The Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee are two models that busy households are likely to consider as their core family vehicle.
Both of these models have quite the nameplate recognition in the U.S.; and both have a heritage built allusions to a rugged lifestyle. Today these two deliver that to different degrees, and they end up in quite different market positions—yet both of them have become more upscale vehicles compared to the fairly utilitarian family wagons they used to be.
MORE: Read our reviews of the 2017 Ford Explorer and the 2017 Jeep Grand Cherokee
We score the Jeep Grand Cherokee an easy winner over the Ford Explorer, and that’s for reasons you might not expect.
It was a fair fight too. Both the 2017 models have been scored against our new, more stringent, rating criteria. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
The Jeep Grand Cherokee has managed to hold on to its rugged exterior cues remarkably well while also managing a more modern twist to the profile and finer details. Meanwhile the Explorer has evolved rather dramatically, into a softer-styled vehicle that amounts to less of a truck in design and more of a tall, boxy wagon—still with reasonably good ground clearance, of course. Inside, these two vehicles have little semblance to their 1990s ancestors that helped push SUVs to popularity. The Grand Cherokee’s cabin is richly furnished, with marvelous materials and textures if you’re willing to step up to the more expensive models. For the Explorer, its cabin design seems to reach upward from Ford’s cars, impressing with a somewhat more upright version of the Taurus full-size sedan’s dash and sturdy, attractive trims.
Performance, comfort, and utility
Powertrains for these two models are quite dramatically different. The Grand Cherokee has a choice between naturally aspirated gasoline V-6 and V-8 engines, as well as a turbodiesel V-6, while the Explorer instead has a choice between a naturally aspirated V-6 and turbocharged (EcoBoost) 4-cylinder or V-6 engines.
Without detailing all the power and torque figures of each of these levels (you can catch up with all of that in our full review), we’ll point to a few surprising things: The new 2.3-liter EcoBoost four in the Explorer makes 280 horsepower and 310 pound-feet of torque—more on both counts than the Grand Cherokee’s gasoline V-6. Meanwhile the Explorer’s 365-hp and 350 lb-ft ratings don’t quite match the gusto provided by the 5.7-liter Hemi in the Grand Cherokee, which makes 360 hp and 390 pound-feet. The 8-speed automatics in the Grand Cherokee respond quickly and smoothly—definitely a bit better than the 6-speeds in the Explorer.
The Grand Cherokee spans a wider range of uses, as there’s not only Trail Rated off-road hardware on offer but also a high-performance SRT model, with a 475-hp, 6.4-liter V-8 that can blast this wagon to 60 mph in just 4.8 seconds (or brake from 60 mph in an excellent 116 feet). It’s a performance model in a way you might never expect for something with the Jeep badge. As for the Explorer, it has some basic ability to get up a rugged two-track to the campsite, but don’t ask for that much more—and there’s no super-high-performance model in the lineup to match up against the SRT.
There’s another reason to focus in on the Grand Cherokee: the EcoDiesel model, which offers a 3.0-liter turbodiesel V-6 that returns up to 30 mpg on the highway (we’ve easily seen that in real-world driving) and a cruising range of 730 miles. It’s strong and confident, and the pick of them all if you plan to tow.
Both of these vehicles are eye-opening on the road—inspiring in their ride and handling in a way that you probably wouldn’t expect from models that build on a rugged reputation (and outdoorsy nameplates). Ride and handling depend a bit on the trim level (and inherent purpose). The Explorer has quick electric power steering and relatively firm damping, for performance that makes this heavy vehicle feel buttoned-down even on pitching, hilly backroads. The Grand Cherokee can be equipped with an air suspension that now only raises this big ‘ute for off-roading but lowers it for better aerodynamics during highway driving.
Utility, safety, and features
The Ford Explorer isn’t just longer than the Grand Cherokee on the outside; it also makes better use of space on the inside; and that makes the Explorer the clear winner if interior space and versatility are important. The Explorer offers three rows of seating, while the Grand Cherokee makes do with two; the Ford’s third-row seat is indeed rather tight for adults, but it’s more than adequate for children. As for the second row in the Explorer, the cushions are shorter than they should be, so if you have four adults (and no plans to haul more passengers), we think you might be happier in the Grand Cherokee.
And as a side note, if you like everything in the Grand Cherokee except its lack of a third-row seat, you might want to check out the Dodge Durango, which adds a third row but admittedly doesn’t have the off-road emphasis.
The Explorer continues to offer some extraordinary advanced-safety features, like inflatable rear seatbelts, adaptive cruise control, collision warning with brake support, and a lane-keep system. On the Grand Cherokee you’ll find optional parking sensors, blind-spot monitors, adaptive cruise control, and a front crash warning system. Both models are good but not perfect in their crash-test results from U.S. agencies, and all considered we’d call it a tie.
Feature-wise, both of these models come in relatively well-equipped models that leave plenty of room for options, or in some upscale trim levels that end up feeling like they should carry a luxury badge—and in some of those cases, the price tag is that of a luxury vehicle. Of the Grand Cherokee’s five trim levels, we tend to think that look, feel and features of this vehicle are best in its Overland and Summit models (two of the more expensive levels), while for the Explorer the Limited model offers pretty much everything you might expect in such a family wagon. Beginning last year the Explorer became available in a Platinum trim with the works, such as Nirvana leather, quilted-look door inserts, and satin-chrome trim. Skip that model, though, unless you’re okay with an Explorer that approaches $55,000.
To us it’s a clear win for the Jeep, with some caveats. Before you buy, ask whether you put more weight on interior space and versatility (the Explorer) or the off-road prowess and refined, unflappable feel of the Grand Cherokee.