To paraphrase one of Lee Iacocca's televised pep talks: In the sport-utility business, you either lead, follow or get out of the way. The new and very adroit Jeep Grand Cherokee seems capable of completing all three moves. Lead. It carries a definite promise of leadership, with sales of the base Cherokee and up-market Grand Cherokee creeping up on first-place Ford Explorer in the sport-utility stakes. In a rare, total rout of the Asian competition, these two product lines account for about 60% of the domestic market for sod bruisers. Follow. Jeep-Chrysler clearly has pursued customer demands for a quality-built four-wheel-drive vehicle with elegant appointments and neat mechanical luxuries without uncouth pricing. And the Grand Cherokee certainly has enough performance to get out of the way--then quietly motor ahead of--Explorer, Trooper, Blazer, Montero, Pathfinder, Range Rover, Oldsmobile Bravada and other five-door, 4WD vehicles that weigh much more and consequently get up and go just that much slower. To maintain all this fresh superiority, the three varieties of Grand Cherokee--base model, mid-range Laredo and top-of-the-line Limited--have several other things going for them. They are the only sport-utility vehicles with a driver's-side air bag. It is standard equipment. So are four-wheel, anti-lock brakes. The Grand Cherokee's in-line, six-cylinder engine develops 190 horsepower for another first in class--also more oomph and torque than the prestigious and horribly expensive Range Rover gets from its V-8. There are three separate transfer cases to choose from. Options range from part-time 4WD--with shift on the fly--to a full-time 4WD where the only manual responsibility is shifting into low range when off-road conditions are boulders in pudding. Of critical importance and another triumph: The center console cup holders yawn wide enough for two Big Gulps or a couple of Gatorade bottles. The price isn't bad either: $19,000 for the base Grand Cherokee with a five-speed manual, to $28,000 for a fully loaded Limited with leather seats, automatic headlights, anti-theft system and other urban luxuries. But the ultimate proof of this particular pudding-crosser is its switches. Seriously. Anyone who has spent time shuttling between domestic and imported vehicles knows that a Detroit product can be identified blindfolded. Its wiper, turn, headlight and climate switches usually rattle, clack, flop and feel quite remote from whatever their functions happen to be. On the Grand Cherokee, all switches, whether on stalks or dashboard, have a whispering solidness attached to what they do. Tolerances are close. Everything fits palm or fingertips with no coarse edges--the unmistakable feel of some committee's thoughtful attention to tactile quality. Ergonomically, the vehicle is superb. Door latches are precisely where they sho uld be at that first, instinctive grope. Opening the tailgate wouldn't be a wincing heave for a sleepy 10-year-old. Nothing in the Grand Cherokee requires a body to have triple joints or rubber bones to operate from any station. And the keys fit easily and logically. Hallelujah. Another giant step for Detroit. The first new Jeep unveiled since Chrysler purchased the nameplate in 1987--although by then, this particular design had been completed by American Motors--the Grand Cherokee is longer, wider and higher with more hip, shoulder, leg and headroom than the Wonderbread Cherokee. Externally, the styling, if not up to the moment, is certainly up to the model year and the looks of the competition. But fog lamps mounted atop the front bumper are an afterthought that should never have been allowed. Edges have been softened and the truck look diminished. Fat slots for a grille tell all observers this definitely is a Jeep. Lace-alloy wheels, col r highlighted to match body striping, say this vehicle is expensively dressed for dinner anywhere. In fact, in this era of the $45,000 sedan--with apparent retaliation being a 16% jump in sport-utility sales during the first quarter of 1992--arriving at Chardonnay in a Grand Cherokee will be considered a tribute to one's sense of high fashion and fiscal sanity. From a split-bench rear seat that folds flat to open up 79.2 cubic feet of cargo space to mounting those seats ahead of the wheel wells for greater hip room, the interior of the Grand Cherokee is a dream. Vision is that of a large goldfish bowl. Front seats are huge buckets with sufficient support from padding and shoulder-lap safety belts to prevent