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|Retrospective: The Jeep Grand Cherokee, 1993-2010|
|Written by Rich Truesdell|
|Monday, 14 June 2010 16:41|
With this week's press introduction of the new Grand Cherokee, Automotive Traveler looks back on the Jeep Grand Cherokee's first three generations
The Jeep Grand Cherokee literally burst on the scene when it crashed through the front window of Detroit's Cobo Hall, kicking off the 1992 North American International Automobile Show. While it was initially positioned as Jeep's competitor to the similarly sized Ford Explorer, it was at heart a new class of vehicle. The Explorer was a scaled-down body-on-frame truck, but the Grand Cherokee (as well as the slightly smaller Cherokee) used a unibody platform, making it what we today call a crossover. And where the Explorer had limited off-road capability, the Grand Cherokee (like its Jeep predecessors) had exceptional off-pavement abilities, when properly equipped with one of its advanced four-wheel-drive systems. Lee Iacocca and Bob Lutz are often credited with the Grand Cherokee's introduction. Yet the development of this landmark SUV actually had many more contributors. The groundbreaking first-generation Grand Cherokee traces its genesis all the way back to 1983, when American Motors started planning for the next version of the then-new 1984 Jeep Cherokee, the first compact, four-door SUV.
Grand Cherokee Development
Work on the Grand Cherokee started at AMC long before it was absorbed by Chrysler in 1987. One of the projects Iacocca and Lutz inherited was what would become the first Jeep Grand Cherokee introduced for the 1993 model year. At the time, AMC was under the operational control of Renault, which was funding new product development and was instrumental in the introduction of the compact XJ Cherokee. As was common practice at the time (with product cycles typically three to four years in length), AMC's designers were already anticipating its replacement. AMC looked to outside designers who included Larry Shinoda, Adam Clenet, and Giorgetto Giugiaro for the new design. Ultimately, the XJC project that was adopted would be internally generated. When the 1989 Jeep Concept One was unveiled, it revealed a design that was very similar to the ultimate production version Lutz and Detroit Mayor Coleman Young drove through the Cobo Hall window three years later.
Iacocca believed that updating Chrysler's dominant minivan franchise took precedent, so the introduction of the first-generation Grand Cherokee was delayed until the 1993 model year. The wait was worth it. The clean lines of the Concept One were retained almost intact. In a move that demonstrated Chrysler's belief it was still possible to build vehicles competitively in Southern Michigan, the Grand Cherokee would be built at a brand-new plant, called Jefferson North, in Metro Detroit. (The Wrangler and Cherokee models were built in Toledo, Ohio.) The production Grand Cherokee was available at introduction in four trim levels: the base Laredo, the Limited, and the Grand Wagoneer. The vehicle rode on a wheelbase 4.5 inches longer than its Cherokee counterpart and was bigger in every dimension. It benefited from a number of class-leading features, including the first airbag installed in an SUV, standard four-wheel anti-lock brakes, the only standard SUV rear wiper/washer, and the most efficient air conditioner in its class (equipped with R134 refrigerant before it was mandated).
First-Generation Grand Cherokee, 1993-1998
What set the Grand Cherokee apart was the number of drive-train combinations it offered. Rear-wheel-drive was indeed available for those buyers who wanted what was, in essence, a traditional American station wagon, but it was the all-wheel-drive options that clearly separated the Grand Cherokee from its competitors. You could choose from part-time four-wheel-drive, full-time four-wheel-drive, or the new QuadraTrac all-wheel-drive system with a center-mounted viscous coupling. When needed, the QuadraTrac would automatically lock the center differential for maximum torque transfer, giving the Grand Cherokee unprecedented off-road capabilities. In the hands of a competent driver, the Grand Cherokee (like the Wrangler and Cherokee) would have no difficulty traversing California's Rubicon Trail, a test that became the benchmark for what Jeep later called "Trail Rated" performance.
The first-generation ZJ Grand Cherokee was powered at introduction by the most powerful engine in its class: a fuel-injected, four-liter version of the AMC straight six producing 190 horsepower, a well-proven engine whose basic design stretched back to 1964. Other innovations included an extremely stiff unibody structure that allowed for a softer suspension calibration, providing a smoother ride. For off-road capability, the Grand Cherokee featured solid axles front and rear. Its multilink front and rear suspension systems were efficient and durable, and their simplicity helped contribute to the Grand Cherokee's lighter weight, further enhancing its off-road capabilities. By almost every measurement standard, the all-new Grand Cherokee was state of the art. In a tribute to the full-sized Grand Wagoneer that ran from 1963 to 1991, the top-of-the-line Grand Cherokee was designated the Grand Wagoneer, powered by a class-exclusive 318-cubic-inch V8 (optional on other Grand Cherokees) and featuring faux wood like its predecessor. It lasted just one model year, making it among the rarest of all first-generation Grand Cherokee models.
