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Jeep Grand Cherokee (1999-2004) car reviews

This is a review of several different Jeep Grand Cherokees.

Jeep Grand Cherokee - Various Models
Gas mileage 15-19 mpg (Limited, standard 4.7 V8)
15-20 mpg (Overland, high-output 4.7 V8)
15-20 mpg (Laredo Six)
Quirks All the trappings of luxury except simple stuff like keeping accessory power on and turning on the dome light when you take the key out
Above Average Adjustable pedals. Off-road ability, four wheel drive systems. Programmability.
V8 versions add: speed, responsiveness. The V8 is faster than any mass-production Ford SUV.
Overland adds: handling.
Needs Work In Rear seat room, gas mileage; six cylinder engine

This review was written over the course of several years, as we tested a six-cylinder Grand Cherokee Laredo, then a base V8 Grand Cherokee, then the V8 Grand Cherokee Limited, and finally the high-output V8 Grand Cherokee Overland. Each time, the Grand Cherokee has gotten better - and also more expensive, though incentives bring the price down quite a bit.

2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee LimitedThe Jeep Grand Cherokee is a real Jeep, designed to go off-road first, and to go on-road second. Still, it manages to pack in all the options most people can think of, from leather to a programmable body computer, and its handling is quite good on paved roads.

Our first test Jeep (2000) was set up with the ancient but sturdy 195 horse AMC four-liter in-line six-cylinder engine. The engine noise of the six is fun in a Wrangler (which it pushes with alacrity), but not in the Grand Cherokee. Yet, acceleration felt similar to the Nissan Pathfinder, despite the latter's extra 45 ponies.

The V8-powered Grand Cherokees have smooth and responsive transmissions, which downshifted rapidly and effectively when needed.

With the V-8, the Grand Cherokee is transformed into a near-luxury vehicle. The modern 4.7 liter engine revs quickly and with exciting high-po noises, yet is quiet and restrained under most conditions. The Overland gives the 4.7 a substantial horsepower boost, so that the Grand Cherokee quickly leaps ahead under full throttle, leaving most other vehicles behind in the dust - but the exhaust sound is oddly less exciting. Gas mileage of the V8 is similar to the six, but the feel of the car is changed due to the lower noise, higher revving, and mid-seven-second zero-to-sixty times (around seven seconds for the more powerful Overland).

Power for the six is 195 hp, 230 lb-ft of torque. The V8 is 235 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, with the high-output version producing a full 30 horsepower more, or 265 horsepower and 330 lb-ft of torque - considerably more than most competitors in this size class.

Power is always available, thanks partly to a new automatic transmission which has a special gear for highway passing. Downshifts are surprisingly smooth and gentle, no doubt due to that special gear. They also come quickly and without much effort, and the engine is quiet enough that the driver welcomes a downshift at highway speeds. Overall, the new transmission is silky-smooth and exceptionally responsive. Sometimes, though, it felt oddly like a manual transmission, with some vibration transmitted into the cabin; this was not annoying, but it was also somewhat unusual and at odds with the luxury cues. Some will find it refreshing.

Our Jeeps had full-time four wheel drive, using Chrysler's new Selec-Trac II and Quadra-Drive systems. Our 2001 model with Quadra-Drive had three settings (all wheel drive, neutral, and low range four wheel drive); our 2002 Limited, with Selec-Trac, also had two wheel drive and part-time four wheel drive, but the default was two wheel drive.

Our 2004 model used Quadra-Trac II, which is always in four wheel drive; the driver can choose between low gear and normal. Low gear is used off-road or in very deep snow. The system worked well and transparently. Shifting is done via a stick and requires some muscle. Quadra-Trac II has a progressive, speed-sensing torque transfer coupling for better traction. Now available is a Quadra-Trac I system, which is a little simpler than the II, and is designed for those who do not pull heavy loads (such as a trailer).

The Quadra-Drive system, which is the Quadra-Trac four wheel drive combined with the Vari-Lok rear axle (standard on the Overland), is able to send nearly all the power of the engine to just a single wheel for outstand capability, either on or off-road. Vari-Lok axles use a progressive, hydro-mechanical speed-sensing torque transfer coupling in both front and rear differentials. Quadra-Drive is optional on the Limited, and standard on the Overland.

2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee LaredoThe seats on both vehicles were comfortable, though there was not much room between the seats and the door on the 2001 Grand Cherokee, making it somewhat difficult to reach the seat adjustments at first. This seemed to have been fixed by 2002, though perhaps the luxury models simply have different seats. The Limited and Overland seats exude luxury, and you almost sink into them when you enter the vehicle, like a well padded two-tone leather armchair. They provide good support and are very adjustable, with our 2004 Overland having an electric bolster as well. Dual-setting memory is available for the seats, and can be activated with the remote control. We preferred to shut this option off, along with the "easy-entry" feature which slides the seat all the way back.

