Athletic luxury. by Jim McCraw
One of the most recognized brand names in the world, Jeep comes in three flavors -- the classic Wrangler, the Cherokee and the Grand Cherokee, luxury version of the Jeep brand and the most popular member of its tribe. The Grand Cherokee outsells all sport-utility vehicles but the Ford Explorer in the U.S. market -- about 280,000 sales in 1996, a healthy 12% increase over 1995.
The Grand Cherokee itself comes in several interesting levels -- Laredo, Limited and the Orvis Edition, named for the outdoor gear company and similar in character to the Explorer Eddie Bauer models. Until last year, when both the Explorer V-8 and Mercury Mountaineer made their debuts, the Grand Cherokee was the only compact sport-utility vehicle to offer a V-8 engine option, but that market exclusive is history now, and the Grand Cherokee will have to go on its other merits.
One of its best merits, we think, is the sharp-edge body design, a design scheme that was accepted immediately when this truck showed up four years ago, and stands out in the crowd now because most of the other sport-utes in this size/price class look like gigantic scoops of melting ice cream, with compound curves on all the corners.
For 1997, there is a small group of minor improvements to this six-year-old SUV: the base radio is upgraded, the carpeting is upgraded, the rear seat heat duct is extended, the tilt steering column is modified for improved function, the ABS system is improved and all models get a full-body anti-chip paint treatment. There are also eight new colors to choose from.
The Grand Cherokee starts with a Laredo two-wheel drive four-door with a 4.0-liter in-line six-cylinder engine and four-speed automatic transmission. It builds from there to the 5.2-liter V-8 Limited and Orvis models. Along the way, the Grand Cherokee offers more drivetrain variations than any other sport-utility vehicle on the market. While no manual transmission is available, there are two drive systems available for either the six or the V-8.
Once you opt for four-wheel drive, you must then choose among the systems. These include Selec-Trac, with a fixed torque split between front and rear, and Quadra-Trac, which normally puts all the torque to the rear axle but can automatically vary torque fore and aft at any proportion between zero and 100 percent, assuring that the power always goes to the tires that have the traction.
And, for those who want the power and the space without the complexity of a heavy 4WD system, in 1997 the basic 2WD model is available for the first time with the 5.2-liter V-8 engine option.
The Grand Cherokee Limited comes with a large load of standard equipment -- as well it should for a starting price of $31,885 -- including air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power mirrors, power locks, 10-way power seats with power recline and lumbar systems, tinted glass, a remote locking/security system, leather trim, tilt steering, cruise control, aluminum wheels, premium AM/FM/cassette audio, fog lamps, a roof rack, and a pair of consoles, one overhead, one between the front seats.
The Limited package ($1290) adds heated seats, a power sunroof, and an upgraded sound system with three-band graphic equalizer. Our tester also had the trailer towing group ($242), the Up Country suspension ($390) -- which raises the ride one full inch and comes with tow hooks, skid plates, stiffer springs and shocks, P225/70R-16 tires and a conventional spare. The optional 5.2-liter V-8 engine was an additional $877 (though you can get a Limited with a six-cylinder engine), and the traction-lock rear differential added $285.
The Inside Story
From the left front seat, the Grand Cherokee Limited V-8 is easy to figure out and easy to deal with, though the instrument panel seems to be running out of space to put the various switches and controls for all the power options it packs. The typical Jeep white-on-black instruments, with color accents, are easy to scan and very good at night.
The leather seats are very comfortable for long rides, and have a wide range of power adjustments, with a two-driver memory feature for the seats, radio stations and mirrors. The clear instrument covers and some of the plastic elements used inside are a bit too shiny for our tastes, shiny equating with, less than grand, appearance in this context.
If the Grand Cherokee has a handicap it is lack of interior space for people and cargo compared to most of its direct competition. While the interior is nicely done, the Grand Cherokee is built on a narrow Jeep unitbody platform and that narrowness dictates and governs how much space there is for shoulders, hips, heads and legs, and, behind the second seat, how much cubic capacity awaits the family-size cargo loads.
The other compact sport-utility vehicles that have come into the market after the Grand Cherokee have pretty much exploited this weakness with larger interior layouts and more useable cubic capacity in the cargo area.
Having said that, the Grand Cherokee, which is done up in soft cushy leather and simulated woodgrain, 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, at least not for any long rides. The interior simply isn't roomy enough for five real people.
But the ride is quiet and comfortable, more comfortable than any other Jeep, as well as most of its competitors. There's extra sound insulation built in to keep noise down, and the materials used on the Limited version are very posh indeed.
Ride & Drive
If you are a high-performance buyer, then the Grand Cherokee must be at the top of your list, because its optional V-8 makes 220 horsepower and generates 300 pound-feet of torque, both class-leading numbers. The V-8 in our test truck was a genuine tiger, ripping across intersections, pulling snowy grades and performing highway passing maneuvers with ease and quickness we weren't expecting. It is also rated to pull a 6500-pound trailer.
And if you don't need as much grunt as all that, we can recommend the 4.0-liter in-line six as one of the great SUV engines, with 185 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque for hauling up to 5000 pounds of trailer, with an improvement in mpg rating from 13/17 city/highway for the V-8 to 15/20 for the six, quite a lot in percentage terms.
We have been off-road many times with the 4.0 in the Grand and other Jeep models, and it never let us down.
While the shift is on to rack-and-pinion steering in the sport-utility world, the Grand Cherokee still uses recirculating-ball steering, and it is a bit mushy and indefinite compared to other systems, though entirely acceptable. It works with leading-arm coil-spring front suspension and trailing arm coil-spring rear suspension and 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. When it comes to all-around handling, the Grand Cherokee is one of the most nimble performers in its class.
We noticed while underway that the big outside mirrors and windshield pillars seem to generate quite a bit of wind noise at freeway speeds, which was doubly intrusive because the powertrain noise and chassis noise were both so well subdued by tuning and isolation. We thought at first we hadn't closed the left front door all the way, but the noise persisted at speeds above 50 mph.
While the Ford Explorer continues to rule the sport-utility realm, the Jeep Grand Cherokee is still solidly in second place, in spite of being one of the oldest entries in its class.
And while the preponderance of Grand Cherokees sold are Laredo and Limited six-cylinder models, there is still plenty of room in the market for the ultimate Jeep. At more than $37,000 it's well into the luxury realm, but it's got style, power, plenty of equipment and very serious off-road capability for those who shun the beaten track.
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