The luxury hot rod of sport utilities.

by Michelle Krebs

The Grand Cherokee is the flagship of Jeep's sport-utility family, and, in some respects, remains ahead of the ever-growing and ever-improving compact-class pack.

When Chrysler introduced the Grand Cherokee in 1992 sport-utility sales already were booming, with Jeep Cherokee enjoying year-over-year sales gains for more than a decade. The idea was to take the Cherokee concept a step up the aspirational ladder, combining rugged Jeep attributes with the luxury, comfort and performance associated with expensive cars.

The combination has proved to be a winning one. Over a quarter-million Grand Cherokees rolled out of Jeep-Eagle dealerships last year, a total that was second only to Ford's phenomenal Explorer among all sport-utility vehicles. Obviously, the folks at Jeep have been doing something right.

For 1996, the Grand Cherokee receives a number of significant detail changes. Most notably, the interior underwent a makeover, which included installation of dual airbags and more luxury options. The exterior also received modest freshening updates.

We picked a Limited model with V-8 power and 4wd for our review.

Walkaround

The Grand Cherokee's prime competitors -- Explorer and GM's Chevrolet Blazer/GMC Jimmy twins -- have gone for more rounded lines in their most recent redesigns, giving them all a more contemporary, aerodynamic appearance. Grand Cherokee, however, has maintained the angular lines and boxy shape even through its latest restyling.

And it works. The distinctive, rugged Jeep look, with its vertical grille and side-body cladding, still stands out from the competition.

The Grand Cherokee comes in three models: base, Laredo and the top-of-the-line Grand Cherokee Limited. Laredo and Limited are both available with one of two 4WD systems -- Selec-Trac, which can be used as a part-time system, or the more sophisticated Quadra-Trac, which operates continuously.

Selec-Trac is standard equipment on Laredos equipped with six-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions. Grand Cherokee Limited models with six-cylinder engines come with the Quadra-Trac system. Quadra-Trac is optional on V-8-powered Grand Cherokees, and both models can also be ordered with rear-drive only, $24,603 for the basic Laredo, $30,479 for the Limited.

In contrast to the Explorer and Blazer/Jimmy, there's no two-door version of the Grand Cherokee. It's also smaller and generally lighter than its key rivals -- particularly the Explorer -- riding a shorter wheelbase.

However, at 70.9 inches, the Grand Cherokee is the widest of the bunch, and in 4X4 trim it also provides the most ground clearance -- 8.3 inches Good ground clearance is one of the keys to successful off-road performance, and off-road usefulness is a core value at Jeep.

The Inside Story

The Grand Cherokee technically seats five. However, four passengers is a better bet, particularly if they are adults. Indeed, three adults can wedge their way into the rear seat. But we found a long ride with two children and one adult in the back was cramped.

The front seats are buckets; the rear is a 60/40 split bench that flops forward to expand cargo volume. An integrated child safety seat is available as an option.

In the driver's seat, short drivers can scoot far enough forward to comfortably reach the pedals, and tall types can move far enough back and enjoy plenty of headroom as well.

Like most sport utilities in this size/price class, our Grand Cherokee Limited tester had sporty bucket seats up front, and these are sportier than many. Pronounced thigh and torso bolsters give these seats a pleasantly snug feel, and provide good lateral support to keep the driver centered when the vehicle is bounding about in the backwoods.

All of the elements of any luxury sport-utility vehicle -- or car, for that matter -- are here. They include wood trim, automatic climate control, premium audio system, power windows, power mirrors, remote keyless entry and power-adjustable seats, to name only a few. Leather, of course, is available for both the Laredo and Limited. A power sunroof is only available on Limited models.

While the cargo area of the Grand Cherokee is adequate for an afternoon outing of people and their belongings, it may not be enough for several people and their gear on a longer trip. There's less cargo capacity here than in the Explorer and Blazer/Jimmy. The spare tire, stowed on the side of the rear storage compartment, cuts into the cargo space. The Grand Cherokee's key competitors have moved spare tire stowage underneath, operating on the theory that tire changes will be extremely rare since so few four-door sport utilities ever venture into off-road regions filled with sharp rocks and the like.

The Grand Cherokee's one-piece rear liftgate provides a wide opening for cargo loading, but is difficult for short folks to reach and close. A pull-down strap, like the one on the Ford Windstar minivan, would be helpful for this maneuver.

The Grand Cherokee can be ordered with an optional window that opens without opening the tailgate, which is handy for stowing groceries and other smaller items.

Ride & Drive

Our Grand Cherokee Limited tester was equipped with the optional 5.2-liter V-8 engine, rated at 220 hp.

The base Grand Cherokee engine is the 4.0-liter 190-horsepower six-cylinder engine, which was re-engineered to reduce noise in the Grand Cherokee's 1996 makeover. The in-line six has more power than the base engines in competing import sport utilities, as well as the Ford Explorer base V-6, and like all in-line six-cylinder engines it's smooth.

But it's the V-8 that really gives this vehicle its lively personality.

Although there's now a V-8 engine option for the Ford Explorer, the Grand Cherokee V-8 still provides the best performance in the compact sport-utility class, as well as the best towing capability -- as much as 6500 pounds with the optional trailer-towing package, which costs $359 on six-cylinder models, $242 with the V-8.

The upper towing limit for the six-cylinder version with the trailer package is 5000 pounds, which is still quite respectable for this class.

Both engines are backed by a smooth-operating electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission.

As you might expect, there is a small price at the gas pump for the V-8's exceptional power. EPA fuel economy ratings slide to 14 mpg city, 18 highway with the 5.2-liter engine, compared to 15/20 for the 4.0-liter six-cylinder.

However, we found it hard to worry about mpg when the V-8 was whisking us down the freeway, or making short work of passing on country back roads. The V-8 provided exceptional acceleration -- by sport-utiity standards -- from a dead stop and emitted a delightful low, throaty rumble from under the hood. Otherwise, the ride is quiet. Passengers are well isolated from road and wind noise at most speeds.

Our biggest complaint in the ride and drive evaluation of the Grand Cherokee is its vague steering. We also detected slight body roll on wide sweeping curves at highway speeds, although this is common to almost all sport-utility vehicles.

Braking was good, with four-wheel disc brakes and anti-lock brakes as standard equipment.

In addition to its robust V-8 power, we were also favorably impressed by the Grand Cherokee's ride quality on paved roads. With springs and shock absorbers tailored to dual demands, there's some stiffness, but this vehicle is less truck-like than many of its competitors.

Naturally, the Grand Cherokee feels right at home on dirt roads, or no roads at all. The Quadra-Trac system in our test vehicle handled our brief forays into unpaved territory with ease, and the power of the V-8 engine adds an extra dimension to tough going.

Unfortunately, the Grand Cherokee has been plagued with quality and reliability problems, as indicated by various quality tracking services. Even our tester leaked fluid and the "Jeep" logo was applied at an odd angle.

Final Word

The Grand Cherokee's strongest suit is its all-around car-like driveability combined with its off-road capability, a feature one would expect from anything bearing the Jeep name. In addition, it is equipped with good safety features, outstanding luxury amenities and the sophisticated Quadra-Trac option, all of which makes it a standout in a field filled with steadily improving choices.

With V-8 power, it's the top performer in its class. Add distinctive styling, and it's easy to see why this vehicle remains a best-seller.

Order our 200+ page magazine of reviews. Send $8.00 (S&H included) to New Car Test Drive, 2145 Crooks Rd. Suite 200, Troy, MI 48084

© 1996 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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

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