Speaking of rare, one of the rarest of the first-generation Grand Cherokees was a run-out model offered in the generation's final year in 1998, the 5.9 Limited. Think of it as the first Grand Cherokee SRT8, a 140 m.p.h., all-wheel-drive, high-performance Jeep powered by a 5.9-liter V8 producing 245 horsepower capable of sprinting from zero to 60 in less than seven seconds. Such performance in an all-wheel-drive vehicle was unprecedented. The Magnum V8 in the 5.9 Limited was backed up by a stouter 46RE transmission coupled to the heavy-duty QuadraTrac NV249 transfer case. Of the total 1998 Grand Cherokee production of 247,372, just 14,286 were 5.9 Limited models distinguished externally by their hood louvers.
Second-Generation Grand Cherokee, 1999-2004
As the second-generation Grand Cherokee was in development, Chrysler's management, led by Bob Eaton, was secretly negotiating what would turn out to be an ill-fated merger with Daimler-Benz. Spy photos of the 1999 Grand Cherokee appeared at the same time--leaked by the company, some still say, to distract attention from the final negotiations. Whatever the case, the all-new second-generation Grand Cherokee debuted as competitors like BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz attacked Jeep's leadership position at the high-performance luxury end of the market. Competition notwithstanding, the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee built upon the success of its predecessor, offering unprecedented levels of off-road capability and upscale amenities that made it something of a paradox in the category.
While it did bear a clear family resemblance to the first-generation model, the 1999 Grand Cherokee was all new, sharing just 127 parts (mostly fasteners) with its predecessor. Most notable was the introduction at the same time of an all-new 4.7-liter V8 engine, Chrysler's first new V8 in three decades. This was mated to the 45RFE and 545RFE automatic transmissions, which featured three planetary gear sets as opposed to the two normally found in traditional four-speed automatic transmissions. Theoretically, this meant the Grand Cherokee had six speeds, but Jeep still advertised the transmission as a four-speed. For the 2001 model year, the transmission was programmed to make use of all six ratios--but was advertised as a five-speed since it used five speeds with the alternate second gear for downshifts.
A new four-wheel-drive option called QuadraDrive made its debut on the second-generation Grand Cherokee. This automatic four-wheel-drive system employed a two-speed, chain-driven transfer case equipped with a gerotor--a clutch pack coupled to a hydraulic pump designed to transfer torque between the front and rear axles. When installed in a Grand Cherokee, it offered three modes: Four-All-Time, Neutral, and Four-Lo. In the Four-All-Time setting in normal conditions, 100 percent of torque is delivered to the rear axle. If the system detects the rear axle spinning at a higher rate than the front axle, hydraulic pressure builds up in the gerotor and causes the clutch pack to transfer torque progressively to the front axle until both axles return to the same speed. This gave the second-generation Grand Cherokee class-leading traction capabilities. It wasn't surprising to see Grand Cherokees out on trails that would challenge the off-road-focused Wrangler. The Grand Cherokee also featured front and rear axles with their own viscous clutches, making it one of just a few SUVs offering three differentials. And in the Grand Cherokee, the operation was automatic--a feature unique to the Grand Cherokee at the time of its introduction.
The second-generation Grand Cherokee was far more luxurious than the model it replaced. Combined with its fresh styling and trademarked seven-slot grille, it was a sales success driving into the new decade. Sales topped out at 300,031 in 1999, slipping somewhat thereafter thanks to increased competition in its segment. Through the end of its model run in 2004, however, the Grand Cherokee typically accounted for a quarter million in sales. This made it the biggest seller in the Jeep lineup--despite the fact that, when loaded with every available option, the sticker price tickled the $40,000 barrier. Throughout its second generation, it was available in a number of trim levels, including Laredo (base) and Limited, along with a number of special models such as the Sport (2002-2003), the Special Edition (2002-2004), the Overland (2002-2004), the Columbia Edition (2003-2004), and the Freedom Edition (2003-2004). In addition to domestic production at the Jefferson North facility in Detroit, the Grand Cherokee was manufactured in Graz, Austria for overseas markets. In markets outside North America, it was available in a Turbodiesel CRD model with an engine supplied by Mercedes-Benz.
