23 April 1999



The new version of Jeeps Grand Cherokee is plusher, better

on tarmac and more capable off the road than the old one.

David Cousins was at the UK launch near Loch Lomond

GOD bless America, home of Hollywood, unfeasibly large steaks and Barney the purple, talking dinosaur. Home, too, to Jeep, which has never been coy about promoting its rugged, cowboy boots image. So you can imagine what a big event the launch of a new Jeep model is.

Not that the old one was defective in any way. It has sold 14,000 in the three years it has been available in the UK and 1.6m worldwide, so its not exactly been a slow seller. It still looks pretty fresh, too, and goes well. But the guys in the stetsons back at the Michigan headquarters of parent company Chrysler decreed that it was time for a change.

So, whats new? Virtually everything, says Jeep, with the most significant carryover part from old to new model a humble oil filter. Like Land Rover with its Discovery, Jeep was loath to ditch its distinctive look entirely, so the new one takes the old, faintly slabby, shape, sculpts it about a bit and tones down the over-exuberant front end. Its now a seriously handsome piece of machinery, racier and lower set than a Discovery and sure to make your neighbours gnash their teeth with ill-concealed envy.

Though the advertising will no doubt play heavily on the new vehicles Americanness, its actually made by Steyr-Daimler-Puch at Graz, Austria.

&#42 Engine

The old Grand Cherokee offered a choice of three engines – a 4 litre straight-six mustering 174hp, a 2.5 litre diesel with 114hp on tap and a wild 5.2 litre V8 with 212hp and – sadly – left-hand drive.

The only one of those powerplants to make it into the new model is the 4 litre straight-six, though gentle massaging of its vitals has upped the power output to 188hp. Its joined by a new 4.7 litre V8 with 217hp to its name and (in the autumn) by a new 140hp 3.1 litre 5-cylinder diesel from Italian maker VM.

The diesel unit wasnt available for the Scottish launch, but the two petrol units do a stout job of propelling the Grand Cherokees 1.8t along the tarmac. The laws of physics being what they are, the 4 litre takes a little while to gather speed. But once it does, it barrels along like a small armoured personnel carrier, charging past lesser craft with the boundless momentum of a bull buffalo in search of a mate.

If the 4 litre is a charging buffalo, the 4.7 litre is a charging buffalo with a rocket up its unmentionable. This is the one that puts a smile on the face of ex-fighter pilots and small boys of all ages and will be favoured by those people who feel that to be anything less than first away at the traffic lights is a sign of acute wimpishness.

Will you have to marry the petrol station managers daughter to be able to run it? Sort of, though a consumption range of 13.6-22mpg is probably not too bad considering the power and weight involved. The 4 litre is bit more parsimonious, with quoted consumption of 14.3-24mpg. But, hell, if you can afford the machine, youll probably not worry overmuch about the £2000 the average 12,000-mile year would cost in fuel.

&#42 Gearbox

If youre a stick-shift (oops, manual gearbox) fan, you may want to mark a small minus point against the new auto-only Grand Cherokee. Indeed, there wont be a manual available on the diesel either. But dont get too worked up because the 4-speed auto is an easy-to-live-with unit that gels well with the big capacity engines up front.

The most electronically-laden version is reserved for the 4.7 litre and features state-of-the-art stuff like adaptive shifting to match your driving style and an alternative second gear ratio to give you five forward ratios. Both models have the sort of tall gearing that allows you to glide along at more-than-motorway speeds with the revs barely tickling the 3000rpm mark.

&#42 Cabin

Jeep says that buyers of the new Cherokee are as likely to come from the ranks of BMW, Jaguar and Audi owners as from those of other off-roaders. So trim levels are as far from spartan as its possible to be. Leather is standard, as is climate control and cruise control. The electric seats have his and hers memory settings and the CD player (the 4.7 litre has a 10-disc autochanger) will produce enough decibels to make your fillings rattle.

The dash is all-new, with the squared-off look of the old one replaced by a smoothly rounded job ready for the millennium. Its functional rather than clever or cutting-edge fashionable, which is probably how you want it when youre on a slippery 3-in-1 slope and have to hit the controls in a hurry.

Button placement wasnt a forte on the old Grand Cherokee, with some of the switch grouping confusing, especially at night. The new model brings more logic to the task, with most buttons where youd expect them. Theres the inevitable wood look, which may be what this market demands but doesnt really look convincing in an otherwise hard-to-fault environment.

