Thanks to the Cherokee, throughout the eighties Jeep pretty much had a lock on any customer in the market for a smallish, 4-door SUV. The Cherokee was designed and developed in the pre-Chrysler days by the now defunct American Motors Corporation, and bowed in 1984.
Departing from traditional Jeep practice, it sported a rigid, fully unitized construction and was engineered to perform as well on the road as off. And unlike its super-luxury big brother, the 20-year old Grand Wagoneer, the Cherokee was thoroughly modern in all aspects.
It was immensely popular in suburbia, and a large percentage of them went out the door loaded with comfort and convenience options. Many analysts believe that along with their minivans, the profitable Cherokee played a large part in keeping Chrysler afloat in the early nineties.
Unlike the inexplicable amount of time that went by before rival car companies figured out a successful minivan formula, the success of the Cherokee did not go unnoticed. Soon luxury laden 4-door compact SUVs were everywhere. In that sense, the Cherokee was a pioneer of today's huge, and hugely profitable, compact and mid-size SUV market segment.
More than any other vehicle, the introduction of the Ford Explorer ended Jeep's dominance in this market and forced Jeep to respond. The result was the all-new Grand Cherokee. Trim on the outside, it suffered when compared to the Explorer's room and cargo capacity. But it bested the Explorer, and everything else, when it came to ride, handling and overall performance -- both on the road and off.
Initially, the Grand Cherokee was available in three trim levels, Base, Laredo, and Limited. There was only one engine, the tried and true 4.0 liter straight six mated to a 4-speed automatic w/overdrive or 5-speed manual transmission. The 5-speed is extremely rare (we've never seen one), but Jeep records indicate that some were built, and we did find two listed for sale at our web site (vmrintl.com). Jeep offered no less than three distinct four-wheel drive systems (see sidebar).
Well into the '93 model year (the Grand Cherokee debuted in the spring of '92), a powerful and torquey 5.2 liter V8 (available only with the automatic) hit the option sheet. Also phased in during the Grand Cherokee's rookie year as a new top-of-the-line Grand Wagoneer. This model came standard with the V8 and, evoking the dearly departed old Grand Wagoneer (retired in '91), had fake woodgrain on the sides.
As the Grand Cherokee matured, Chrysler continued to add new features and models. A 2-wheel drive version was added during the '93 model year, the Base model became known as the SE in '94, and an Orvis designer package arrived for 1995 (dropped in '98). The Laredo became the entry model in 1996, and the SE was dropped. For 1997 the lineup saw the addition of the TSi, slotted just below the Limited. A loaded performance version equipped with a 245hp 5.9 liter V8, called the 5.9 Limited, crashed the party for the final year, 1998.
From any angle, the Grand Cherokee presents a tight, crisp and purposeful look and the prominent fender flares add a hint of aggressiveness to the design.
The base and Laredo models carried a charcoal gray colored exterior body cladding around their lower sides and into the front and rear bumpers. The Limited models had this same cladding, but it was painted the same color as the rest of the exterior. The Laredo eventually gained the option of the monotone paint treatment that was similar to the Limited. It was part of the popular "Z" equipment package.
The front sported the traditional (all the way back to the Willys Jeep of WWII) Jeep seven-vertical bar grille; chrome on the base and Laredo, body-colored on the upscale models. The tucked-up rear presents two taillights flanking the hatch door.
Uncommon among "suburban" SUVs, a requirement during development was that the Grand Cherokee must be able to venture off-road with confidence. And we're not talking the dirt road up to the cabin by the lake here, either. Like all Jeeps, the Grand Cherokee had to be able to handle off-road terrain that included no road at all. As such, you'll notice that the Grand Cherokee has short front and rear over hangs. Not only does this contribute to the crispness of the design, it allows for steeper approach and departure angles off-road than your typical luxury SUV.
For the 1996 model year, things were freshened up a bit. The front grille grew, fog lights were integrated into the front fascia and new alloy wheels adorned all versions. The cladding was a little less busy, too.
