By Sue Mead, Motor Matters

New drivetrains, more luxury and a bevy of options for off-road prowess define the updated 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. Its sizzling sibling -- the high-performance, lap-of-luxury Grand Cherokee SRT -- is also updated.

Jeep Grand Cherokee's exterior strikes a solid visual balance between refinement and ruggedness. The redesigned grille gives more luxo character overall with distinguishing trim around each of the signature vertical slots. Slimmer headlamps and a shorter upper grille put a check in the "more refined" category, while 17-inch all-season tires and a beefy lower grille have "rugged" creds. The rear has new larger taillamps with smart LED lighting, a larger, more aerodynamic rear spoiler, and a re-sculpted tailgate.

Inside, passengers sit in a roomy and comfortable space dominated by technology features. The updated center stack has either a 5-inch or 8.4-inch touchscreen, depending on the trim level, with climate and audio controls easy to reach and use. A leather-wrapped shifter is a punctuated stake in the ground below the stack.

Grand Cherokee's new leather-wrapped, three-spoke steering wheel has paddle shifters and sits in front of a curved information display. The standard audio system is a six-speaker set-up with AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sirius XM; dual-zone climate control is included on all models, as are two 12-volt power outlets.

Of note, we appreciated a tasteful collection of new color schemes and trim materials that add quality and panache; designers say they used the drama of nature from locations such as the Grand Canyon, Morocco, and Italy for inspiration.

Under the hood, the Grand Cherokee is powered by the same Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 motor that delivers 290 horsepower and 260 lb.-ft. of torque. Also on board is an improved, lower crawl ratio of 44.1:1, a 46 percent improvement from previous models. EPA fuel economy estimates are up however and are rated at 17 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway for the front-wheel drive version and 17/24 mpg with four-wheel drive.

Two optional motors can be ordered. The 240-hp 3.0-liter V-6 EcoDiesel grinds out 420 lb.-ft. of torque. This V-6 is more efficient, with EPA estimates coming in at 22/30 mpg (2WD) and 22/28 mpg (4WD). Jeep's 5.7-liter V-8 is rated at 360 horsepower and 390 lb.-ft. of torque and delivers an expected 14/22 mpg (14/20 mpg in 4WD). All engines are matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission with manual control through the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters.

We were impressed by the 2014 Jeep's on-road ride during a day of motoring from Austin to the Texas Hill Country over a course of more than 160 miles. The new Grand Cherokee feels tighter (less body roll), as well as more refined and responsive. There's a lot to appreciate with the paddle shifters that bring sporty, immediate shifting response, but the eight-speed transmission is also calibrated to make smooth upshifts and even "blip" the throttle to match rpms for slowing and hard braking.

Four-wheel drive is available on all Grand Cherokees, with choice of two transfer cases: Quadra Trac I is a full-time 4x4 and optional for V-6 models; Quadra-Trac II has low, neutral and full-time active 4x4 settings for V-6 and V-8 motors.

In addition, Quadra-Drive II (not to be confused with Quadra-Trac II) is an option for the higher-end trims, set up with either the V-8 or EcoDiesel engine. Quadra-Drive II is an advanced traction management system that instantly detects tire slip and sends torque to wheels with traction.

The Grand Cherokee also earns chops for off-road readiness through a couple of big-deal suspension and handling systems. Quadra-Lift is Jeep's air suspension system with ride height settings from 8.7 inches to 11.3 inches of ground clearance, as well as the option to drop the vehicle 0.6 inches closer to the ground for easier parking and better aerodynamics.

For true off-roaders this Jeep SUV rates an impressive 35.8-degree approach angle, a 29.6-degree departure angle and 23.5-degree break-over angle with Quadra-Lift and the front air dam removed. And, if three motors, eight transmission gears and two suspension systems aren't enough variety, buyers also can also opt for Jeep's Selec-Terrain traction control master plan.

Selec-Terrain manages with 12 different powertrain, braking and suspension systems, including throttle control, transmission shift, transfer case, hill-descent control and speed control. There are settings for off-road terrain that accommodates rocks, mud, sand, and snow, for instance, and the system lets the vehicle speed up and slow down without having to brake or throttle in a graduated fashion that aids with steep slopes or compromised traction surfaces.

As we drove the new Grand Cherokee over an off-road course that included sand wash, in addition to rock and boulder climbs, we gained respect for its lower crawl ratio and new uphill Selec-Speed Control that allowed us to dial in speeds of 1, 2, or 3 mph with an easy click of the paddle shifter.

One of the first midsize luxury SUVs to come to market back in 1992, the new 2014 model is a worthy competitor to Land Rover, BMW, VW and other high-end SUVs. Jeep pricing ranges from $28,795 to $50,995. The 2014 Grand Cherokee is available in five levels: Laredo, Laredo E, Limited, Overland and Summit.

SPECIFICATIONS

2014 JEEP GRAND CHEROKEE LAREDO

VEHICLE TYPE_________________ 5-passenger midsize 2WD SUV

BASE PRICE____________________$28,795 (as tested: $29,790)

MOTOR TYPE__________________ 24-valve DOHC V-6 w/SMPFI

DISPLACEMENT________________ 3.6-liter

HORSEPOWER (net)_____________ 290 at 6400 rpm

TORQUE (lb.-ft.)_________________260 at 4800 rpm

TRANSMISSION_________________8-speed automatic

OVERALL LENGTH_______________189.8 in.

TURNING CIRCLE (curb-to-curb)___ 37.1 ft.

CURB WEIGHT__________________ 4,545 lbs.

FUEL CAPACITY_________________ 24.6 gal.

EPA MILEAGE RATING___________ 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway