U.S. diesel SUV a fuel-gauge delight

There’s something delightful about driving hundreds of miles in an SUV and watching the gas gauge barely nudge from its full setting. That delight becomes even more wondrous with the knowledge that the SUV is American, rather than German. More specifically, it’s Jeep’s highest-end off-road offering — the 2014 Grand Cherokee Limited EcoDiesel.

While Chrysler, as a whole, is late to the game with alternative fuels, Jeep can now brag about an impressive first. It is the only non-Teutonic automaker to offer a clean diesel SUV.

Why diesel? Once derided as a belcher of black smoke, the fuel has cleaned up its act with a low-sulfur formulation that slows the destruction of the planet with lower carbon dioxide emissions. It’s also likely to improve the disposition of its drivers, who will enjoy the perks of its punchy acceleration, its penny-pinching fuel economy and the weeks they can drive without a stop at Chevron.

Boasting a range of 730 miles per tank, the Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel can travel to Mammoth and back on a single fill-up and still be game for a side trip to Costco.

Diesel’s use in passenger vehicles by a small handful of up-market brands adds to its already impressive cache. Like Audi, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, which have been twinning diesel performance and luxury amenities for years, Jeep is adding a diesel option only to its most luxurious and exclusive model.

Already, the four-wheel-drive five-seater marries Jeep’s off-roading nature with an unusually quiet cabin, pampering amenities such as heated seats front and back, and a level of technology more commonly found in an IT lab. The EcoDiesel just adds to its overall enjoyment with a fuel-economy improvement of 26 percent over the gas-powered version and double the torque for pedal-stomping fun without the gas-guzzler penalty.

Averaging 24 mpg combined, the 2014 Grand Cherokee’s default setting is an eco mode designed to enhance fuel economy by adjusting the transmission’s shift points and the three-liter engine’s idle speed. It also shuts off the fuel when the vehicle is decelerating. Diesel newbies who neglect to turn the button off aren’t likely to even realize it’s on, however, since the power delivery is still torquier than one would expect from a V-6.

The EcoDiesel powertrain is the same as the one Ram uses in its 1500 pickup. It adds $4,500 to the $38,790 starting price of the 2014 Grand Cherokee, which builds on the 2011 model year overhaul that loaded an unprecedented level of refinement into the Jeep flagship.

For 2014, the Grand Cherokee has undergone a minor facelift, but its most impressive upgrades are under the hood. In addition to diesel, it is now equipped with another technology more commonly found on European sports cars — an eight-, rather than a five-, speed gearbox that is fast and smooth and can be operated with paddle shifters.

Not that it wants to be driven like a sports car. The Grand Cherokee is, after all, fully off-road capable, i.e. tall, though its height can be modified. Equipped with Jeep’s so-called quadra-lift air suspension, its ground clearance can be manually lifted or lowered with the press of a button, though the car automatically drops itself at speeds above 55 mph to prevent it from becoming a kite.

My test vehicle was trail rated, meaning it was equipped with one of two groups of off-road adventure packages that enhance traction, ground clearance, maneuverability and its ability to ford streams.

According to Jeep, just 10 percent of Grand Cherokee owners will ever pop the curb and take their rides off road into the untamed wilds of the outdoors. But it’s the technology designed to appeal to that minority that is this Jeep’s most impressive feature.

The air suspension works with Jeep’s Land Rover-esque Selec-Terrain traction system, which lets drivers set the vehicle to certain driving conditions. Traversing snow, rocks or sand is managed with the simple turn of a knob that electronically coordinates the powertrain, braking and suspension systems, as well as the throttle, transmission shift points and stability controls, among other things.

Hills are handled just as easily. At the touch of a button, the Jeep’s hill-descent control kicks in to relieve drivers of the need to use their brakes. Heading downward, on steep grades, it applies the brakes automatically to each wheel individually when needed, preventing the SUV from succumbing to gravity’s mercy. Going the opposite direction — up — hill start assist keeps the brakes engaged even when the driver has removed her foot from the pedal, freeing it up to accelerate without losing ground and rolling backward.

With the Grand Cherokee EcoDiesel it just comes with a semi-like chug chug chug soundtrack.

2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 4×4

Base price: $38,790

Price as tested (EcoDiesel with luxury and off-road adventure packages): $49,185

Powertrain: Sequential port fuel injected, 3.0-liter V-6 EcoDiesel, eight-speed automatic transmission

Horsepower: 240

Torque: 420 lb.-ft.

Tow capacity: 7,400 pounds

Wheelbase: 114.8 inches

Overall length: 189.8 inches

Curb weight: 4,875 lbs.

EPA-estimated fuel economy: 21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, 24 mpg combined Including destination charge carp

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