where it shines. The exterior wears a contemporary, sculptured new look with a driver's car rear spoiler for flooring it for fun when on the road and wheel wells arced enough to accommodate some serious tire bounces when it's not. A "Trail Rated" badge when properly fitted adds authority. The highly refined interior is available with wood trim, premium leather with piping, isolation from road noise and a wealth of high tech electronics that pampers either way.

(For those who do head off into the hinterlands, there's a 550-mile expected driving range so one can get back undaunted, and Jeep's available Quadra-Lift air suspension system and Jeep Selec-Terrain traction control system. There are three available 4X4 systems that work with V-6 or V-8 powertrains.)

Such active and passive safety systems as stability control, head and side-mounted airbags, active head restraints to prevent whiplash injuries -- all standard -- plus available Blind Spot/Cross Path detection, forward collision warning and adaptive cruise control helped the Grand Cherokee win a "Top Safety Pick" rating. That coveted designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) is one of several awards for 2012.

If one is willing to take a $25K (base) vehicle out of the corral to test its raw credentials, the 2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the one to do it. But if having such a handsome sport utility in hand, especially loaded with costlier upgrades, would make one lean toward caution and stay on-pavement, that could be earth friendly as well. Either way, why not call it living green without being environmentally mean.

For more info on Jeep brands, click here.