So the all-new "ZJ"-brand Jeep Grand Cherokee sport/utility is finally among us. Surveillance pictures of this thing began circulating so long ago that only Liz Taylor has been on more news pages. Elephants carry their babies to term quicker than this. It looks, however, like the wait has been fruitful. Jeep's long-awaited upscale and highly equipped Grand Cherokee will be more expensive than the XJ Cherokee whose muscular ranks it joins (the old truck stays in production for now), and at first glance, you may not be able, to see where the money is. Unless it's side-by-side with an XJ, the magnitude of the ZJ's change is far from apparent. The best improvements are observed from behind the wheel on- and off-road -- where it's clear the Grand Cherokee is again a top dog.

Give Ford its due -- the Explorer has pushed the sport/utility envelope until it burst. A new grade of ground-pounder, defined by the Explorer and now the Grand Cherokee, emerged from the other side. More than ever, these trucks are hybrid vehic1es blending the aptitude of a classic 4x4 with the comfort and ride quality of a passenger car. This is certainly the case with the Grand Cherokee. Where the XJ Cherokee had crisply folded origami sheetmetal corners, the ZJ Grand Cherokee has smoothly contoured edges. Where the XJ had a bewildering five-model range with a weak 130-horsepower four-cylinder base engine, the ZJ has but three models (a fourth will be added later) with one engine, which, at 190 horsepower is the right one (a 230-horsepower 5.2-liter V-8 is in the works.). Where the XJ had rough-and-tumble on-road ride quality, the ZJ is comfortable on-road or off. The XJ Cherokee was the benchmark sport/utility when it debuted in 1984. The ZJ Grand Cherokee further refines the concept into its next logical phase. Whether it torpedoes the Explorer awaits a comparison test, but it out-classes the XJ Cherokee in every way.

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.

Power is the yardstick by which many vehicles are measured, and the Grand Cherokee acquits itself well in this regard. Jeep's powerhouse 4.0-liter inline six, at 190 horsepower, is the yardstick. It kicks out 45 horsepower more than the five-speed Ford Explorer with the same displacement engine. However, 225 pound-feet of torque is only five pound-feet greater than that offered by the Explorer's V-6. As before, the new Cherokee is the hot-rod of sport/utilities. Our instrumented testing brought home a 0-60-mph time of 10.0 seconds, a click slower than the last XJ Cherokee Limited we tested in Michigan, but still fast compared to the 11.8 seconds we clocked for the Eddie Bauer Explorer in the same test (Sept. '91). It was incrementally weaker on the skidpad (0.78 g then, 0.75 g now) and also slower in the slalom (59.8 mph then, 59.3 mph now). Four-wheel Teves ABS on front disc/rear drum brakes returned a 128-foot performance in the 60-0-mph braking test. But with improved structural rigidity contributing a calmer demeanor throughout the operating range, the sum of the performance equation is a net gain.

Jeep continues to offer the versatility of three shift-on-the-fly drive-wheel systems, each with smoother engagement and disengagement modes. Command-Trac is the part-time four-wheel-drive system for use exclusively off-road, Selec-Trac can be switched from rear two-wheel to all-wheel-drive for on- or off-road, and the best system, Quadra-Trac, with which our tester was equipped, a full-time all-wheel-drive scheme. Quadra-Trac is a seamless, transparent drive system with a low-range for crawling over fallen logs and up steep hills.

Chrysler interior systems improve with each new product, and are quickly becoming the models for the industry. The upgrade in the Cherokee's interior is a case study of improvement, beginning with the standard driver-side airbag, a first in a sport/utility. Ergonomically, the differences between the XJ and the new ZJ are like night and day. Details abound, like the improved tactile feel of switchgear, the positive engagement of the four-speed automatic transmission, and the generous improvements in interior space. The Grand Cherokee wheelbase is 4.5 inches longer than the XJ model. By moving the aft wheelhouses rearward, 4.8 inches of additional rear hip room were gained.

When the '84 Cherokee debuted, it effectively turned the work-a-day sport/utility sow's ear into a rayon purse, a big improvement, but not yet all the way home. The '93 Grand Cherokee is finally the silk purse. By all indications, the ball is now in Ford's court.