floating bodies when the terrain turns lumpy. And the steering wheel, by appearance, tilt setting and heft once under way, has lost that blue-collar feel of sitting at the wheel of a dump truck. But the wood accents are faux and tend to push out and separate from the dash. Those paying close to $30K for the best possible Jeep deserve a little better. The spare wheel is stored inside the Grand Cherokee, which removes cargo space. Nor does Jeep offer a rear-door rack for the spare. That might irritate owners more interested in the utility, rather than in the sporting potential, of the vehicle. A traditional challenge for makers of Jeeps, Blazers, Troopers et al., has been to combine in one vehicle the mechanical skills for bridging extremes of getting from here to there. That is to say, being able to build a vehicle capable of carrying soft people over smooth suburban asphalt while remaining ready to jounce across hectares of rural gludge without leaving a litter of bolts and broken shock absorbers. The result has been a generation of suburban cowboys; heavily padded and lightly disguised trucks said to have "the feel of a car." Truth is, no short-wheelbase, high profile vehicle with a quivering center of gravity and mechanicals geared for heaving and bouncing in the dirt can have the precise feel of a car. They usually weigh too much. Off-road and on-road suspension requirements are incompatible. To fully provide that car feel would mean sacrificing the rugged, thick-wristed look and heft of the vehicle. And if that image wasn't of paramount importance among the sport-utility set, they'd all be out buying Saturns. In its search for the middle ground, however, the Grand Cherokee probably is the best there has been in replicating the motion and propulsion of a passenger car. It will accelerate alongside such proven people carriers as Honda Accord, Volvo 960, Ford Taurus and Chevrolet Caprice. With a top speed of 110 m.p.h., Grand Cherokee rolls faster than Buick Regal, Ford Crown Victoria and Pontiac Grand Am. It has been built lighter with a stiffer chassis. That allows a firmer, more precise suspension setup. The track--the distance be tween the Grand Cherokee's wheels--has been widened for a touch more flatness and stability. So body roll when cornering is down to a minimum--unless that cornering is borderline brutal. Driving straight and level produces little float--until speeds start approaching big-time illegal. But do beware of this relatively high performance. It may suck a driver into situations in which quick recoveries can become a handful. A heavier steering feel would be a huge assist. Sadly, the vehicle's directional control has been lightened a little too close to the unfeeling and vapid. Off-road--although it is estimated that far less than 10% of sport-utility owners ever tackle terrain worse than a dirt parking lot--the Grand Cherokee will climb just about everything except Eagle Rock. Thanks to a unique system of damping suspension movements--where the vertical travel of the engine absorbs opposing movements of the wheels--the vehicle soaks up hefty potholesan ruts without bringing motion queasies to anyone in the passenger compartment. Still, some things can never change. Sport-utilities remain thirsty for gas. They are not quiet vehicles. Nor would they be a popular choice for some really extended touring. And with gullies to straddle and boulders to hurdle, all sport-utility vehicles ride high off the ground and tall in the saddle. So for every passenger who steps down from a Grand Cherokee, expect three to fall out. 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited The Good Feels more like a car than other sport utilities. Superior performance. Quality build and looks. Air bag and anti-lock brakes standard. The Bad Light steering. The Ugly Gas consumption. Genuine, simulated, plastic wood accents. Cost Base: $27,433 As tested: $28,042 (including leather seats, automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, full-time four-wheel drive, roof rack, anti-theft system, six-speaker sound system, cast alloy wheels, cruise control.) Engine 4.0 liter, six cylinders, in-line, developing 190horsepower. Type Five-door, five-passenger, 4WD sport-utility vehicle. Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested with automatic, 10.1 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 110 m.p.h. Gas consumption, EPA city-highway, 15 and 20 m.p.g. Curb Weight 3,633 pounds.
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