Cruising down the highway best reveals what is so good about Jeep's Grand Cherokee. It may be as rugged as a truck, but it has the soul of a car.

With dirty mountain bikes stowed in back, a friend and I were engaged in animated conversation as I drove, and I found myself constantly exceeding the speed limit unless I used the cruise control because this big Jeep rides with the smoothness of a family sedan.

Even though it is capable of four-wheeling, as I experienced on an indoor off-road course at the Michigan State Fairgrounds during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, the Grand Cherokee is an outstanding blend of car comfort and sport-utility toughness. It is built with a carlike unibody structure instead of a separate body-on-frame construction derived from a truck.

Comfort and versatility are why sport-utility vehicles (SUV) continue to sprout like Topsy, although some doomsayers are predicting that sales are topping out and heading for a plateau. Most manufacturers, however, are predicting strong sales.

The dual-purpose nature of SUVs such as the Grand Cherokee and Ford Explorer gives rise to their appeal. They aren't quite as "suburban" as minivans, yet they are almost as versatile when it comes to accommodating the paraphernalia of active lifestyles and young families. Their passenger space is generally not much greater than a mid-size sedan, but easy access to a large and usually square cargo hold gives adequate space for hauling large objects. I hauled two bikes simply by removing their front wheels.

Our test car was equipped with the luxurious Orvis package, which included the Up-Country suspension, more ground clearance, different springs, gas shock absorbers, tow hooks, 3.73 rear axle ratio, transmission oil cooler and a full-size spare tire. The only drawback to the indoor-mounted full-size spare tire is that it takes up a meaningful chunk of cargo space.

The metallic green paint with gold metallic undertone was beautiful, but the light tan and dark green two-tone interior seemed a bit too bright for my taste. Otherwise, the interior was a most pleasant place to be. The seats are comfy, steering easy and a whole host of convenience equipment made our Orvis edition as lavish as a luxury sedan. It had heated seats, automatic climate control, compact disc player, trip computer, sunroof and steering-wheel-mounted controls for cruise control and radio.

The radio controls mounted on the backside of the steering wheel spokes were among the most usable I have encountered.

Power for our test car came from its optional 5.2-liter V-8. This engine has 220 horsepower, lots of torque and beefy throttle response, making it ideal for towing trailers or boats. The downside to the V-8 is its thirst. The EPA fuel economy rating is 14 mpg in the city and 17 mpg on the highway.

Complementing the off-road suspension of our test vehicle was the full-time, four-wheel-drive Quad ra-Trac system that sends most of the power to the rear wheels until it detects some wheel slippage, at which time it seamlessly transfers power to the front to restore traction. This system works in the background, and its only giveaway is a slight tightening of the steering in parking maneuvers. A separate low range exists for rugged off-road conditions.

While the SUV segment continues to expand, the Grand Cherokee is one of the key players responsible for the segment's popularity. If civility and comfort are important to you, this Jeep has them in abundance.


Consistent with equipment on par with a luxury sedan, our Grand Cherokee had a base price of $33,790. Options included the Orvis package, trailer towing package, V-8 engine, limited-slip differential and power sunroof.

The sticker price was $37,567.


The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are provided by auto manuf turers.

Point: The Grand Cherokee brings a quiet ride, smooth highway manners and plush interior to the SUV segment.

Counterpoint: The full-size spare tire intrudes on cargo space, and the V-8 is thirsty.


ENGINE: 5.2-liter, V-8


WHEELBASE: 105.9 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,926 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $33,790


MPG RATING: 14 city, 17 hwy.