Getting Dirty with Jeep

Chrysler opened up its usually tightly guarded test facilities west of Detroit on Thursday to show off its entire lineup. Almost most everything new for 2011 and even some freshly minted 2012 wares were on hand for sampling at varying levels of speed.

And since the Chrysler 300 with the much-anticipated new eight-speed transmission is a secret--or at least embargoed--until fall, I decided to start off the day of performance testing off-road. Why not? The entire Jeep line was sitting off to the side, awaiting enticingly for some exercise. And I was happy to oblige.

Now, these weren't simple joyrides, though they were a hell of a lot of mud-splattering fun. Rather, Jeep is big news and big business today for Chrysler. The Grand Cherokee has been impressing reviewers for more than a year, and AutoWeek editors named it our winner in the truck/SUV category of our inaugural America's Best contest.

Sales for the brand have surged 44 percent percent this year to 152,810 units through May, and Jeep continues to serve as a halo division of sorts for a company that actually has several attention-getting vehicles, including the buffer Charger, the elegant 300 and an entire line of modern hot rods wearing SRT badging.

But Jeep has always exhibited an uncanny ability to stay true to its base yet also remain a viable business asset, continually outliving every company that has owned it.

With all of this in mind, I was more than eager to hit the trails on this morning, which was breezy, gloomy and even a touch cool. It wasn't even nine o'clock yet, but it was definitely a Jeep kind of day.

I was the first in the mud, proceeding cautiously in the gutsiest thing Jeep makes, a Wrangler Rubicon, for the initial run. Jeep designer Mark Allen led the way in a 2011 Compass, and Jeep marketing boss Jim Morrison rode shotgun in my Wrangler as we took off through the trees.

The course began with a right turn by a log, which served as a subtle warning as to what lay ahead. For hard-core Jeep guys, the course is no sweat, but for amateurs like me (who live in the mostly flat suburbs), there was a degree of challenge. Up the hills and steep grades we went. Through the standing, muddy water and around somewhat tight curves that disappeared into the soft, wet earth--it was all good fun. The Wrangler did not even flinch.

But after a trip through, we traded spots with Allen, who likes to put wheels up in the air and throw mud, because, well, he can. That meant I was at the wheel of the Compass, which heretofore hasn't exactly inspired the Jeep faithful to anything other than murmurs of discontent. I was pleasantly surprised, however to get a taste of the real capability of this diminutive four-wheeler, the first trail-rated Compass ever. It was fitted with the Latitude package, and it was more than capable of forging a path through the murky woods.

It made a hard landing once on a hill descent (my fault) but it was more than up for the task. I later took one for a spin at a slow pace for some video, and that Compass, wearing 70th-anniversary trim, would really surprise Jeep loyalists. It's not as intense as the Wrangler, but what is? But the Compass is no longer an afterthought. And with competitive pricing and decent fuel economy, it's a nice alternative to the buttoned-down, terry-cloth demeanor of most compact crossovers.

To round out my Jeep adventure, I took a lap in the Grand Cherokee. Stickering for about $43,000, this beast was as comfortable as it was capable, loaded with leather, electronics and a plush interior. The JGC is friendly off-road monster, navigating the terrain with more civility but no less desire than its siblings.

Jeeps are trendy, inspire attitude and are a lot of fun. If all you do is take them shopping or use them as the sled of choice to commute to the office, you're not even scratching the surface of their ambitions. You don't have to scratch the paint, but at least get some mud on 'em.

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