MODEL MAKING
The bookend models bracketing the Laredo are the Base ZJ at the entry-level price of $18,980, and the current top-of-the-line Limited, base-priced in the stratosphere at $27,433. At the end of 1992 or the beginning of 1993, Jeep will introduce a fourth edition, a new ZJ-derived Grand Wagoneer equipped with Chrysler's 5.2-liter V-8. That will push the top ZJ price to or beyond $30,000.

The differences between old and new Cherokees may seem small at first glance, but they aren't -- certainly not in terms of dollars. At $3138, the difference between suggested retail pricing of Base XJ and Base ZJ four-doors is the greatest of the lines, but the Jeepsters pumped new value into the ZJ Grand Cherokee by adding important formerly optional equipment to the vehicle's standard-equipment list.

Where the basic XJ Cherokee offered four-wheel anti-lock brakes as an option, for one important example, the basic ZJ Grand Cherokee has the ABS system as standard issue. The considerably important concern of standard powertrain is another prime example of differences between old and new. The basic XJ came out of the box with a five-speed manual bolted to Chrysler's 130-horsepower 2.5-liter four-banger; the ZJ Grand Cherokee throughout its range offers only one powertrain, a five-speed stick and Jeep's 190-horsepower 4.0-liter inline six. A smaller example of upgrading is the rear-window wiper, a genuine necessity for retention of clear aft vision in both XJ and ZJ models when there's any precipitation at all. It was optional in the old Base Cherokee and now is standard equipment in the new truck.

At the current top end, the suggested retail base-price difference between the XJ Limited and the ZJ Limited is only $1464, but in terms of standard equipment, how much more of "everything" can you stand? The ZJ Limited model has all the bells and whistles, including fourspeed automatic transmission and Quadra-Trac full-time all-wheel drive, automatic climate control, 15x7.0-inch gold-accented aluminum wheels and 225/70R15 Goodyear Eagle GA tires, leather-trimmed and power-operated reclining driver and passenger bucket seats, conventional spare, dual heated power mirrors, six-speaker AM/FM/cassette stereo with power antenna, and on and on.

Last but by no means least, don't forget the Grand Cherokee's airbag. The XJ Cherokee didn't offer one at all, and the ZJ Grand Cherokee has standard driver-side airbags in every model, regardless of trim level. Jeep is the first manufacturer -- and so far the only one -- to offer an airbag in a sport/utility vehicle.


1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo
GENERAL
Base price $20,125
Price as tested $24,910
Manufacturer Jeep/Eagle div., Chrysler Motors Corp., Detroit, Mich.
Body style 4-door, 5-passenger
Vehicle configuration Front engine, four-wheel drive
Engine configuration Inline 6, liquid cooled, cast iron block and head
Engine displacement, ci/cc 242/3964
Compression ratio 8.8:1
Fuel/induction system Multipoint EFI
Horespower, hp @ rpm, SAE net 190 @ 4750
Torque, lb-ft @ rpm, SAE net 225 @ 4000
Transmission type 4-speed auto
Axle ratio 3.55:1
Final-drive ratio 2.66:1
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase 105.9/2690
Track, f/r in/mm 58.0/58.0/1473/1473
Length, in/mm 176.5/4483
Width, in/mm 69.3/1760
Height, in/mm 64.7/1643
Manufacturer's curb weight 3633
Cargo capacity 79.2
Fuel capacity, gal 23.0
Weight/power ratio 19.1
EPA city/hwy., mpg 15/20
Est. range, city/hwy., miles 345/460
CHASSIS
Suspension, f/r Live axle/live axle
Steering Recirculating ball, power assist
Ratio 15.4:1
Turns, lock to lock 3.1
Turning circle 36.6
Brakes, f/r Vented discs/drums
Anti-lock Standard
Wheels 15 x 7.0, cast aluminum
Tires 235/75R15 Goodyear Wrangler AT
PERFORMANCE AND TEST DATA
Acceleration, sec
0-30 3.3
0-40 5.0
0-50 7.3
0-60 10.0
0-70 13.4
Standing quarter mile, sec @ mph 17.4 @ 76.9
Braking, ft
30-0 mph 31
60-0 mph 128
Lateral acceleration, g 0.75
Speed through 600-ft slalom $59
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