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1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ Built Tough

Posted in Features on February 17, 2017
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Drew Norman has owned a lot of Jeeps, and he builds a lot of Jeeps. As the owner of The Jeep Farm outside of Phoenix, he’s heavily involved in Jeep modification and the restoration of old classics. This Grand Cherokee is now a versatile wheeling rig in his personal stable of Jeeps.

Drew knew his way around the ’98 Cherokee well before he ever owned it. His good friend Parker Edwards purchased the Dark Slate Pearl Grand in 2000 as a bone stock 4x4. What followed was an upgrade with a small Old Man Emu lift and some 31-inch tires. Later came more lift and 33s, then as the harder trails called, the lift was again modified with Rubicon Express coils to clear the way for 35-inch rubber. Combined with the growth in tire size, the Jeep saw its share of gear swaps and locking differentials over those years. And, the mods kept on coming as the Cherokee grew bigger and badder.

Drew, along with friend Steve Hinken, put many hours of hard work into this Jeep. However, it then it sat under a tarp for nearly five years, wounded with broken e-lockers and shattered axleshafts after an eventful trip to Moab. The Jeep eventually ended up in Drew’s hands, but Parker still plays a part in ongoing mods planning and has the opportunity to wheel it when he visits Phoenix from the east coast where he now lives.

Chassis

From the factory, the Grand Cherokee is a fairly capable rig, sitting on straight axles and coil springs. This one now has a suspension that soars above the stock configuration. Up front you’ll find a modified Rubicon Express TJ long-arm setup adapted to the Grand Cherokee with custom mounts. The rig now sits on custom coil springs built to Norman’s specs. Ride height and up-travel are fine tuned with a set of ACOS adjustable nitrogen bumps.

Wander around to the back of this Jeep and you’ll find another custom suspension. Rob Bonney of Rob Bonney Fabrication built a four-link setup using custom coils and coil buckets. The links hang from a custom skid plate mount. Lower links are 2 1/4-inch round tube using hefty 3/4-inch rod ends, and the upper links are 1 1/2-inch round tube. ACOS adjustable nitrogen bumps are used in the rear as well and a Currie Anti-Rock sway bar keeps the lifted SUV from leaning too far on off-camber obstacles and keeps the body movement disciplined on the highway. Pro Comp MX6 adjustable shocks damp the coils at each corner.

This Grand runs substantial rubber in the form of 37-inch Toyo Open Country M/Ts that are bolted onto Walker Evans beadlocks with powdercoated rings. The lift and larger tires give this Grand a noteworthy stance.

Drivetrain

The ’98 5.9 Limited was offered for only for one year and was claimed to be the world’s fastest SUV at the time. This Cherokee retains the stock V-8 engine and the 46RE four-speed automatic, but the factory transfer case has been scuttled from the rig. Norman likes doing a little of everything in his Cherokee so a multi-speed transfer case made a lot of sense after the stock unit failed on more than one occasion. He swapped in a reliable Atlas four-speed with 10.34:1 low range, allowing the Cherokee to go as slow as Norman likes.

To reliably accommodate the larger tires, the guys installed a reverse-rotation Dana 44 front axle from a late-’70s F-150 and narrowed it to about 59 inches. It was then populated with 4.56 Yukon gears, an ARB air locker and chromoly axleshafts. Likewise, they swapped in a Ford 8.8-inch disc-brake rear axle scavenged from an Explorer and also set it up with 4.56 Yukon gears and an ARB air locker. Upgraded Superior shafts now spin in the trussed rear housing. A pair of custom driveshafts was needed to hook everything together and the resulting wheelbase stands at about 108 inches.

The Cherokee has a custom-ported variable-ratio power steering box to actuate a PSC hydro-assist ram. Hydraulic pressure comes from a PSC pump. A Howe fluid reservoir and external cooler help keep fluid temps reasonable in the hottest of desert climes. Other minor upgrades for performance include an Airaid intake and Flowmaster exhaust; and heavy-duty coolers for the transmission, steering, and oil fluids.

Body and Interior

The Limited came stock with a set of functioning heat-extracting hood louvers to help with V-8 cooling, and a set of Icelandic fender flares were added to help keep the wider tires somewhat under the bodylines. A modified ARB front bumper is equipped with a 12,000-pound capacity Bulldog winch spooled with synthetic rope, and out back is a Trail Ready bumper with wrap-around corners. Additional armor protection is provided by a set of homebrew rock rails, plus custom transfer case and gas tank skidplates.

Inside the luxury SUV is an eight-point rollcage to protect the occupants, but otherwise, the interior is mostly stock. Added electronics include a high-power stereo system, CB, and Kenwood race radio. Up top, a roof rack from Kevin’s Offroad provides additional cargo capacity for those longer camping or adventure trips.

Good, Bad, and What It's For

It’s a joy driving a comfortable SUV that’s also capable on the trail. You can hop in the rig, head down the highway, and then jump onto you favorite dirt trail. However, built as it is, Drew still has a lot of vulnerable sheet metal to watch out for on hardcore trails. Thankfully, he’s also got a well-built CJ-7 when the bigger rock challenges call his name.

Why I Wrote This Feature

You don’t often see Grand Cherokees built too far beyond soccer-mom shuttles with low-profile tires. Drew has put together a fun machine that uses the base comfort, power, and luxury afforded by the Grand Limited and pushed its trail capabilities far beyond what the factory intended.

HARD FACTS

Vehicle: ’98 Grand Cherokee Limited
Engine: Chrysler 5.9L V-8
Transmission: Chrysler 46RE automatic
Transfer Case: Atlas 4-speed with 10.34:1 low range
Suspension: Rubicon Express TJ long-arms on custom mounts front; Rob Bonney 4-link, custom coil springs rear; Pro Comp MX6 adjustable shocks on all four corners
Axles: Narrowed Dana 44, 4.56 gears, ARB air locker front; Ford Explorer 8.8, 4.56 gears, ARB air locker rear
Steering: Custom-ported variable-ratio box, PSC ram and pump
Wheels: 17x9.5 Walker Evans beadlock
Tires: 37x13.50R17LT Toy Open Country M/T

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