Go to any shopping center this weekend and count the sport/utilities in the lot. Know how many ever go any further "off-road" than driving over a curb? Less than five percent. Despite the manly brush guards and Kilimanjaro-conquering image, most SUVs slog through life as Mommy's "mall-terrain" vehicle.
So, even though plenty of new Jeep Grand Cherokees never tackle anything more challenging than a speed bump, to fully appreciate this excellent SUV, you have to really use it like a serious off-roader. Go up scary hills, snick through narrow hollers, plod through soft riverbeds, even experience a flash flood or two. Then as a reward, go play in the mud. We did all that and more on this torture-test trip, and were continually impressed with the overall abilities of this popular machine. Clearly, those people at the mall don't know what they're missing.
The Grand Cherokee was completely redesigned in '99 and carries over into 2000 mostly unchanged. The major news is that a 2WD version of the V-8 engine option is now available, which should be quite a screamer. Other changes include front seatbelt pretensioners, sunvisor extensions, new colors, and "Royale" soft leather upholstery.
Forget aesthetics, the single most important thing to outfit your SUV with when you're going off-road somewhere like Death Valley (where you can easily be stranded on a 120-degree day, 50 miles from the nearest road-like we were last time) is good tires. Jeep offers a Rubicon Trail-proven "Up Country" equipment group that delivers increased ride height, high-pressure shocks, underbody skidplates, and (perhaps most important) 245/70SR16 Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires. Although we requested this package, our test vehicle didn't come so equipped, and it showed: We had a flat tire (a small twig through the sidewall) on our first day. Fortunately, Jeep provides a full-size spare tire on a matching alloy wheel as standard equipment, so we could keep on exploring.