SEATTLE — It has been a glorious generation for the Jeep Grand Cherokee, and a longer, fuller era for Jeep itself, the badge that birthed our monomania for sport-utility vehicles.
Grand Cherokee is a huge-selling exemplar of sport-ute earthiness and effort, second only to Ford's Explorer. More than 1.6 million Grand Cherokees have sold since the vehicle's introduction in 1992 as the luxury tip of the Jeep line. It has won more applause for solid production and gritty performance than "NYPD Blue."
But what now for the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee?
Now that the market is bulging with more than three dozen SUVs? Now that these personal trucks are under siege for an elephantine advantage in accidents, for their handling deficiencies and gasoline gluttony? Now that Asian reliability is haunting domestic truck builders, and everyone but Rolls-Royce and Ferrari have topped off their product lines with these vehicles?
"That's the challenge," acknowledges Tom Gale, executive vice president for product strategy and design and general manager of Jeep operations. He's also one of the designing best in his business. "But I think we have met that challenge by not walking away from Jeep, and by not making this new one old."
By not dumping the look of heritage that reaches back half a century to Willys and GI Joe's Jeep of World War II.
Gale--a hot-rod hobbyist here last week to baby-sit the world's automotive media and their expert efforts to drive the 1999 Grand Cherokee into muddy disrepair--says the vertical bar grille and trapezoidal wheel arches are indelible Jeep signatures. So is the vehicle's grabby, robust stability when clawing through wilderness that would stall a grizzly.
And by not making the new Jeep a reproduction antique.
That, explains Gale, means diamond-reflector headlights, softer edges and angles and a contemporary look that "opens up the design, providing far more synergy between the top and bottom of the vehicle . . . less angular, more fluid and refined." Also, mechanicals that deliver increased power and fuel efficiency, and a selection of traction, steering, transmission and braking systems that are a clean match for anything on the market.
Says Gale: "It's still a Jeep; we haven't done anything to change that. It may not be the largest sport-utility in the world. It may not be the most luxurious. But in terms of doing things, Grand Cherokee remains one of the best."
That, of course, is propaganda from a company man. Truth is, his talk really does match the product's walk. In all popular departments.
The 1999 Grand Cherokee goes on sale next month at prices that will have been lowered or kept at 1998 levels. That's a bottom line of $26,220 for the two-wheel-drive Laredo, and $28,190 for the four-wheel drive version. The heftier Limited with more luxurious linings costs $31,985 for 2WD, $34,415 for the 4WD.
A more sophisticated, lighter 4.7-liter V-8 with aluminum bits and pieces replaces the 5.2-liter V-8 that's still pulling yeoman service with the Dodge Durango. Thanks to improved intake plumbing, freer-flowing exhaust ports and more efficient combustion chambers, the new engine puts out 235 horsepower, making it 7% more powerful than the old. Emissions have been reduced 30% and meet California's Low Emission Vehicle standards. Fuel consumption has been improved by 1 mile per gallon to city-highway averages of 15 and 20 mpg, which is several quarts superior to those of the Ford Explorer, the Lexus LX470 and the Land Rover Discovery.
The 4.0-liter inline-six produces 195 horsepower and shows similar boosts in power, cleanliness and fuel efficiency.
Both cushioned trucks are noticeably biased toward highway travel, a perfectly good idea as more than 90% of Jeep owners never get their sneakers muddy. But for those who do (Department of Useless Statistics: More Jeep drivers venture off road than any other group of sport-utility owners), Grand Cherokee arrives with highly intelligent traction systems.
Quadra-Trac II is standard with the V-8 but an option on six-cylinder versions. Simply put, when the going gets gloppy, the permanent all-wheel drive transfers power fore and aft to the pair of wheels with the superior grab.
Further, Jeep's optional Quadra-Drive is probably the greatest thing since self-clumping cat litter. It requires no driver input and will keep the Grand Cherokee moving forward if only one wheel is on dry stuff and providing traction. Even on ice, uphill or down, on corners or heading straight ahead.
There are also two second gears, selection being automatic so that for heavy grunt work--maybe towing a disabled Range Rover up the Grapevine--there will be no slapping when heavy urging demands a downshift in early gears.