Third-Generation Grand Cherokee, 2005-2010
The third-generation Grand Cherokee debuted to mixed reviews for the 2005 model year. Many Jeep enthusiasts, this writer among them, were disappointed by the overall design, feeling it was a retrograde step. (My favorite description was that it was the box the previous version came in.) Gone was the tight, curvy styling of the previous version, replaced with an angular design that to many almost seemed generic. At the time of its introduction, the Grand Cherokee franchise was under attack from both above and below--especially from General Motors' Hummer brand, which was clearly trying to capitalize on Jeep's core strengths, right down to the seven-slot grille. (DaimlerChrysler unsuccessfully sued General Motors, claiming the Hummer grille would confuse potential buyers.)
Besides the generic styling, two elements of the third-generation Grand Cherokee disappointed Jeep loyalists. First, in place of an off-road-capable solid front axle, the 2005 Grand Cherokee featured an independent front suspension that, in theory, gave the previous version superior capabilities off-road at the expense of a smooth ride on pavement. Already in use on the smaller Jeep Liberty, the independent front suspension proved quite capable off road, yet the perception that it lacked the abilities of the previous generation lingered. In reality, the third-generation Grand Cherokee's larger overall dimensions (it was bigger in almost every measurement) contributed to it being less suitable for heavy-duty trail use. This, despite its heavily marketed "Trail Rated" badging, an effort to set it apart from car-based SUVs morphing into the now-popular crossover classification.
The interior--best described as "plastic-y"--was the second disappointment. Everywhere you looked, the soft-touch surfacing of the second-generation models had been replaced with what seemed like acres of shiny plastic. The seats and driving position were excellent. Yet such virtues were often overlooked by potential buyers comparison-shopping the Grand Cherokee against competitively priced crossovers, such as the popular Lexus RX300, that offered virtually no serious off-road or towing capabilities. As a result, Grand Cherokee sales started a downward slide right from the start of the introduction of the third generation. From 137,148 units in 2004, the new 2005 model sold only 115,439 units, unusual for a new model. Sales rebounded a bit for 2006, with 139,148 registrations, but with the economic meltdown only 50,328 Grand Cherokees were sold for the 2009 model year.
Under the hood, the third-generation Grand Cherokee certainly excelled over the prior model. A more-refined V6 had replaced the long-in-the-tooth, AMC-based, four-liter straight six. The lineup of V8s was expanded as the existing 4.7-liter V8 was augmented with the same 5.7-liter V8 found in the Chrysler 300, Dodge Magnum, and Dodge Charger. A Mercedes-sourced V6 three-liter turbo diesel was offered in all states other than California for the 2007 and 2008 model years, only to be discontinued as Daimler and Chrysler severed ties. For the 2009 model year, the Hemi was treated to cylinder deactivation, which improved real-world fuel economy by up to 10 percent. For enthusiasts seeking a different kind of Grand Cherokee, a high-performance version with extreme all-weather rather than off-road capabilities, Jeep introduced an SRT8 version of the Grand Cherokee for the 2006 model year. It was powered with the 6.1-liter version of the Hemi V8 offering up 420 horsepower.
In addition to added horsepower, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 featured upgraded Brembo brakes; a large, dual, performance exhaust with polished tips (exiting out the middle of the rear); Bilstein performance gas-charged shocks and modified suspension components; a Mercedes-Benz NAG1 (WA580) five-speed transmission; a unique NV146 transfer case; a specially designed electronic all-wheel-drive system; and interior and exterior updates. With its sport-focused suspension and sticky Goodyear tires, the Grand Cherokee SRT8 was capable of pulling over 0.9Gs on the skid pad, going from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds, covering the quarter mile in 13 seconds, and topping out at 168 miles per hour... if you can find a road long enough. These numbers compare favarably with its most direct competitors, including the Range Rover (priced at $85,000), the BMW X5 M ($90,000), and the Porsche Cayenne Turbo ($127,000). The Grand Cherokee SRT8 costs "just" $50,000, making it a performance-car bargain. From 2006 through 2009, a total of 10,355 Jeep SRT8s have been built.
Check back here on Sunday 20 June for our comprehensive driving impression of the all-new 2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee. In the meantime, we're featuring high-res historic photos of the Grand Cherokee in the Automotive Traveler Image Gallery.