2004 Grand Cherokee instrument panel (Overland)The interior of the Grand Cherokee Limited and Overland deserve more than a passing mention. Several people noted the luxurious, clean look, unaffected and easy to live with, yet clearly classy. The seats are a good match for the door and instrument panels, and the wood trim accents are tastefully done. The instrument panel follows the pattern set by the Chrysler 300M, with black on off-white gauges featuring subtle black trim rings (silver on the 300M) that do much to enhance the appearance. At night, indiglo backlighting (completely evenly distributed) makes the gauges black on light green. The scheme works beautifully, day or night, and has no problems with twilight (as many other black-on-white systems do).

The optional Infinity stereo on the Jeep is very good, providing bass as deep or shallow as you want, with easy-to-use knobs and sliders for audio control. The CD cartridge is stored in the back, in its own compartment, with a convenient slot in the control unit. It may provide a little too much bass on talk radio.

Jeep's instrument panel contains a speedometer, tachometer, gas and oil gauges, and a temperature gauge; there's also a transmission overheat lamp, though we never saw it go on. We appreciate the information. Most of the controls were sensible and easy to use. The hand brake is far over on the right side, inconvenient for shorter drivers since it makes it harder to lift it up all the way.

2003 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland instrument panel

The 2002 Limited model introduced a sensible new feature carried through on later models- an automatic vent control with a low and high range, for those who (like us) don't want the vehicle to blast air at its top fan setting when it's first turned on. The low range keeps the fan speed within reason, but still under control of the computer. You can set either the fan or vent controls to automatic, but when you have automatic vents on, you can't shut off the a/c compressor. The vent controls are large and easy to understand; they can be operated by a new driver with gloves on, without much thought.

2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland climate control panelThe automatic climate system also features dual zone (driver and passenger) temperature control, monitored by an infra-red sensor. The system is surprisingly easy to use, and, coupled with the dual-level seat heaters, helps the Grand Cherokee to tame winter both inside and out.

Handling on both the Jeep is far better than we expected, with little roll on sane turns. Handling on all models was very good, with no feeling of top-heaviness and surprisingly good traction - better than some cars. The Overland stands out with the ability to take sharp, fast turns without squealing tires, albeit without the comfort of a car. In short, it'll feel better in a Neon, but you can probably get away with it in the Grand Cherokee. Just don't get too carried away - SUVs aren't sports cars; but it's comforting to know that the Grand Cherokee can outrun quite a few cars around that cloverleaf.

The ride on our 2000 Jeep was jouncy, mainly because of the optional towing package, which includes a stiffer suspension. Stock Grand Cherokees are more comfortable, on par with the Pathfinder. The 2001 had a smoother ride than the others, still a bit stiff over rough pavement but otherwise luxurious. The 2002 Limited was similar, though we found it was better at smoothing out major bumps, and a bit busier overall (there was some jouncing over the road). It neatly and easily handled the impact of a stiff speed bump which we overlooked - we apologize to Chrysler, and are glad we were not driving a less durable vehicle. The Overland, likewise, was relatively stiff, but not uncomfortable. It's not the sofa-driving style of a Suburban, but, then again, it can go on the Rubicon Trail, and it isn't too jittery or painful. It also handles surprisingly well, and we'll go with that tradeoff.

All the Grand Cherokees had rear seats which fold down, extra power outlets, and easily visible controls.

The Grand Cherokees had relatively little wind noise when compared with other SUVs, but still considerably louder than a typical car. The Jeep's fan was only loud at high speed, a setting generally not needed thanks to its baking heat in winter and powerful air conditioning in winter, and the newer models seem to have considerably quieter fans than our first test Jeep. The 4.7 engine heated up very quickly, and produced massive amounts of either heat or air conditioning shortly after being started. Driver's-side windows could use better demisting.

The Jeep includes the traditional Chrysler overhead trip computer, showing the temperature and compass direction, gas mileage, or other information. It also tells how long you have till the next service - you set the intervals yourself - and a menu which allows you to tell the Jeep how it should behave. This includes things like whether the horn beeps when you lock it, whether all the doors unlock when you press the unlock button, whether the doors automatically lock and unlock, whether the wipers activate the headlights, etc. We like having all doors unlock at once from the key fob, lock when we drive, and unlock again when we open the driver's door - and hey, we can set it that way! It's a cool feature that every car should have.

Also cool, and new in 2002, is a tire pressure sensor with a warning readout in the overhead display - which optionall shows all four tires at once. It's now a $150 option, and probably well worth it.

We should probably also mention that you can get a readout of computer fault codes rather easily from the Jeep - unlike many automakers, Jeep has always made it easy to learn what the computer thinks is wrong, which can save a lot of diagnostic time.

Shorter (or taller) drivers will be happy to learn adjustable pedals have moved over to the Grand Cherokee, so you can, with the press of a switch, move the pedals fore and aft. The system works easily from a prominent switch, but costs $185.

The Grand Cherokee has very clever fold-over seats - with a few quick motions, you can get the rear seats to lie flat on the floor, the headrest moving into its own space. Pulling up the rear seat cushions also exposes the jack and the Infinity stereo amplifier. The seats have a 20/30 split, so you can have one or two rear passengers while carrying long objects.

