Jeep Grand Cherokee history: How the SUV evolved over nearly 3 decades

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Still looks good after all this time.


Jeep

A new Jeep Grand Cherokee is here, y’all. About to enter its fifth generation, the Grand Cherokee should continue to be a big seller for Jeep, with lots of luxury, tech and of course, off-road cred. So alongside the debut of the brand-new Grand Cherokee this week, let’s take a look back at the SUV’s past.

ZJ Grand Cherokee: A smashing debut

Like, literally smashing. As part of its 1992 Detroit Auto Show festivities, Jeep drove the then-new Grand Cherokee up the steps of Detroit’s Cobo Hall and smashed through one of the convention center’s plate glass windows in order to show how rough and tough its new SUV was. It’s my second-favorite auto show introduction of all time.

Meant to be a more luxurious Cherokee, the first ZJ-gen Grand Cherokee came in Base, Laredo and Limited trims and was initially offered with a 4.0-liter straight-6 engine with 190 horsepower. Rear- or four-wheel drive options were available, as were five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee was the first SUV to be offered with a driver’s side airbag (fancy!). Today, even our knees have airbags, but back then, a driver’s side bag was a big deal. The Grand Cherokee also had novel-for-the-time technologies including anti-lock brakes, power door locks, power windows and even cruise control. The Limited trim stepped everything up a notch with gold exterior accents, leather seats, keyless entry and digitized climate controls.

For the initial 1993 model year, Jeep offered a Grand Wagoneer version of the Grand Cherokee. It had a 5.2-liter V8 with 235 hp and the older Wagoneer’s iconic woodgrain paneling. The Grand Wagoneer nameplate is returning in the not-too-distant future, but as a separate vehicle, not just a fancy trim level.

Several new variants came online during the ZJ Grand Cherokee’s lifecycle. The 1995 to 1997 model year Orvis Edition had a signature hunter green exterior with gold accents and a two-tone green-and-tan interior. The 1997-98 Grand Cherokee TSI was a slightly sportier take, with unique 16-inch wheels and a bumping stereo system that featured controls on the steering wheel. 1998 saw the introduction of the Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited, featuring a 5.9-liter V8 with 245 hp. The first stirrings of a Grand Cherokee Trackhawk, anyone?

The second-gen Grand Cherokee was quite handsome.


Jeep

WJ Grand Cherokee: More rugged, more refined

When the second-gen Grand Cherokee arrived in 1999, it only shared 127 parts with the first-gen model (that’s not a lot in car terms). The base 4.0-liter I6 carried over, but the older V8s were canned, replaced with a 235-hp, 4.7-liter V8. A four-speed automatic transmission was standard with a five-speed auto arriving in 2001.

Jeep’s four-wheel-drive tech got a big upgrade during this generation. The company’s Quadra-Trac II system brought a two-speed transfer case, with 4-All, Neutral and 4-Lo settings, the first of which would only send power to the rear wheels, but could transfer torque to the front when wheel slippage was detected. A new Quadra-Drive system was also offered, which took everything great about Quadra-Trac and added front and rear limited-slip differentials, allowing for side-to-side torque vectoring, rather than just front to back.

Oh, and fun fact: Jeep’s then-parent company, DaimlerChrysler, teamed up with Porsche to strengthen the Grand Cherokee’s unibody frame. Called UniFrame, the upgraded construction added strength and rigidity to the Jeep’s platform, resulting in reduced noise, vibration and harshness.

Inside, the WJ boasted more room for people and cargo, and the controls were placed in more ergonomically friendly locations. Heated seats were available, as was dual-zone climate control and even a 10-disc CD changer. In 2004, the WJ got a slight makeover with a new grille and round foglamps. At that time, drivers could also opt for an in-dash navigation system.

grand-cherokee

Ooh, you fancy.


Jeep

WK Grand Cherokee: More, more, more

The 2005 Grand Cherokee came with big changes, including an independent front suspension and five-link rear axle. A 3.7-liter V6 engine was standard, producing 215 hp, but buyers could also get 4.7-liter or 5.7-liter Hemi V8s, the latter of which pushed out a healthy 330 hp. All engines used five-speed automatic transmissions, and the upgraded Quadra-Drive II system gained electronically locking front and rear differentials, as well as traction control.