The Grand Cherokee's interior, with a couple minor exceptions, was a model of efficiency and smart design when new. The dash greets the driver with a large speedometer and tachometer directly ahead flanked by smaller gauges for fuel, temp, oil pressure and even a voltmeter. Controls are easy to find and use. A minor update of the interior, including the dash occurred in 1996. Still, it's a bit dated looking now, with angular surfaces and lots of gaps and seams, especially on the earlier models. Some of the materials could've been better selected as well as they have that cheapo, shiny plastic look. The Limited and TSi models benefited from trim and materials upgrades, and sported an standard overhead console that was optional on other models.
The biggest issue we have with the interior design is the placement of the spare tire. Propped up against the driver's side wall of the cargo area, it looks like an afterthought and takes up valuable cargo space. According to Jeep, this was necessitated by the requirement of high ground clearance in the rear to facilitate operation in the rough. By not making room for the spare, the rear chassis pan could be tucked up and away from the ground. You can purchase an aftermarket outside swing away spare tire mount, but installing it involves some drilling and it makes getting in and out of the back awkward.
This was a big complaint with Grand Cherokee owners, and the new design '99 model has its spare tire mounted under an access panel in the floor.
Room and Comfort
An abundance of room is not something the Grand Cherokee offers. A family of four and their gear easily fill up the cabin. What space it does offer, however, is put to good use. As long as you limit total passengers to four, sitting in a Grand Cherokee is rather comfortable. There's plenty of room up front and even rear passengers have decent room, but we wish the seat cushion was a little higher. Three abreast in the back is a little tight, but not as bad as you might expect. All three will stay reasonably comfortable for even moderate trips. This is a laudable achievement, for as we have said the Grand Cherokee is quite trim on the outside.
The front seats are a little soft, with weak lower back support. The Limited's leather seats are somewhat better on both counts. Leather seating surfaces were optional on the other models.
Power windows and locks, although originally optional on the lower level Grand Cherokees, adorns virtually all examples. The power package, which include remote entry, became standard fare for '96. It was always standard on the Limited.
The Limited came standard with all kinds of standard comfort and convenience equipment, including upgraded interior with power leather seats, upmarket sound systems and dual lighted vanity mirrors.
Positioned between the Limited and Laredo was a TSi model in the '97 and '98 model years. It enjoyed the nicer interior of the Limited and had leather seats, but power was optional. It lacked some other minor accessories of the Limited as well.
Cargo space fell short compared to, say, a Ford Explorer, but at least the split-back rear seat folds and flips forward to make the most of the space available. Of course, that spare doesn't help.
For a SUV, the Grand Cherokee is remarkably nimble. In fact, it was the first SUV that drove like a pretty good sedan. Stepping out of a Grand Cherokee and into the previous "car-like" champ of SUVs, the Ford Explorer, was a revelation. The Explorer felt like a ponderous slug compared to the Jeep.
The Grand Cherokee is responsive in both everyday and emergency maneuvers. There is some body roll, but the front and rear ends can easily be kept in line by the accelerator. Many contemporary road test reports cited slightly numb and somewhat vague steering, but we think they're being a little picky. While it's no Miata, the steering feel and precision is well within acceptable bounds. We didn't like the steering wheel shook over harsh bumps, however. We didn't test a model outfitted with the Up Country suspension package, which includes different springs and an extra inch of ground clearance. We would expect handling to suffer just a bit.
As for the ride, again the Grand Cherokee was the benchmark. Smooth and compliant over bumps, it was difficult to upset. The Explorer had a good ride too, but what tipped the scale in favor of the Jeep is its rigid body. Where the Explorer shudders over bumps, the Grand Cherokee soaks them up.
What makes this all the more amazing is the Grand Cherokee's suspension setup. It's got a solid axle in the rear and one in the front, too. Now, any elitist automotive know-it-all will tell you what a crude and out of date setup that is. And they'd be right. But it works, and works well.
