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Budget 5.9L Jeep Grand Cherokee that Really Works

Posted in Jp Dirt N Drive: 2017 on July 13, 2017
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Photographers: Trenton McGee

We’ve always had a soft spot for 1998 5.9L Grand Cherokees. The last year of the ZJ, the folks over at Chrysler decided to do something special and shoehorned a 5.9L engine in the top-of-the-line Limited models, and the result was amazing. These things are like driving your living room couch and will bark the tires going into second gear all day long. We spotted Chris Wilberg’s Grand on the trail the first day of the 2017 Jp Dirt ’N Drive presented by Jeep and knew it demanded a closer look.

Chris explained that the Grand was a “Craigslist special” he had picked up cheap, and he has been modifying it ever since. He is proud of the fact that the Grand has never seen the inside of a shop and has been built entirely by himself and a few buddies. The healthy 360 under the hood has been left alone, but benefits from a Superchips tuner and an aftermarket aluminum radiator; while the original automatic is still kicking thanks in part to a custom remote cooler positioned above the rear axle. The original transfer case was ditched in favor of an NP231 with a slip yoke eliminator kit and a 2-Lo conversion. Thanks to the grunt from the V-8, he doesn’t really need any low-range gearing beyond the stock 2.72 of the T-case.

The bulk of Chris’ hard work is evident in the suspension and axles. The front axle is an oddball low-pinion Dana 60 he found in a junkyard from a Ford shuttle van conversion that is 16 inches wider than a stock Dana 30. A TNT axle truss helped make the conversion happen, and Chris added 4.88s and an ARB Air Locker. Out back is a Ford Dana 60 with a disc brake conversion, bored spindles, 35-spline shafts, and another ARB Air Locker. Both axles are located by a Clayton long-arm system, while 7-inch lift springs provide room for the 35x12.50–18 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/As on 18x7 Pro Comp wheels.

The exterior of the Grand is understated, but it’s obviously not a trailer queen. The TrailReady front bumper protects the sheet metal up front, while a Kevin’s Off-Road bumper does duty in the rear. Chris has added unit body stiffeners in key places to handle the added stress of crawling on the trails near his Thornton, Colorado home, and the Z-Max fender flares keep the tires covered and local law enforcement happy. Chris ’wheeled the entire 2017 Jp Dirt ’N Drive, presented with us without issue, and then spent a full week four-wheeling in Moab during the Easter Jeep Safari with friends and family.

Well-built Jeep ZJs like this one are somewhat rare, and with a pretty low price point these days, they’re a solid foundation. Chris says he has less than $15,000 in the entire rig, and for that kind of money, we should be seeing a lot more ZJs like this 5.9L Limited out on the trails.

Hard Facts

Vehicle: 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited
Engine: 5.9L V-8
Transmission: Stock 4-speed
Transfer Case: NP231
Suspension: 7-inch Clayton long-arm system, TNT axle truss
Axles: (front) Dana 60, 4.88s, ARB Air Locker; (rear) Dana 60, 4.88s, ARB Air Locker
Steering: overdrive steering pulley
Wheels: 18x7 Pro Comp
Tires: 35x12.50–18 BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A
Other Stuff: TrailReady front bumper, Kevin’s Off-Road rear bumper, remote tranny cooler, unit body stiffeners, aftermarket aluminum radiator, Superchips tuner

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