The Jeep's center console large, with a clever coin tray (with room for only three sizes of coins) built in. Earlier models had a heavy, clumsy lid, but this has been addressed. Our Overland also had an empty bay in the center stack, between the power seat controls and the dual power outlets, large enough to hold an EZ-Pass. Under that padded bay is a padded area for sunglasses or other gadgets. The interior is very well lit, with easy press-to-light dome lights throughout the vehicle (also controlled from a stalk), making it easy to find all these bins and cubbies.

Jeep nav systemOur 2004 test car had a new option, a built-in navigation system. The unit is smaller than most, presumably to fit into a limited space, but still well-designed. Both the radio and the nav system can be controlled (within reason) from the steering wheel controls, and there are both knobs and pushbuttons so controls don't have to do too many functions, and you have the usual pushbuttons to choose common radio cahnnels. There are also physical buttons to choose AM/FM (with a large station and song display), CD/AUX, audio tone, channel scanning, and navigation.

Jeep navigation systemThe system is fully featured, providing vocal and visual directions, and allowing you to choose destinations by address, name, or telephone number. It also lets you look at other parts of the map, then press the cancel button to resume the "dynamic" map that follows your travels. It can zoom close up, or provide a good overview. Our main complaint is not unique, that it requires the driver to press "OK" to a safety warning and every time the car is started. (We could also quibble about the small Enter and Cancel buttons, or the fact that you have to press Cancel to get to the map - when pressing Nav, you get a destination/setup/option/route menu, and can either scroll down to Map, or press Cancel, which is far easier.)

In short, though the screen is relatively small, the system itself has all the capabilities of just about any other navigation system. If you travel to a lot of unfamiliar places, it could well be worth the $1,200.

One downside to the V8 Grand Cherokee is maintenance - the underhood area is very crowded, and changing the rear spark plugs can be difficult.

The gas mileage of the Grand Cherokees and, for that matter, any of its competitors, is excessive by car and minivan standards, and their interior space is smaller than minivans. At the same time, their price can be quite high - our Grand Cherokee Overland, admittedly with lots of options and a V8, listed for $41,000. For that price, you can buy a minivan and a normal car, or, even better, a minivan and a Jeep Wrangler for off-roading. Or you can hold off on the extras and get basically the same vehicle for $10,000 less.

We like the luxury touches of the Overland and Limited; the Overland, for example, has a wood-and-leather steering wheel, just like a Cadillac's, as well as classy leather seats and tasteful wood trim. The impression of luxury is strong and makes the driving experience more enjoyable. You don't need to get a massive Chevy truck with Cadillac logos (and prices) if you want a polished wood steering wheel and classy interior; you can get a nicer, more usable interior in a Jeep. The controls generally have a quality feel, including the convenient wheel-mounted cruise (complete with cancel button).

The Overland also includes side curtain airbags, antilock four-wheel disc brakes (very handy in snow), a rear window defroster and washer-wiper, Quadra-Trac II on-demand four wheel drive, a locking progressive rear axle, skid plates for the fuel tank and major components for off-roading with confidence, rain-sensitive automatic windshield wipers, which work quite well, dual-zone air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, tilt wheel, leather-wrapped wood steering wheel for that luxury look, alarm, information center, Infinity CD stereo with cassette and changer, automatic rearview mirror, Sentry Key, universal garage door opener, heated memory seats, memory radio, driver's seat, and mirrors, power sunroof, fog lights, and heated, foldaway driver's side auto-dimming mirror.

The heated driver's side mirror seems like a luxury item until you get a day with lots of snow. Then, the windshield wiper design suddenly becomes a real advantage, since the wiper bay isn't clogged easily with snow and ice, and the heated mirror preserves visibility - along with the rear wiper/washer. The auto-dimming feature is good on the highway to keep night vision intact.

We also appreciated little usability touches, like the automatic door unlocking (which can be shut off), the ability to set our own preferences, and the fact that the door buttons actually say "LOCK" (or their other functions) at night. Someone actually put some thought into the interior of the Jeep, though they apparently missed out on things like dome lights that go on when the key is removed, and power memory for the stereo.

The cargo area has a cover held in place (rather firmly) with Velcro, underneath which are the spare tire and room for jumper cables and other supplies. You don't have to take out all the cargo to get to the spare tire. The cargo area is quite large, making us wish we could move the rear seats back.

We do miss some features that were cut to save costs, such as the rear headrests that must be removed instead of just folded, front-door courtesy lights, and the hood struts on some models.

At a time when many people are showing their "patriotism" by flying Chinese-made American flags on Japanese SUVs, it is worth noting that the Grand Cherokee is designed in the United States, using primarily American components, and is built in Detroit. All Jeeps are made in the United States, with a strong presence in Toledo, Ohio.

Off the beaten path, the Jeep stands out. It retains the traditional Jeep off-road-readiness, while adding creature comforts. We strongly recommend getting the V8, which comes with a better automatic and greatly adds to the vehicle's fun quotient, at virtually no cost in gas mileage.

Overall, we found that the Grand Cherokee beat the tar out of the Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Explorer, and most other similarly priced SUVs, and was more enjoyable than the large GM SUV family. It's hard to argue with that.

Visit our Jeep Grand Cherokee information page | Other reviews: Wrangler | Cherokee | Liberty

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