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Time's up. We gave last year's 4x4 of the Year winner a full year to solidify or dissolve our beliefs about the winning vehicle. This was enough time for us to clock about 18,000 miles on the vehicle, ranging from freeway to fire roads to off-roading trips. We also used it for the full variety of commuting, family outings, towing, and cross-country blasts. So we think we got a pretty firm grasp on how the vehicle would hold up in the typical 5-7 year ownership of new-truck buyers.
Last year's winner and the object of our past 12 months of use and abuse was the '99 Grand Cherokee Limited. Most of the likes and dislikes we found during the competition were only magnified during our year behind the wheel.
We'll start with the drivetrain. The 4.7L V-8 is awesome for zipping through traffic and pulling holeshots on unsuspecting commuters. The engine's power is right on the money for city streets as well as blasting through sand dunes. Combined with a suspension that provides luxury-like ride on pavement, decent handling in the corners, and great flex and control off-road, the total engine and suspension package hits the spot.
We've often referred to the '99 Grand as a sports car with low range. However, the ear-to-ear grin generated by all that horsepower faded once a trailer and significant weight on the trailer were hitched to the back of the Jeep. We thought that we were spoiled by big trucks with large displacement engines, but back-to-back testing confirmed that the '98's 5.9L Limited Grand Cherokee towed our toys far better than the '99. Don't get us wrong, the '99 still has enough power to maintain 45 mph up the nastiest hill, and just enough brakes to keep a heavy load under control, but it just doesn't measure up to its predecessor in the engine-torque department.
Throw off the trailer and head for any terrain, and the smile returns. The Quadradrive (Quadra-Trac II transfer case and axle traction systems) was new for '99. We have heard complaints from readers about the system not working properly, but we suspect much of that may lie in not completely understanding how the components work.
With the Quadradrive, there are G-rotor pumps in the transfer case and front and rear axles. When one output (front or rear driveshafts for the 'case, left or right axleshafts for the axles) spins quicker than the other, the pump is activated. The pressure built by the pump is applied to clutches, locking the two outputs together. This requires a little bit of wheel speed, but it engages smoothly and can be used in conjunction with modulating the brakes. During our long-term test, we did find that the system still isn't as good as true lockers and you can reach a point where the Jeep just won't pull itself up or over extreme situations, but it handled 90 percent of the predicaments we threw it into.
The 45RFE automatic transmission held up to our aggressive driving and towing. It is well-tuned as is evidenced by the fact that no one noticed its shift points or quality. It consistently tossed you the correct gear for the hill and throttle position you put in front of it. The one complaint we could find with the tranny was that it would take a few seconds to slide into gear the first time it was engaged in the morning. The Dana 44 noise that the previous Grand Cherokees have become known for was back in our year-long test vehicle.
On the inside, the comfort level was never complained about, nor was the legroom, cargo space, or the quality of the stereo. The interior panels stayed in place and held up far better than last year's Grand. The location of the shifters didn't bother us nearly as bad as we had suspected, but the emergency brake did prove awkward to engage and disengage because of lever position. We dug having generous storage pockets, bins, and indentations throughout the interior.
The reality of living with the '99 Grand everyday was pretty typical of most 4x4s in its category. The vehicle knocked down an average of 12.1 mpg during the past year. After about 12,000 miles (and several towing experiences) the front brakes began to send the wheels wandering when you applied moderate pressure to the brake pedal. The problem was believed to be warped rotors thanks to towing loads at the vehicle's maximum rating. The most dramatic failure we had was an ECM that went south within the first 100 miles of our testing. Even though we weren't fond of the tires, they were still in great condition after 18,000 miles--a considerable improvement over past full-time Grand Cherokees. We also noticed that the frontend didn't bind as badly with the wheels at full-lock as previous models. We suspect that both of these are benefits of the Quadradrive system that acts like totally open diffs and transfer case during normal driving.
Would we do it again? Did the '99 measure up to our expectations for duty and performance? You bet. This vehicle can meet such a variety of needs (commuting, off-roader, family truckster, tow rig, night on the town) in good form, that it's hard not to love.