Making the Mercedes-Benz M-Class Redundant
The 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee was first unveiled to journalists last summer at Cobo Hall in Detroit. At the introduction, Chrysler showed videotaped footage of the new Jeep tearing ruts through muddy terrain that left a competing vehicle stuck due to lost traction. The competition, in this case, was the Mercedes-Benz ML320, a luxury sport-utility vehicle that, in the video, appeared to offer more luxury than utility. Soon thereafter, Daimler-Benz took over Chrysler Corp., and the video was never seen or heard from again. When asked about it, DaimlerChrysler reps will say that the vehicles don't really compete; they cater to two entirely different markets. Apparently just one of the markets prefers the ability to go off-road.
Winding back the clock a little further, witness the look on the Jeep dealer's face when he hears about the new Dodge Durango. Ugly with rage, ain't it? When the Dodge Durango debuted for the 1998 model year, Jeep dealers were furious. Parent company Chrysler Corp. had bestowed a rugged and capable midsize sport-utility vehicle upon Dodge, and suddenly the Jeep Grand Cherokee was an also-ran amid the hotly contested midsize SUV segment. Jeep was supposed to be the granddaddy of SUV makers, the proverbial king-of-the-hill when it came to building rock-stomping people-movers. Was it fair for the latest, shiniest Chrysler sport-ute to wear the Dodge ram horns? Not until 1999, when the all-new Grand Cherokee debuted to put Jeep dealers at ease finally.
If you haven't figured it out by now, the 1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee is a new truck. The name is the same, but only a few parts have been carried over from the previous model. Unless you're a car or truck enthusiast, however, the Grand Cherokee still looks an awful lot like its predecessor. The trademark Jeep vertical grille is pretty much the same, as are the vehicle's size, the distance between the wheels and volume of the interior. But Chrysler didn't simply reform some sheetmetal molds and call it new; each aspect of the vehicle has been improved.
Vehicle refinement is sometimes difficult to quantify, so let's start by comparing the new motor with the old. Though a slightly improved, 4.0-liter six cylinder is still the base engine, our test car was equipped with the new, 4.7-liter SOHC V8 (optional on both Laredo and Limited trim), which replaces the 5.2-liter V8 option of a year ago. Last year, the Grand Cherokee's entry-level V8 made 220 horsepower at 4,400 rpm and 300 foot-pounds of torque at 2,800 rpm. This year, though 54 pounds lighter, the 4.7-liter Power Tech V8 delivers 15 more horsepower at 4,800 rpm and five fewer foot-pounds of torque at 3,200 rpm, all the while sipping slightly less fuel than its predecessor. The lost torque is negligible, counterbalanced by the increase in horsepower. Emissions are lower too, though that's a much more difficult claim to verify with the naked eye. A 5.9-liter V8 is no longer available, but we expect to see a replacement for the big motor soon, simply to compete better with all the new performance-utes that are coming to market these days.
The Grand Cherokee may not come with a four-wheel independent suspension touted by recent sport-utes for ride comfort, but it's still easy to drive on the road. The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering provides excellent feedback, and requires little correction on the highway. At speeds of more than 70 mph, however, we discovered an annoying whine emanating from below the vehicle, possibly coming from the differential. This same noise has been observed in our long-term Grand Cherokee Limited test truck, and we'll continue to pay it close attention in the coming months.
Off the road, the new Grand Cherokee doesn't give up any stability with its solid front and rear axles, whose differentials are suspended by a well-articulated link arrangement. Ground clearance is 9.1 inches with the optional Up Country Suspension Group (8.7 inches with a skid plate, which should be ordered if you ever plan to drive off the pavement). Because our test vehicle was not equipped with the Up Country Group, the Grand Cherokee wasn't exactly oblivious to rocky terrain. To enjoy this truck off road, the driver should still avoid the holes and run the ridges. The interior provides precious few handles for passengers to grab onto, so it's apparent that while the Grand Cherokee can negotiate the famed Rubicon Trail, it really shouldn't.
