by Phil Berg
Smoother on the highway, more capable off-road.
Base Price $26,745
As Tested $36,390
Many sport-utility buyers like to plant their right feet deep into the accelerator and feel instantaneous movement. Do this in Jeep's redesigned '99 Grand Cherokee Limited and it takes off a bit slower than last year's model. Part of the reason is that the old 5.2-liter V8 engine has been replaced with an all-new 4.7-liter overhead cam V8. The minor loss in acceleration is offset by the refinement of the new engine. It accelerates smoothly, with none of the mechanical grumbling and rude roaring of the previous 5.2-liter and 5.9-liter engines. What you lose at the drag strip, you gain in peace and tranquility. We'd call the big Jeep more mature.
The new Jeep Grand Cherokee is 3 inches longer than the one it replaces, but its wheelbase is the same. It looks taller, bowed on top with a forehead look to the front of the roof. Its round lines look like Paul Bunyan took his sanding block to the previous sharp body creases.
Underneath, the Grand Cherokee still sits atop live axles, like the previous model. The trend among competing sport-utilities is to use independent suspensions, but Jeep's live axle is only a drawback on paper, as we note later. The Jeep retains its unibody integrated truck frame-and-body design. This rare design strategy -- shared by the smaller Jeep Cherokee and the Nissan Pathfinder -- results in a Grand Cherokee that is lighter and more rigid than it would be using more traditional designs. With adjustments for similar equipment, Jeep says the new Grand Cherokee is about 50 pounds lighter overall. Less weight and a tighter turning radius help make the bigger Jeep more maneuverable.
Two engines are offered. Jeep's 4.0-liter inline-6 has been re-engineered for 1999. It's quieter, cleaner and more powerful, producing 195 horsepower -- up 10 horsepower from last year.
A new 4.7-liter V8 is optional. With single overhead cams on each cylinder bank, it produces 235 horsepower, or 15 horsepower more than the previous 5.2-liter pushrod V8. Torque is down slightly, which accounts for the diminished acceleration.
Two familiar trim levels are available, Laredo and Limited, each with a long list of standard features.
Base Grand Cherokees come with rear-wheel drive, but that seems like buying a Louisville Slugger just to hit rocks. Four-wheel drive is the soul of the Grand Cherokee and three different systems are available.
Grand Cherokees with the 6-cylinder engine come with Jeep's renowned Selec-Trac system. In full-time mode, the vehicle is in four-wheel drive with a planetary differential allowing the front and rear axles to turn at different speeds; in part-time mode, the center differential is locked providing maximum traction in severe conditions.
With the V8 engine, you get the clever new Quadra-Trac II system. Its simple but effective automatic locking center differential apportions torque to the front wheels whenever the rear wheels slip.
The Quadra-Drive system is optional on both the 6-cylinder and V8 models. Quadra-Drive is the same system as Quadra-Trac II, but it adds hydraulically locking front and rear differentials. By using three differentials, the system automatically sends torque front-to-rear and side-to-side whenever a wheel slips. It can lock all four wheels together for maximum traction. If just one wheel has the slightest bit of grip, the Quadra-Drive system can keep the Grand Cherokee moving -- a real benefit when it's icy.
None of Jeep's three available four-wheel-drive systems need any input from the driver for four-wheel-drive operation. And all three systems come with a low-range set of gears that can be used for serious traction situations.
The Inside Story
Rear legroom is tight. That hurts on the marathon runs with four fishing buddies, but you won't notice much cramping on an evening with two couples. Climbing into the back seats is much easier than before, however, because the rear doors are wider.
More space is available for cargo because the spare tire was moved from its upright position on the left rear side of the cargo compartment to lay down under the load floor. That means the load floor is relatively high, so you'll have to lift groceries a bit higher.
The instrument panel looks simpler, more modern, but it's still a long reach to the dashboard for the radio and climate controls. Part of that impression comes from the high seating position. Controls and switches have been improved in feel and operation, including the Jeep's once-balky turn signal/wiper combination stalk.
The front seats have highly padded longitudinal ribs, and the thickness of the padding reminds us more of house furniture instead of serious off-roader benches. The bottom cushion has ridges to keep you in place, but the backrest has no lateral support. This makes it easy to slide into while wearing a bulky coat, but when you're fast into a short entrance ramp that leads onto a 75 mph freeway, you'll need to use the door to hold yourself in place.
Ride & Drive
Jeep's new Grand Cherokee does not drive any more like a car on smooth roads than the old model. But no news is good news here. Off-road, or driving down a bumpy, rutted rural lane, the Jeep feels controlled and steady. The price for this capability is a tall, body-rolling ride. The new Grand Cherokee feels more buttoned down, more maneuverable, and more fun to drive than your neighbor's Explorer. There's no need to slow down for rough railroad crossings in the Grand Cherokee.
Steering is quick but isolated, despite a thorough restructuring of the front engine cradle and front suspension and steering component mounts. When you turn the wheel you can't feel how much the front tires want to slip on pavement. You don't really steer the Jeep as much as guide it. But that's the same for all of the top-selling sport-utilities. Like them, the Jeep's still a truck, sitting tall, rolling side to side in corners and high winds.
The biggest improvement in the ride of the new Grand Cherokee is a newfound tendency to stay pointed straight ahead. A triangle link that replaces the Panhard rod locating the rear axle is directly responsible for this improvement.
Careful tuning of suspension mounts, and even drivetrain mounts, allows the live axles of the Jeep a lot of compliant movement. The axles move and pivot on large bumps and dirt holes where the independent suspensions of other SUVs reach their limits of travel, and ultimately toss the occupants about inside.
Power is adequate with the new V8 and, aided by relatively light weight, the Jeep feels faster and more responsive than most 6-cylinder SUVs and the huge V8 Tahoes and Expeditions. The four-speed automatic transmission's shifts are unobtrusive, and hurrying up a mountain or around weekend-warrior crazies is a breeze with the higher second gear. Again, the new car's calmer, more mature in everyday situations.
The initial view from the Jeep driver's seat leaves you with the impression the hood is too high, but it slopes down on its sides, so your vision isn't blocked in turning. One reason the spare was relocated to under the load floor was to give more visibility rearward. However, if you leave the headrests in place on the rear seatback, they block more view than the spare used to. There is a benefit: when you turn sharply to your left from the driver's seat, you can glance through a small slice of glass area in the rear quarter window. This view was formerly blind because that's where the spare used to be.
If you know or plan to learn a few extreme off-road skills -- such as lifting both feet off the pedals while the Jeep is engine-braking down a mud-slicked embankment, or keeping both feet on both pedals while creeping over a pile of wet logs -- the all-new Jeep Grand Cherokee is a high-quality tool. It works so well it'll instill a trail-driving confidence you never had. That's what it did for us. The Grand Cherokee requires fewer try-and-fail attempts to conquer obstacles. It's tougher to upset than any high-volume wagon (Hummers and Land Rovers excepted). It's a true do-it-all car, the one that works well enough off road that you'll be less likely to scratch it, and more likely to go crazier places.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.