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It's not always easy being an American icon. Let's take Coca Cola as an example. Representing the standard in liquid refreshment for over half-a-century, Coke has been the target of numerous wannabe and copycat soda makers who are looking for a cut of the beverage bounty. And rather than come up with a totally new and innovative product, many of these upstarts have followed Coke's lead as closely as is legally possible, making only those changes necessary to avoid litigation. Even worse, by keeping costs (and quality) low, these imitators often make a healthy profit despite their woefully inferior product.
The same situation now exists in the sport utility market. What used to be a sparse community populated almost solely by the original off-road vehicle (Jeep) has become a crowded megalopolis bursting with high-profile, knobby-tired, luxury-laden people movers. Each one claims to be the "ultimate" in both on- and off-road transportation while offering nothing, not even a "thank you," to the company that started it all. What's an icon to do?
Well, in Jeep's case, the company can only do what it has always done: Continue to set the standard in sport utility travel while simultaneously making it even more difficult for the "competition" to keep up. For 1999, that means a complete redesign of what is already one of the most capable SUVs on the market, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. With only 127 carryover parts from 1998 (most of them fasteners) this is the first major redesign of the Grand Cherokee since its introduction in 1992 as a '93 model. True aficionados of the Jeep marque may remember that a less radical redesign did occur for the '96 model year. However, that one concentrated primarily on "under the skin" upgrades while this one will be instantly recognizable as soon as the first '99 Grand Cherokees go on sale this fall. (And if the new looks aren't enough to grab your attention, trust us, the T.V. ads will.)
Now, before I discuss what Jeep did for '99, it is only fitting that I mention what they didn't do. As with Mazda's recent Miata makeover, Jeep had much more to lose potentially than they had to gain by changing the Grand Cherokee. At over 20,000 units a month for the '98 model year, Grand Cherokees are still selling like the proverbial hot cakes. Since 1992, the company has sold over 1.6 million units world wide with major awards from the likes of Petersen's 4 Wheel &Off-Road, Four Wheeler, Car and Drive and Automobile. Messing with success is a very tricky business. (Going back to the Coca Cola reference, remember what happened when they tried to "improve" that popular soft drink? Jeep did not want an automotive version of "New Coke." ) So let me put all fears to rest right now, Jeep did not screw up the Grand Cherokee, not in the least.
With that out of the way, let's talk about what's new for '99. As mentioned earlier, the vehicle is basically all new from the ground up. The most obvious and striking changes come from the new Grand Cherokee's look. While it is still undeniably Jeep, it is also unmistakably new (and improved!). By keeping the classic styling cues of the previous version (seven piece vertical grille, trapezoidal wheel arches, lower body lines) and combining them with a more pronounced wedge shape, the '99 model looks decidedly modern. Placing the front grille at more of an angle and blending the upper windshield gently into the roof gives the JGC better visual and aerodynamic flow (and more headroom). Rounded rear corners, capped by tri-colored, louvered taillights, also add to a the Jeep's 21st Century look. A real bonus comes in the form of round head lamps that flank the grille and make the Grand Cherokee look more classic and futuristic at the same time. This is a stunning vehicle that will have the competitions' design studios working overtime for the next few years.
Once inside, it is clear that improvements to the new Jeep are more than just visual. Increases in just about every interior measurement give the GC a roomier feel. Headroom is up .8-inch for front passengers and .4-inch for rear passengers. There's also a 3.2-inch gain in hip room and a 1.2 cubic feet increase in cargo space. The really big news for '99, however, is that the spare tire, which has long kept golfers from laying their clubs flat, is now located under a panel in the cargo area. This means that off-roaders can still retrieve the spare tire without crawling under a muddy SUV in a torrential downpour. In fact, the cover, which hides the spare, is designed to lift out of the cargo area and double as a mat for lying or sitting on while changing the tire.
From a driver's perspective, the new Grand Cherokee offers improved seats, increased soft touch material and a more logical control layout. Steering wheel buttons for the audio system and cruise control mean less searching for the "seek" or "next track" button at the center of the dash. There's also an all-new, overhead console for programming such things as door lock behavior or head lamp delay. Want all the doors to lock above 25 mph, or do you hate it when cars do that? How about locking your car and walking away with the headlights still on? Is that the designated head lamp delay, or did you just forget to turn them off? These are just some of the features that are easily changed or eliminated via the all-new programmable "Vehicle Information Center" in the overhead console.