Those who loved the dimmable light on the vanity mirror will be relieved to know its made it to the new model. Theyll probably also like the steering wheel-mounted cruise control switchgear and the touchy-feely audio controls on the back of the wheel.

&#42 Handling

One of the downsides of owning a 4×4 always used to be its tendency to lean over on corners like a big, drunk rugby player. But makers have steadily improved the on-road manners of their vehicles. Jeep has a big advantage in that the Grand Cherokee is barely taller than an estate car. Couple that with the latest suspension changes and you have a vehicle that hardly rolls on big corners. Only on tiddly bends does a degree of sideways sway remind you youre astride a 4×4, but its nothing too serious.

&#42 Holding capacity

The big news here is that the spare wheel, which used to sit on one side of the luggage area and reduced available space sharply, has been banished underneath it. It does mean the space available is relatively shallow compared to vehicles that strap the spare wheel on the outside of the back door and there is some intrusion from wheel arches. But its nothing to get embarrassed about.

A useful new item is a flip-up rear window, which can be operated separately from the door itself. Likewise, the Isuzu Trooper-style fold-in wing mirrors, which are standard on European models though not on US ones.

&#42 Off-road

For Jeep, as for every other 4×4 maker, the launch of a new model presents something of a dilemma. Fewer than 5% of these vehicles ever leave the tarmac, so theres no point building in brilliant off-road ability at the expense of on-road manners.

Land Rover tackled the problem on its new Discovery with some serious electrohydraulics – one lot using hydraulic rams to keep the vehicle level under hard road cornering, another lot using ABS and electronics to shift drive to non-spinning wheels when traction starts to disappear.

Jeep has taken a different tack. The old Grand Cherokee used a viscous coupling to send extra drive to the front wheels if the two axles started to turn at different speeds. The new model dispenses with the viscous coupling, replacing it with another type of non-electronic system based on something called a gerotor pump. This system sub-divides into two distinct but similar sets of kit.

Quadra-Trac II concerns itself with front-to-back matters. When theres a speed variation between front and rear axles, the gerotor pump applies hydraulic pressure to a clutch-pack to send power to the front axle (the normal drive-share is 90% to the rear, 10% to the front). The process takes milliseconds.

Vari-Lok does something similar between either side of the axles. If one wheel starts to run slower than the other, another gerotor pump sends oil to a clutch pack to progressively lock up the axle. So, if necessary, all torque can be transferred to a single wheel.

The system is more efficient than ordinary differential locks, says Jeep, and quicker and more seamless (though more expensive) than viscous couplings. Its also relatively simple compared to electronic-based systems.

Techno-blurb aside, how does the thing work in practice? Jeeps test course involved a variety of inhospitable terrain, but it was the boulder-strewn river beds that promised to be most demanding of the new Grand Cherokees powers of traction and articulation. Some of these looked passable, but only by a man with big boots, a beard and a wild, staring look…

In the event, the Jeep picked its way through with confidence. Impressively, the whole process could be done at a gentle 1000rpm, with the big engine, smooth auto box and ability to concentrate all drive to a single gripping wheel combining to make progress seamless and jerk-free. No doubt a muddy, slippery hillside would tax the system, but if theres anything, anywhere to grip on, the Grand Cherokee will probably get through.

&#42 Verdict

Theres no doubt that Jeeps new Grand Cherokee is a desirable piece of machinery. It has nicer on-road handling and better stowage space than the old model and more cossetting luxury than Barbara Cart-lands bedroom (we imagine). Its also pretty unstoppable off-road.

Downsides? The single Limited trim level means leather and auto are standard so muddy boots are out. And though the 4 litres cost of £29,995 is the same as the one it replaces, the 4.7 litre will leave you a fiver short of £35,000, which is a substantial amount. Lack of Laredo versions (which, on old model, were £3500 cheaper than Limited ones) means theres no cheap-and-cheerful option.


Engines: 4 litre straight six petrol – 188hp/218lb ft; 4.7 litre V8 petrol – 217hp/288lb ft; 3.1 litre 5cyl diesel – 140hp/283lb ft.

Top speed: 117mph (4.0);122 (4.7).

0-62mph: 10.9secs (4.0); 8.3secs (4.7).

Max payload: 520kg.

Towing capacity: 3500kg.

Fuel tank: 78 litres.

Prices: 4 litre £29,995; 4.7 litre £34,995; diesel model price expected to be similar to 4 litre petrol.

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