Brawny, powerful and fast.

by Jim McCraw

Base Price $38,175
As Tested $38,900

The Grand Cherokee comes in three trim levels, the Laredo, the TSi, and the Limited. Until 1996, when the Ford Explorer and Mercury Mountaineer debuted with V-8 engines, the Grand Cherokee was the only sport-utility in its class to offer a V-8 engine option, a significant piece of marketing one-upmanship in the highly competitive segment of so-called compact SUVs.

While the Jeep still had the most powerful V-8 offering last year, a 5.2-liter V-8 with 220 horsepower, the game is different this year. Jeep went and one-upped the competition again with this new model, the 5.9 Limited, which uses a 245-hp 5.9-liter engine that develops a whopping 335 foot-pounds of torque.

For 1998, there is a small group of minor improvements to the seven-year-old Grand Cherokee: Wrangler HP tires, driver and passenger air bags, a new ignition key lock and new Dark Saddle and Agate interior colors. Also available for 1998 is the sporty Grand Cherokee TSi package which was introduced at mid-year in 1997.

Walkaround

The entry level Grand Cherokee is a Laredo, a two-wheel-drive, four-door model with a 4.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission. The lineup builds from there to the TSi, and 5.2-liter V-8 Limited models with four-speed automatics. For those who want the power and the space without the complexity and weight of a four-wheel-drive system, the low-volume two-wheel-drive model is also available with the 5.2-liter V-8 engine option. With the addition of the 5.9-liter V-8, the Grand Cherokee offers more drivetrain variations than any other sport-utility on the market.

While no manual transmission is available on the Grand Cherokee, there are two drive systems available: SelecTrac, which has a fixed ratio of torque split between front and rear axles, and QuadraTrac, which normally puts all the torque to the rear axle but can automatically shift torque fore and aft at any split between zero and 100 percent, so that the torque always goes to the tires that have the best traction. The 5.9 Limited comes only with the QuadraTrac system.

Grand Cherokee comes with a large load of standard equipment, including air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power mirrors, power door locks, 10-way power seats with power recline and lumbar systems, tinted glass, remote locking/security system, leather trim, tilting column, speed control, aluminum wheels, premium AM/FM/cassette stereo, fog lamps, a roof rack, alloy wheels, a security/entry system, both floor and overhead consoles.

The Limited package adds heated seats, a power sunroof, and an upgraded sound system with three-band graphic equalizer. The Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited features a new exhaust system that reduces back pressure by nearly 25 percent, with a three-inch chrome-plated exhaust tip.

Unique 5.9 Limited exterior features include a grille with a mesh insert, hood louvres, body-colored sill molding, P225/70R16 Wrangler tires, chrome badging, 16-inch Ultra Star aluminum wheels and a roof rack. The 5.9 Limited's three exterior colors are Bright Platinum, Stone White, and Deep Slate. Also new on the 5.9 Limited is the 46RE transmission, a high strength output shaft on the existing 2.49 transfer case, an electric engine cooling fan and a high-output 150-amp alternator.

The Inside Story

The interior of the 5.9 Limited has features such as premium leather seat inserts, sunroof, spare tire cover with storage, a new 180-watt Infinity audio system amplifier with 10 speakers, 60/40 rear seat with fold-down armrest, birdseye maple woodgrain trim, leather trimmed door bolsters and armrests, as well as a leather-covered console armrest.

From the left front seat, the Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited is easy to figure out and easy to deal with. The instrument panel seems to be running out of space to put the various switches and controls for all the power options. The typical Jeep white-on-black instruments with blue, green and orange accents, are easy to scan and very good at night

The leather chairs are very comfortable for long rides, and have a very wide range of power adjustments, with a two-person memory feature for the seats, radio stations and outside mirrors. The clear instrument covers and some of the plastic elements used in the interior are too shiny and glary for our tastes.

If the Grand Cherokee has a handicap it is the lack of interior space when compared its competition. While the interior is nicely done, the truck is built on a narrow Jeep platform and that dictates and governs how much space is available for shoulders, hips, heads and legs, and, behind the second seat, how much space awaits the cargo loads a truck like this will encounter. Compact sport-utilities that came onto the market after the Grand Cherokee boast much larger interior layouts and more usable space in the cargo area.

Having said that, the Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited, which is done up in soft, cushy leather and faux wood, offers quite a pleasant environment for four people and their collective stuff, or two adults and three kids. We wouldn't stretch it to five adults, though, at least not for long rides. The interior simply isn't roomy enough for five people.

Ride and Drive

The 5.9 Limited's ride is quiet and comfortable, more comfortable than in any other Jeep and in most of the other compact sport-utility vehicles. There's extra sound insulation built into the Grand Cherokee to keep the noise down, and the materials used on the Limited version work very well.

If you like hot rods and need a sport-utility vehicle, then the Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited should be on your list of compact sport-utilities. Its V-8 accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in a mere 7.3 seconds, according to Chrysler, and the sporty exhaust system lets you and some of the people around you know it's got some serious horsepower. Our test truck ripped away from intersections. It accelerated up long grades with ease. With excellent performance in the 40-70 mph range, passing on two-lane roads wasn't much of a challenge at all. We didn't haul any major loads with it, but it is rated to pull a 6700-pound trailer, sufficient for pulling small boats and cars.

The Grand Cherokee still uses recirculating-ball steering, and it is a bit mushy and imprecise compared to other systems. It works with a leading-arm coil-spring front suspension and trailing arm coil-spring rear suspension with gas shocks all around to keep the Grand Cherokee on the straight and narrow. Ride quality is very good, all things considered, and ride control is taut, with not too much body roll in fast corners. Brake performance was the best we've ever experienced on a Jeep vehicle, very solid and strong.

When going off road the Grand Cherokee is one of the most capable with a suspension that offers plenty of articulation for climbing over rocks. Its closest competitor in this regard is the Land Rover Discovery. The only caveat here is that the Grand Cherokee's throttle is a bit sensitive at tip-in, making all that power difficult to modulate when creeping through rocky or muddy terrain.

The outside rearview mirrors and A-pillars generate quite a bit of noise at freeway speeds, made more so because the powertrain noise and chassis noise were both so well subdued by tuning and isolation.

Final Word

The Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited is without a doubt the most complete and most satisfying Jeep ever built. It has one of the best combinations of power, comfort and off-road prowess of any of the midsize sport-utilities, and for that you are asked to pay a very serious price.

While most Grand Cherokees sold are Laredo and Limited six-cylinder models, there is still room in the market for the ultimate Jeep. And that's where the 5.9 Limited comes in. Starting at $38,175, it's a candidate for upscale families and Jeep offers a popular two-year lease program. In short, the Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited has style, power, luxury, and very serious off-road performance.

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©1998 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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