Auto Search 2011

It’s that time again: my auto lease ends in three months, so I’ve been researching and testing for my next vehicle. I lease for a variety of reasons—not the least of which is that, as a tech-head, I always want the latest tech stack in my vehicle. With advances in audio, phone, navigation, and driver assistance technology, car tech gets stale pretty quickly nowadays.

The Contenders

While my primary interests are in SUVs for their practical use, I also considered a few sedans this year. In all, I considered and tested the following seven vehicles:

Audi Q5Audi Q5 Prestige. Audi has been leading the pack with its MMI telematics, and the Q5 gets the newest rev of that technology stack. This vehicle is fun to drive, but the Prestige trim is a $7K leap of faith since supplies are short and no dealers in the country stock the Prestige trim to test.

BMW X3BMW X3 xDrive35i. BMW completely redesigned the smaller of their SUVs this year, making it more attractive, more luxurious, and more fun. With all these improvements, though, it still lacks some of the technology and features available on it’s larger X5 sibling.

Cadillac SRXCadillac SRX Premium. Maybe it’s middle age setting in, but I think the new SRX is a hot crossover. The interior is very comfortable, and the tech stack is competitive. It lacks any driver assistance features, however, despite huge blindspots.

Ford ExplorerFord Explorer Limited. The all-new 2011 Explorer makes this SUV icon interesting again. But the severely underpowered, first-gen technology behind MyFord Touch is a deal-breaker.

Taurus SHOFord Taurus SHO. Ford surprised everyone in 2010 with the fit, finish, and tech in the new Taurus. While the vehicle stacks up on paper and continues to get good reviews, I couldn’t get past this thing’s ugly derrière.

Jeep Grand CherokeeJeep Grand Cherokee Overland. Out of nowhere, Jeep introduced its most luxurious vehicle ever with the 2011 Grand Cherokee. Some of the technology seems a bit clunky and dated, but this vehicle is stacked with features.

Mercedes-Benz E350Mercedes-Benz E350 Sedan. This year’s E350 is a complete redesign of this old standard, and the new body style is pretty hot. Unfortunately, the tech options are underwhelming (and expensive), and the drive is…unexciting.

Two cars I would have liked to consider are the as-of-yet forthcoming Audi A7 and 2012 VW Passat. Neither was available at the time that I was researching and testing new vehicles.

The Criteria

I don’t evaluate vehicles like most people do. Engine displacement, horsepower, and MPG weigh lightly in my decision process. Instead, I look at a car along four main criteria: technology, luxury, style, and how fun it is to drive.

Here’s how these vehicles stacked up on these criteria on a one to five scale:

Technology Luxury Style Funness
Audi Q5 5 4 4 5
BMW X3 4 4 4 5
Cadillac SRX 3 4 5 3
Ford Explorer 3 3 4 3
Ford Taurus 4 4 3
Jeep Cherokee 4 5 4 4
Mercedes-Benz E350 4 5 5 3

I also have some specific criteria that I’d qualify as “musts”, “wants”, and “likes”. For example, my vehicle must be four wheel drive or all wheel drive, must have navigation with traffic information, a bluetooth phone connection, and iPod/iPhone control. I want it to have keyless entry, adaptive cruise control, cooled seats, and parking assistance. I like having remote start and driver assistance features like blind spot warning and collision detection.

All of the vehicles I tested met my “must” criteria as well as having keyless entry, rear camera, some form of parking sensors, a power liftgate, power seats with memory, some form of satellite radio, and a panoramic sunroof.

My Decision

If I was selecting a vehicle on criteria alone, I’d choose the Audi Q5. It topped the list when ranked by my criteria and included most of my wants and likes. But the Q5 is in high demand so it’s expensive, there’s no incentive for dealers to discount it, dealers have little stock for testing, and nobody stocks the Prestige trim level that I’d want. While I intend to special-order my vehicle, I’m not willing to pay a premium for it, particularly if that means taking a risk on a trim level that I can’t see before ordering.

Ultimately, I chose the Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland with a few options. This SUV really surprised me. I hadn’t even considered Jeep as an option until seeing this vehicle at the Washington Auto Show last month. I was impressed by its new look and the interior appointments, so I visited a local Jeep dealer to test it out.

The new Grand Cherokee is surprisingly luxurious. The cabin is incredibly quiet at any speed, and the combination of wood and leather, standard on the Overland trim, gives the vehicle a sense of refinement that balances the plastic-y center console. In addition to all of my must-have and want-to-have features, the Grand Cherokee also offers adaptive cruise control, adjustable height and suspension settings, remote start, cooled seats, rear heated seats, power steering wheel adjustment, blind-spot and collision detection warnings, and an onboard 110 outlet.

The V6 engine amply allows for solid and spirited driving. This Jeep drives more like a car than a truck, but there’s still a sense of power and size, partly from the vehicle’s higher stance. At a 16/22 MPG rating, this thing isn’t winning any fuel efficiency awards, but this new engine does its best to use as little fuel as possible.

The Grand Cherokee’s UConnect telematics technology looks a bit clunky and outdated, but it’s surprisingly responsive and capable. It includes SIRIUS radio and information services, including traffic information. It controls the iPhone 4, it syncs over 1000 address book entries for a connected bluetooth phone, and it allows you to load music and photos on the system.

Do I have any reservations or concerns? Yeah…a few. This automobile’s parking assistance features are limited to rear sensors and a rear camera with distance lines—not trajectory lines. There are no front parking sensors. Coming from a 360-view camera system with all-around sensors, I’m bound to go through some parking technology withdrawal. Also, if the UConnect system feels dated now, I can only imagine how I’m going to feel about the UI in 2014 when this lease ends. It’s also worth mentioning that this is the first American automobile I’ve ever owned or leased. I’ve had Nissans, Acuras, Land Rovers, VWs, BMWs, Volvos, and Infinitis—but I’ve never before had a Ford, Chrysler, or GM vehicle. Does that concern me? Maybe not so much as it intrigues me.

The Specs

Model 2001 Grand Cherokee Overland 4×4
Colors New Saddle/Black Interior Color 

Natural Green Pearl Coat Exterior Paint

Options 3.6 Liter V6 VVT Pentastar Engine 

Media Center 730N CD/DVD/MP3/HDD/NAV

Advanced Warning and Adaptive Cruise Control

Your Opinion

So now that you’ve read my thoughts on the matter, I’m curious about yours. Which of these vehicles would you have chosen?

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