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FIRST DRIVE

Redesigned Jeep Grand Cherokee steps in to fill some big shoes

The sport utility vehicle, heavily optioned, may be worth the money, but that doesn't necessarily make it that much more likable.

August 06, 2003|Steven Cole Smith | Orlando Sentinel

Jeep continues to sell more than its share of Grand Cherokees, despite two things: One, competition has increased significantly since the vehicle was introduced in 1992.

And two, the Grand Cherokee hasn't had a complete redesign since then. It received a pretty extensive freshening for 1999, but even that was five model years ago. Compared with the competition, the Grand Cherokee is playing on the Senior Tour.

That said, it is still one of my favorite sport utility vehicles. Its basic design is so solid and well-executed that it remains relevant.

Relevant, that is, if you want what the Grand Cherokee offers. Need a third-row seat? Sorry. Lots of headroom and rear-seat legroom? Not so much here. Plenty of cargo capacity? Even the Honda CR-V has more.

And given its age, the Grand Cherokee remains expensive, especially on heavily optioned models. Such as the test vehicle, the Overland version of the redesigned Grand Cherokee for 2004, the absolute top of the line. The Overland has a 265-horsepower, high-output version of the 4.7-liter V-8 that was introduced in 1999; the regular 4.7-liter engine has 235 horsepower.

The Overland also has great leather upholstery, full-time four-wheel drive, a sunroof, big 17-inch tires, chrome wheels and pretty much anything else you'd want. Safety features include four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock and side air bags.

The test vehicle was equipped with a compact satellite-linked navigation system built into the stereo system -- a $1,200 option, it's one of the least expensive factory navigation systems available.

With other options plus shipping, the Overland's $38,720 base price rose to $41,245, knocking on the door of the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz ML350. Expect bigger discounts from Jeep dealers, though -- the 2004 Grand Cherokee already comes with a $3,000 rebate.

Although it is arguably worth the money, I'm not sure all these extra features make the Grand Cherokee that much more likable. It remains one of the best-handling SUVs, feeling more like a car than a truck, but this one needed stiffer springs.

Off-road, despite modest ground clearance, the Grand Cherokee is prepared to live up to the Jeep name.

Inside, this remains one of the most comfortable SUVs for the front-seat passengers, if less so for those in back.

The upgraded engine and five-speed automatic transmission are fine, and though fuel economy isn't that good -- 15 miles per gallon in the city, 20 mpg on the highway -- it's about average when one considers the full-time four-wheel drive.

The Grand Cherokee continues to serve Jeep parent DaimlerChrysler and its customers well, but you have to wonder how much life is left in this platform. And how hard it will be for Jeep to make the next Grand Cherokee fill some very big shoes.

*

2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland

Base price: $38,720

Price as tested: $41,245

EPA rating: 15 miles per gallon city, 20 mpg highway

Details: Front-engine, four-wheel-drive SUV with a 4.7-liter,

265-horsepower V-8 and a five-speed automatic transmission

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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