That's not to say we're altogether disappointed with this truck's off-road performance. The new Quadra-Drive four-wheel-drive system is a work of genius, providing the wheel that has traction with up to 100 percent of available power. Quadra-Drive includes a new transfer case (called Quadra-Trac II) and progressive front and rear axles (dubbed Vari-Lok). This system is engaged all the time, both on and off the road. While most of the available power is delivered to the rear wheels, power is diverted to the front as soon as rear traction is lost. This system utilizes Vari-Lok to divert power rather than retard it with the brakes, meaning it works even when the brakes may be in use. We were able to test out this system on streets that resembled ice rinks and it worked flawlessly, maintaining traction even on partially sanded roads.
A new four-speed automatic transmission is standard, and it mates nicely with the optional engine. In fact, the new transmission has two ratios for second gear, providing more seamless control of upshifts and downshifts, and more power for towing. The brakes have also been improved this year with larger 12-inch rotors and more surface area on the brake pads. Jeep claims that the 70 to zero stopping distance for the Grand Cherokee is the best in its class.
However, approach and departure angles, as well as ground clearance, are similar to the Ford Explorer's numbers, so we are not overly impressed. The Grand Cherokee bills itself as "The Most Capable Sport Utility Ever," but we still wouldn't want to drive it too far off the beaten path. And who would, with a piece of personal property of this price?
Up front, driver and passenger rest on comfortable, six-way powered seats that include a lumbar support. Side bolstering is weak, but the Grand Cherokee isn't meant for slalom racing. The second row of seats is not so spacious, but it is comfortable. Cargo area is 39 cubic feet, or a maximum of 72.3 cubic feet with the rear seats down. To expand room, the 60/40 split-fold seats are easily made flush with the floor, without the need to remove the headrests. Simply fold the headrests forward and push the seatbacks down. Our chief complaint about the previous interior design was the intrusive spare tire, which took up a huge portion of the cargo room behind the rear seat. For 1999, the spare has been relocated below the floor.
Luxury amenities abound inside the Grand Cherokee. Our Limited trim included an Infrared Dual Zone Climate Control, which measures passenger body temperatures, not ambient temperature, before determining whether or not to activate the heater or air conditioner. We're generally wary of cars that think for us, but in this case, we never had a complaint about being too hot or too cold.
Our test vehicle also came equipped with the optional Infinity Speaker Group, which includes eight performance speakers. This option also includes a 10-disc CD changer, mounted behind the rear seats, so plan your music itinerary well in advance. Among our favorite oh-so-indulgent features are the paddle controls that are located behind the steering wheel spokes, which operate the CD player and radio. These controls are intuitive, and fun to play with. As optioned, our tester featured a one-touch power sunroof, which operates quietly and, even when open, doesn't create much wind noise.
For further luxury, the overhead console displays such information as outside temperature, time, compass and trip computer. It can also tell you if the door is ajar, a warning that became annoying on our test car, whose rear hatch refused to shut tight in cold weather. The console is capable of displaying information in five languages (English, French, German, Italian or Spanish), a hint that DaimlerChrysler has plans for this vehicle on a global scale. Through the information display, the user may program such items as the headlight delay feature, the automatic door locks and the low-fuel warning chime. With this level of electronic wizardry, Jeep is sure to steal customers away from more traditional luxury marques.
Jeep dealers may have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the new Grand Cherokee was introduced, but what must the peddlers of the tri-pointed star think? In a few years, when the hype over German sport-utes has subsided, where will serious buyers go when they want a capable midsize? A fully loaded Grand Cherokee, including all the bells and whistles, comes in at around $38,000. A base-trim Mercedes-Benz ML430 starts at over $44,000. Both offer leather seats, four-wheel antilock brakes, 4WD and powerful V8 engines. Both are capable vehicles on the road, but for the rare times you want to go trailblazing to the cabin, which is the better vehicle? Let's go to the videotape.