The third-gen Grand Cherokee was a lot longer than its predecessor. The rectangular headlamps were swapped out in favor of round units, and the D pillar was pushed forward, giving the Jeep a more rakish appearance. The 2005 model was initially only available in Laredo and Limited trims, but some pretty swank options joined the party, like a rear-seat DVD system, automatic headlights and eventually even Bluetooth connectivity.

In 2006, two new versions arrived. You might not remember the luxurious Overland, but you sure as heck remember the Grand Cherokee SRT8, stuffed with a snarling 6.1-liter Hemi V8 that offered 420 hp. With fat, sticky tires, Brembo brakes and Bilstein shocks, I remember driving one and thinking no SUV would ever be quicker than that. Jeep obviously proved me wrong there, and the company also offered a 3.0-liter diesel option beginning in 2007. The 5.7-liter Hemi V8 got an upgrade in 2009, as well.

WK2 Grand Cherokee: An important upgrade

When the WK2 Grand Cherokee launched in 2011, Jeep’s parent company was going through hard times. In fact, Chrysler used the development of this new Grand Cherokee to prove that its future vehicles would be built to a new, higher standard.

The WK2 had fully independent suspension geometry and a new terrain management system was offered, with Auto, Sport, Snow, Rock and Sand/Mud modes. This was when the Grand Cherokee also introduced its Quadra-Lift air suspension, complementing the Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II four-wheel-drive systems.

A lot of the original WK Grand Cherokee’s underpinnings are still used today. This SUV had one of the first applications of Chrysler’s Pentastar 3.6-liter V6, though a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 was offered, too. The previous diesel and SRT8 options didn’t initially make the cut with the 2011 Grand Cherokee, but they both eventually made a comeback.

When the SRT8 rejoined the lineup in 2012, it packed a new 6.4-liter Hemi V8 with 470 hp. As part of the 2014 model year refresh, the SRT dropped the 8 from its name, in order to coincide with Chrysler’s short-lived standalone SRT brand. The refresh also introduced the 3.0-liter EcoDiesel V6, which didn’t stick around very long, and the luxurious Overland Summit model dropped the first part of its name, and still lives on as the Summit.

The Jeep Grand Cherokee Trailhawk joined the lineup a couple years later, with unique air suspension tuning that allowed for 10 inches of ground clearance, and the Quadra-Drive II four-wheel-drive system gained Selec-Control, a sort of off-road cruise control. This Grand Cherokee also had skid plates and off-road tires wrapped around 18-inch wheels.

Jeep lost its mind for the 2018 model year and gave us the Trackhawk, with Chrysler’s 6.2-liter supercharged Hellcat V8 under the hood. The 475-hp SRT was still offered, but come on, who’s going to pass up the chance to own a 707-hp Jeep?

Today, the Grand Cherokee is available in Laredo, Limited, Trailhawk, Overland, Summit, SRT and Trackhawk variants, and offers lots of great tech including blind-spot monitoring, adaptive cruise control and Chrysler’s fantastic Uconnect infotainment system.

WL Grand Cherokee: Now with 3 rows

The fifth-generation Grand Cherokee will technically be offered in two variants. The longer-wheelbase L is the model Jeep debuted first, and it brings a lot more functionality to Jeep’s strong-selling SUV: a third row of seats.

Yes, the Grand Cherokee L is a full foot longer than the outgoing WK2 model and can accommodate two extra passengers in the way-back. This fully updated Grand Cherokee is far more stylish both inside and out and it comes packed with lots of new infotainment and driver-assistance technologies, including the Uconnect 5 multimedia system.

What hasn’t changed is what’s under the hood. The Grand Cherokee L comes standard with Jeep’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 making 290 hp, but buyers can opt for a 5.7-liter V8 with 357 hp. Several four-wheel-drive systems are available, including the Quadra-Lift air suspension system, giving this big SUV impressive off-road geometry.

The five-passenger Grand Cherokee will debut later in 2021.


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