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.

During our three days in hell, we decided the three best things about the Grand Cherokee are its:

1. Nimble size: At just over 15 feet long, just under 6 feet tall, and with a curb weight of "just" 4050 pounds, the Jeep is very easy to maneuver on or off the road; it's also a snap to park and will fit in virtually any garage. Plus, with the optional towing package, you can trailer up to 6500 pounds. Overall, it's the sportiest sport/ute of all. (However the low-speed suspension calibration still allows too much on-road rocking motion for our tastes.)

2. Great V-8 and 4x4 system: Although Jeep's tried-and-true 4.0-liter/195-horsepower OHV inline six remains in the lineup, we heartily recommend opting for the new high-tech 4.7-liter SOHC V-8. Producing a heady 235 horses and 295 pound-feet of torque both at 4800 rpm, this smooth and great sounding powerplant (backed by a four-speed overdrive automatic) really makes the Grand Cherokee fun to drive. Its stout low-rpm torque combines with the relatively short 3.73:1 gearing (and 4WD grip) to deliver a neck-snapping wallop of acceleration from a standing start. Its 0-30-mph time of 2.3 seconds rivals that of many all-out performance cars, and even its 7.2-second 0-60-mph time puts it at the head of the SUV class. Combined with the sure-footed traction of its Quadra-Drive II full-time 4WD system (controls wheelspin with progressive speed-sensing torque transfer differentials front, center, and rear, rather than via brake-application intervention, such as on the Mercedes), the Jeep was a master at rock crawling, where one or more wheels may be off the ground at a time. From gooey mud to soft sand dunes, we never found a surface it couldn't handle. (And all this while wearing tires more suited to a Lexus LS 400.)

3. Luxury: Jeep offers the Grand Cherokee in seven-passenger configuration, but the vehicle is really better suited for use by four (or occasionally five) humans. The new design delivers a welcome 3-inch increase in rear hiproom and an additional 1.2 cubic feet of cargo space, over the previous-generation, but this is still not a huge interior. The front buckets are soothingly soft as you first sit, but proved weak on long-haul (as well as off-road) support. Welcome features include steering-wheel-mounted radio and cruise controls, dual-zone heater/AC system, and high-performance sound system.

But one of the Grand Cherokee's best features is completely unappreciated as you climb a craggy ridge. At its base price of $33,890, the top-drawer Jeep is also quite a value. Which will obviously give you more to spend at the mall.

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