Of the three models we drove, two had the Quadra-Trac setup and one had the Selec-Trac. The comments about handling here apply to both. A Command-Trac equipped model in two-wheel drive may handle a little differently when pushed, as by necessity the vehicle will be directing power only to the rear-wheels. Ride quality should not be affected.
Acceleration with the V8 was very brisk. Even the six got things moving along pretty well. We didn't drive the 5.9 Limited, but for a while it was the quickest SUV in the world.
The V8 equipped Limited model we drove was noticeably quieter than a Laredo with the six. The quality of the sound coming from the engine compartment was more pleasant, and road noise was more subdued. Still, the Laredo was quiet enough for all but tomb lovers, and they'd buy a Lexus anyway.
Even though all three vehicles we drove still felt tight, two of them had more than one rattle or buzz -- not a good sign, as things will only get worse as time goes on.
All Grand Cherokees have ABS brakes. Initially, the setup consisted of front discs and rear drums, but this was remedied for '95 when 4-wheel discs adorned all Grand Cherokees. Stepping hard on the brakes revealed some squishiness, but stops were straight and true. We'd call the brakes acceptable, but not spectacular.
Serious off-roading is beyond the scope of our testing. Reports from popular car and truck magazines all rated the Grand Cherokee as one of the best. Its combination of a capable four-wheel drive system, compliant suspension and trim size made it a favorite in the woods. Many called it one of the best luxury SUV in the rough -- able to hang in there with such illustrious and pricey models as Land Rover and Toyota Land Cruiser.
As mentioned above, from the start all Grand Cherokees had ABS brakes. The addition of 4-wheel discs to all models brought an extra measure of safety, as discs are less apt to fade after repeated braking during operation in wet weather.
When the Grand Cherokee was introduced, it was the first SUV to have an airbag as standard equipment. It was a driver only setup until the 1996 model year when a passenger airbag was added with the interior redesign.
US Government crash test on a 1993-95 models resulted in "very good" rating for the driver and a "good" rating for the front passenger. Oddly, later examples that had dual airbags reversed those results, scoring a "good" for the driver and a "very good" for the passenger.
Normal service and maintenance costs fall in the average category, with only the extra fluid changes for the 4-wheel drive stuff deviating from passenger car norms. Both the six and the eight are durable, long-lived engines. The six in particular has a track record of regularly reaching 200K miles without a rebuild. Assuming proper maintenance, of course.
Parts cost are fairly low, as the Grand Cherokee shares many individual components with other Jeep and Chrysler products.
Early Grand Cherokees seem to have more than their share of problems, and we recommend avoiding them. Among the trouble areas: transmission, axles, seals, body hardware and electrics. '93 and '94 was not a good time for many Chrysler products, and these are no exception.
Things got progressively better, and a '96-'98 model are a safer bet. Still, these are not the most trouble-free vehicles. Sure, they're durable, but that's different. The sheer volume and nature of technical service bulletins issued for the Grand Cherokee is disappointing -- the Grand Cherokee has so many charms that it's a shame that Chrysler dropped the quality ball.
There's really nothing that would prompt us recommend one particular model over another. If you like the luxury treatment, the Limited or TSi model is for you, otherwise the Base, SE, and Laredo have most of the convenience equipment that really matters and do just fine.
The Grand Cherokee is for those who are looking for something a little different than your standard SUV. It was the first that actually combined sport with utility. It had to give up some of the latter for the former, but your reward is a go-anywhere vehicle that is fairly nimble and responsive to drive.
We think it was a good compromise. As long as you don't need a lot of room or have something very heavy to tow, and can accept the fact that its no 4Runner in the reliability department, we can't think of another SUV we'd rather live with day in and day out. Despite being an 8-year-old design, it is still competitive with the latest SUVs, and in terms of off-road prowess still bests most of them.
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