Why are people buying so many sport utility vehicles? It's a trend that happened way before the current round of winter storms recast the Northeast into Antarctica. No, it's the overall driving experience that makes them so appealing. And one of the most popular is the original, the Jeep Grand Cherokee. With its squarish stance, the Grand Cherokee has a solid, distinctive look that inspires confidence when climbing into it. It also has the power to back up the image. The standard power train is Jeep's long-running 4.0-liter in-line six-cylinder. This 242-cubic-inch power plant churns out 185 horsepower at 4,600 rpm and a whopping 220 pound-feet of torque at a low 2,400 rpm. This kind of power renders the optional 220 horsepower 5.2-liter V-8 a luxury, not a necessity. Grand Cherokees come in two flavors, base Laredo and the dressier, uptown Limited. Drive trains include a base rear-wheel-drive version, full-time shift-on-the-fly Selec-Trac, and full-time Quadra-Trac, a transparent four-wheel-drive system. The Limited is more for those seeking status than an honest-to-goodness four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Laredo, with its standard six, provides plenty of power across a wide range of speeds. With a mighty roar, you'll be propelled across a field, whether it be blacktop or of the green and gooshy variety. Acceleration is instant and gratifying. Refinements make this engine quieter than previous editions. Although not as quiet as a luxury cruiser, the noise levels were satisfyingly low. The handling was better than you would expect. With its quick steering and good pulling power, the handling is as sporting as you get in a truck. Corners can be taken with confidence, mostly because of the width of the vehicle. It never felt tippy in turns. The test vehicle featured the Up-Country suspension group. If you're serious about off-roading, the fatter tires, skid plates and one-inch higher ride height will help you plow through the fjords. But without running boards, it will be hard for the missus to climb in for a night on the town. Unfortunately, there was no snow on the ground for this road test, but the Grand Cherokee handled inclement weather with ease. The shift-on-the-fly Selec-Trac was easy to use, allowing the flexibility of just rear-wheel drive when desired. The four-speed electronic automatic transmission shifted unobtrusively. Braking was short and assured. Of course, the biggest news for '96 is the new interior, which is much improved over the original interior. The dash has the squared-off feel of last year, but the ergonomics have been improved. Dual air bags are now standard, and the center console is now color-keyed with integrated cup-holders. Power window, locks and mirror switches are now illuminated at night. An auxiliary 12-volt power outlet and driver's left foot rest are new features as well. The steering whee l is thick and feels good to the touch. The rear seats are split. Keyless entry is standard, the AM/ FM cassette CD provided hours of entertainment, and the optional power leather seats with lumbar support were comfortable over long distances. Overall, the feel of the new interior is one of spaciousness and convenience. Other sport utilities might feel more luxurious, but they're no more convenient. Ultimately, what might be the reason is this Jeep has a brawny character and all-weather abilities that is lacking in many of today's bland blob-mobiles. It can cart the groceries across town or a snow-packed highway. And it can do it with comfort and style. Add to that Jeep's increasing refinement, and you have a vehicle that continues to improve with each generation. 1996 Grand Cherokee Laredo Standard Equipment: 4.0-liter six-cylinder, Selec-Trac four-wheel drive, dual air bags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes, dual heated mirrors, ro f rack, aluminum wheels, P215/75R15 tires, split folding rear seats, AM/FM cassette stereo, rear seat heating ducts, speed-sensitive steering, leather-wrapped steering tilt wheel, cruise control, rear defogger and wiper, power windows and door locks, keyless entry. Optional equipment: Overhead console, P225/75R15 tires, power seats with lumbar, automatic headlights, AM/ FM cassette with graphic equalizer, security system, Trailer Tow Group (hitch receptacle, 3.73 ratio rear axle, automatic transmission oil cooler), Up Country Group (P245/70R15 tires, skid plates, tow hooks, full-size spare tire, high-pressure gas shocks, one-inch higher ride height), rear traction lock differential. Base price: $26,571 As tested: $30,138 EPA rating: 15 mpg city, 20 mpg highway
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