The chief beauty of the Grand Cherokee isn't in the carefully drawn exterior metal, but under the skin. In fact, exterior beauty will depend on your pocketbook. The top-of-the-line Limited model is so much better looking than the Base and Laredo that it seems to be a separate and unequal third channel of Jeep sport/utility. But all the ZJs will share a new suspension that's orders of magnitude better on the street, not only without handicapping off-road performance, but improving it, as well.

The Quadra-Link/Quadra-Coil suspension is essentially the same unit, front and rear. It's made up of a live axle with four locating arms; there's a shock absorber and coil spring at each corner. The result, Jeep says, is more suspension rebound (up 1.5 inches over the XJ Cherokee) for better off-road traction, reduction of head toss (those side-to-side motions often encountered on uneven surfaces), and improved on-road ride quality. Special variable-rate bushings, with rates that vary from one position to another, are used throughout the suspension. "We don't have a standard bushing," said Jeep vehicle dynamics engineer Dennis H. Moothart. "Every bushing in the system is tuned specifically to achieve ride and handling goals. Some bushings are stiff for handling, others are soft in one direction for impact harshness without hurting handling.

Moothart's successful taming of the XJ Cherokee's wild nature is immediately detectable on or off the road. We drove the Laredo test vehicle hard over a period of days, on surfaces including rocky inclines, steep washes, switchbacks, and through mud voted by one and all as Most Vaseline-like in a Starring Role. Then we drove it nonstop from its San Antonio debut site to our home base of Los Angeles. In every case, the improvement in ride quality is nothing short of outstanding, but the change shows up most clearly on the highway.

Where the XJ suspension returns a choppy, impact-intensive ride that telegraphs every frost heave, the ZJ ride is smoothly competent and untroubled. Like a car, actually, but with a taller viewpoint. Contributing to the improvements are new microcellular jounce bumpers that more evenly absorb and distribute shocks over the rigid unibody structure. Quicker power-assisted recirculating-ball steering has significantly improved on-center feel, previously a big drawback in driving a Cherokee any distance.