Of course it wouldn't be a Jeep if all the Grand Cherokee had to brag about were infrared dual climate controls and a low fuel chime (both of which work quite well, mind you). Despite my insistence that far too many SUV buyers care only about those kinds of features, the people at Chrysler know a Jeep has to offer more than the look and feel of an off road vehicle. It has to actually perform when the world outside gets ugly. Improvements to the drivetrain and suspension have ensured that even if a new JGC spends its entire life on Rodeo Drive, it is exceedingly capable of transporting humans in much harsher environments.
At the heart of this new drivetrain is the all-new Quadra-Drive four-wheel drive system. This is actually a combination of the second generation Quadra-Trac II transfer case and Vari-Lok progressive front and rear axle differentials. Under normal driving conditions 95 percent of the engine's power goes to the rear wheels. The moment a wheel loses traction, a speed variation occurs between the front and rear axle causing a shift in power to the front wheels. This same system can also respond to traction losses from side to side, meaning that even in a situation where only one of the four wheels has traction, the Quadra-Drive will deliver power to just that wheel. This all happens in an instantaneous, seamless manner with no driver input required. For serious off-road work, shifting the Quadra-Trac II transfer case into low range gives a torque multiplication of 2.72.
And since we're on the subject of torque, it should be noted that an all-new, 4.7-liter V8 is optional on both the Laredo and Limited Grand Cherokee models. This new engine, despite being 10 percent smaller and creating 30 percent less emissions, offers 15 more horsepower than last year's 5.2-liter V8. At 235 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque, it's the most efficient Jeep V8 engine yet. Fuel economy is up by 1 mpg city/highway and it can run on standard grade unleaded, as well. The 4.0-liter inline six is still standard in both Grand Cherokee models but this year it gets 10 more horsepower and an increase in torque while still passing California's LEV standards. If you opt for the new V8 engine you get Jeep's all-new 45RFE automatic transmission. It actually offers two second gears for a total of five forward gears. While regular upshifts go from the 3.00:1 first gear to the 1.67:1 second gear, vehicle speed and driver input can cause downshifts into an alternative 1.50:1 second gear. This allows for not only smoother downshifts, but also better fuel efficiency.
So does all this mechanical hype actually make for an improved on- and off-road vehicle? In a word, yes. After driving a '98 Grand Cherokee as a basis for comparison, we were given the opportunity to sample the '99 model on interstate highways, sweeping two lanes, twisty gravel roads, and, finally, a full scale, off-road playground. The most noticeable areas of improvement were the seats (firmer and more comfortable) the engine (more responsive and powerful) and the handling (better in just about every way). Not that the '98 was horrendous on these points, but the '99 is so good, especially in on-road handling and overall power, that the '98 now seems very old. The new Grand Cherokee would be justifiable even if the price were raised considerably from previous years. At the same cost as last year's model (except the Laredo...which is $250 cheaper) it's a steal!
Particularly impressive is the new Jeep's ability to dampen out what looks like impassable terrain. Whether traversing a series of six-inch potholes or climbing an uphill path over small boulders, the JGC not only does it, but does it with little or no drama. It wasn't until we ran the off-road course in one of the Jeep's more expensive "competitors" (and I use the term loosely) that the Grand Cherokee's true abilities could be appreciated. It was a real testament to this vehicle that someone like me, who had no idea what the hell he was doing and who had a total of two hours previous off-road experience, could circumvent the off-road course without so much as a skidplate scrape (O.K., maybe that happened once).
My friends and co-workers know that I am not the biggest fan of SUVs. Not because I dislike the actual vehicles, but because I see too many people buying them with no intent of ever exercising their utility nature. I must now grudgingly admit that when these two personalities, the stately on-road people mover and the get crazy, off-road scrapper, can be this effectively intertwined, the results are pretty compelling. If you only plan on using half of a Jeeps' capabilities, it makes a excellent ride. If your lifestyle can honestly justify both sides of the Grand Cherokee equation, you should be contacting your local Jeep dealer with money in hand.