Grand Cherokee ZJ Buildup Tips
Q My first 4x4 is going to be a first-generation Grand Cherokee. They’re relatively cheap, plentiful, and reliable (or so I’m told) while having a bit more refinement than your typical XJ. I want to look for one with the 5.2L V-8, but the 5.9L Limited would really be the cat’s meow.
What can I do to make the ZJ more capable for Colorado trails? I don’t want to get too crazy, as I have quite the commute to school, and I need to keep fuel costs down, but I do want to get some flex out of the suspension.
Did I mention I’m 16 and will be modifying as the paychecks roll in? I really liked your Project Ain’t It Grand-er series, although it might be a tad too much for me right now. My original idea was maybe to upgrade the coils to progressive-rate units, get better shocks, maybe some bumpstops, and keep the lift low while trying to make the original setup perform better in the dirt, but I doubt I would be able to fit that much larger of a tire.
Also, I’m scared about the axles in the ZJ, as I have heard unflattering things about them, and axle work is a little over my head. What could I do to the axles to make them survive without spending all my money on them? And, as I have yet to buy the Jeep yet, what should I look for in the used model other than the general stuff?
Colorado Springs, CO
A The idea behind Ain’t it Grand-er was (initially) a low-buck progressive buildup. Where we went overboard a bit was on the suspension system from T&T Customs, which required a lot of fabrication that, in reality, a lot of people are not capable of or would go to the trouble of doing. However, it does work exceptionally well, providing great handling both on and off the road, as well as offering a 900 RTI score; tire clearance in the relatively small fender wells is the limiting factor.
The first stages of the initial Project Grandwere nothing more than a TeraFlex short-arm lift of about three inches, 31-inch tires on some steel rims, and a homemade skidplate under the transfer case and auto trans pan. Luckily, the Grand we bought off a used car lot had the trailer-towing package, so it came with the transmission cooler and 3.73:1 gears. This proved to be a pretty good trail runner for even some class-three trails using open differentials. Later, we added the ARB front bumper with a Warn winch, the Tomken rear bumper/ tire carrier, and the performance-enhancement products from Borla and K&N. We ran it like this for quite a few years, using it as much for daily transportation as a trail machine. This should most likely be your starting point.
The second stage of the project, other than the suspension, was still in the realm of a fairly low-buck buildup, considering what a lot of people spend. We used a low-cost Ford 8.8-inch rearend, and a friend gave us a high-pinion Dana 30 front. Yes, we added a lot of high-dollar pieces to these, but they were not totally necessary. The whole idea of the project was to show just what was available for the Grand and what could be done with it. Sure, we could have gone out and put a Dana 60/Dana 44 combination under it, lifted it eight inches, cut out the fenderwells for 37-inch tires, put in an Atlas transfer case, and built amonster motor, but that was not the purpose. What we built was a great trail rig that also worked as a daily driverin fact, it’s been my wife’s daily driver.
As an example, you might want to take a look at the suspension systems that Rusty’s Off Road (www.rustysoffroad.com) offers for the ZJ. They start at 99 bucks for some spring spacers that provide two inches of lift, and they go all the way up to a bolt-on long-arm kit that will get you 5.5 inches of lift. Run a Google search for, say, Grand Cherokee lift kits, and you will see that Skyjacker, TeraFlex, Rough Country, Clayton, and a lot of other companies offer similar suspension lifts.
I suggest that you find a low-mileage Grand, or one that has had the engine and trans rebuilt; those are big-ticket repair items. Try to find one with the trailer towing package because, as I said, it will have somewhat decent 3.73:1 or 4.11:1 gearing and even a trans cooler on the ’96-and-later models.
Hey, there is nothing wrong with the 4.0L motor, so don’t think that you have to get a V-8. The V-8 will get between 11 and 15 mpg overall, while the 4.0L will beat that by about three mpg. Try to locate one with a Chrysler rearend other than the aluminum-housing Dana 44 or Dana 35. Add some 31-inch tiresyes, they will fit on the factory rimsas well as a 3-inch lift, a skidplate under the transfer case, and some rocker guards. The next thing to do is have fun with it, but do keep in perspective what you’re driving.
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