The 4x4 of the Year-winning vehicle is like having a new best friend. You know, they can really do no wrong, they're a joy to be around, and they're the envy of all those old best friends. But then something happens-that knuckle cracking ain't so cute and what used to be great now just plain grates. That can sometimes be the same deal with the pickup or sport/utility that claims our annual prize.
The special-edition Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited beat out the Dodge Durango, the GMC Yukon, the Isuzu Rodeo, the Mazda B3000, the Mercedes-Benz ML320, and the Mitsubishi Montero Sport, thanks in a mondo way to the first-ever-in-a-Jeep 5.9L engine, which made it the fastest sport/utility ever tested. It came standard with a mo' better transmission offering than what was in the earlier 5.2L Grand, as well as all-leather innards and 3.73-geared axles with a Trac-Lok in the rear.
But we didn't have only praise-we hated that Jeep wanted the 5.9 Limited to appeal to buyers of a street performer, equipping it with wimpy P225/70R16 rubber and the ground clearance of a Volvo. Yet it still managed to excel in sand and at rockcrawling, which pushed it to the head of the race.
Cut to one year later.
We tried everything under the solar system with this Grand Cherokee, and it kept on gettin' it right. We towed, 'wheeled, and daily-drove, and the extra ponies were appreciated in every case, as was the trouble-free 46 RE automatic transmission. It averaged 12.36 mpg during the original test and 12.90 mpg for the long-term number, but here's a scientific freak o' nature for you: The Jeep consistently got one extra mpg while towing than it did jetting around the city and highway, including before the engine was broken in. The only thing we can figure is that when it was loaded, it was freeway-bound so the cruise control was set, but around town and without trailer duty, drivers were on and off that 5.9 power, wiggling around Sunday drivers and merging without hold-up. Either way, we knew it was ready for action once we fired it up and heard that wildly sexy, throaty exhaust note.
We've always been indebted to Jeep for not switching from a solid-axle suspension to IFS, but we would have preferred that the interior of the 5.9 Limited had been insulated from the thumping and clunking as the front suspension worked. Also, when towing a load on the freeway, the suspension seemed a bit soft for hitting curves at 60-75 mph. The steering was a bit wallowy in that same situation, while on the highway and off road, it definitely felt like we were trying to steer all that 5.9 componentry. While towing, the brakes seemed just adequate, and sort of mushy otherwise, and we could have done without the ABS overreacting in every type of terrain. Yet the awesome power and ride comfort eclipsed these less desirable characteristics.
Of course, since this was the 4x4 of the Year, we had to four-wheel it more than simply in the competition. Our chief complaint was still about the low ground clearance, which twice had us using a jack to lift it off obstacles to avoid body damage. On another occasion we had to yank-strap it to another Jeep in order to prevent scrapes and bruises, which was when we learned that pulling at a slight angle easily bends the front tow hooks. But despite needing to remain aware of its low body when picking a line, it was still as excellent and easy to drive off road as we claimed in the Feb. '98 issue.
There were a few other traits we didn't care for: We still found that the transmission shifter needed an extra push to click into gear, low-beam headlight brightness was this side of Helen Keller, gear whine was atrocious particularly upon deceleration, and, for $38,900, door squeaks, interior trim peeling off, and dash rattling shouldn't have shown up as early as 8,000 miles. Worst of all was that the gas gauge needle would not drop below a quarter of a tank, so twice we were left thinking we had gas. We didn't. However, we've been told that this was not a habit known solely to our long-term 5.9 Limited but was rather common in Grands.
So you can see there were a few surprises over the last 12 months, but, all in all, the 5.9 Limited Jeep Grand Cherokee remained the best of the best for 1998.