If Jeep were a record label, the Grand Cherokee wouldn’t be that label’s rock star—that’s the Wrangler. Nor is it the pop star—that’s the smaller Cherokee. The Grand Cherokee is something else. Thanks to its general excellence, sprightly maturity, and understanding of its place in the world, what it lacks in edge and thrills it makes up for with an enormous amount of crossover appeal that translates into gargantuan sales numbers. It’s the Eagles of the Jeep lineup. Since going on sale in 1992 as a 1993-model-year offering, the Grand Cherokee’s four generations have sold more than five million units in the U.S. That beats total sales for the Cherokee going back to 1983 (Liberty years included), and Wrangler and CJ sales numbers going back to the same year. But hey, the best-selling album in the U.S. in the 20th century was the Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975).
The 2021 Grand Cherokee L debut further amplifies a juggernaut that sold more than 150,000 units last year—despite its last redesign coming in 2010. That’s some achievement considering the Grand Cherokee’s origins as a last wheezing gasp from the U.S. automaker known as American Motors Corporation (AMC).America’s vehicle manufacturer, AMC spent the 1970s chauffeuring itself into financial doom with the Gremlin, Pacer, and Matador. Neither Jeep nor the company’s AM General military and commercial truck business was strong enough to rescue AMC. Enter Renault, which poured its French government francs into a stake in AMC in 1978 and took a controlling interest in 1980. The idea was to enjoy the fruits of the Jeep brand and acquire an American branch office to flog Renault goods. Sound familiar?
When AMC put the smaller Jeep Cherokee on the market in 1983 for the 1984 model year, it created and then dominated a new segment of compact, go-anywhere family haulers. AMC then commenced work on the next-gen replacement that was scheduled to debut in 1989. But delivering the follow-up relied on Americans buying Renault’s U.S. products; even in France, francs didn’t grow on les arbres. For many reasons, however, Americans balked. After initial praise, all models like the Fuego and Alliance proved was that AMC and Renault could suck together. It’s hard to fault Renault’s support on the development side. The French put François Castaing in charge of AMC model development in 1978. He was their top developer of racing engines, his mills taking wins at Le Mans and in Formula 1. He’d led development of the Cherokee and refined the development process while shepherding the Cherokee’s successor so well that Chrysler adopted the process. When Chrysler took over AMC, he eventually became Chrysler’s head of powertrain operations. AMC had also been given the funds to hire three outside designers to create the Cherokee’s follow-up: Larry Shinoda of Chevrolet Corvette, Boss Mustang, and slot-car fame, Giorgetto Giugiaro, and Adam Clenet. Despite what was in the pipeline, by the mid-1980s Renault was desperate for an exit, and Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca looked to be holding the door. From his vantage point atop the raucous minivan wave he created, Iacocca saw a hole in his company’s product lineup, and that hole was shaped like the Jeep Cherokee. Given the chance to fill that blank space with the actual Cherokee and take over what was, at the time, the world’s second-most recognized brand after Coca-Cola, Iacocca cut Renault a check for AMC in 1987. Instead of launching the new Cherokee in 1989, Iacocca instructed Chrysler’s product planners to revamp the company’s minivans, and had Jeep show the lightly disguised second-gen Cherokee as the Concept 1 at the 1989 Detroit auto show. Shinoda gets credit for the mid-size design that bulked up the compact first-gen Cherokee, even if it took about a decade for Chrysler to acknowledge his contribution and pay him for it. Chrysler’s development team used the extra time to refine the production version, but a couple of strange things happened on the way to the 1992 Detroit auto show where the model would debut. Iacocca wanted an SUV for Dodge, but Chrysler didn’t have the money to produce a Cherokee for Dodge and Jeep. Each brand made a case for getting the Cherokee, an exercise that apparently involved creating an alternate-universe Dodge-branded version. Jeep won the showdown.
But when Iacocca decided to keep making the compact Cherokee alongside what was once meant to be the Cherokee’s successor, one of those two vehicles needed a new name. Voilà: the Grand Cherokee.From the moment Chrysler president Bob Lutz drove a 1993 Grand Cherokee Laredo (in Poppy Red Clear Coat) up the steps of Detroit’s Cobo Hall and through a tempered glass window to the press conference, the Jeep became an icon of a certain kind of perspective on life—the same way a Mercedes 300D wagon signified a certain kind of family in the 1980s, and a BMW M3 signified a certain kind of enthusiast in the 1990s. The first generation, known as the ZJ and on sale from 1992 to 1998, cast a wide net of options. The five-speed manual transmission and manual windows and locks in the base model only lasted two years. The super-swanky Grand Wagoneer Limited trim lasted just one. But the Grand Cherokee could be loaded with luxuries buyers couldn’t find in the Ford Explorer or Chevrolet S-10 Blazer: unibody construction, a standard driver’s airbag and Electronic Vehicle Information Center, available digital climate control, and a 5.2-liter V-8 on the top-tier Limited trim. And then came a parade of special trims and tweaks like the Orvis Edition, TSi, Up Country suspension package, and meta-named Special Edition. The 1993 Grand Cherokee V-8 earned 10Best honors. The most substantial differentiator was Jeep’s Quadra-Trac four-wheel drive, which put genuine trail-eating and fully mechanical torque-vectoring capability underneath a Limited-trim cabin that was—for its time—sufficiently luxurious. Shoppers more worried about just getting to work than getting to their ski cabins in Wyoming could opt for models with Selec-Trac full-time four-wheel drive or, for the first three years of the model’s life, Command-Trac part-time four-wheel drive.
Then, in 1998, Chrysler put its 5.9-liter Hemi V-8 in a model called the 5.9L Limited. The engine, borrowed from the Dodge Ram, put out 245 horsepower and 345 pound-feet of torque, making the Grand Cherokee the most powerful SUV in its class—one that could tow 5000 pounds.Jeep sold more than 1.5 million of that first generation while establishing the Grand Cherokee pattern: escalating luxury beyond the domestic competition, like-for-like prices below the foreign competition, increasingly skillful four-wheel drive, and, except for the second-gen WJ model, at least one trim that took a huge snort of Hemi power. Consumers groomed one another to throw money at the Grand Cherokee more for what it represented as a lifestyle icon than what it could do. And 28 years on, based on the sales numbers, that style-conscious army is as strong as ever. Yes, it’s true the Ford Explorer has outsold the Grand Cherokee over their lifespans. Yet even in old age, the Grand Cherokee has something the Explorer doesn’t: a robust second life as an inexpensive and capable trail vehicle that still bathes in Grand Cherokee cachet. When’s the last time you heard someone rave about their 20-year-old Explorer, or saw one lolling through Moab backcountry on a six-inch lift and 35s? The brand-new 2022 WL-series Cherokee can be expected to fulfill its legacy, establish new ground by being more luxurious and more capable, and once again entice buyers to line up with bank account routing numbers. The only difference between this debut and the last all-new Cherokee debut in 2010 is that customers will have their Eagles playlists cued up on an iPhone 13 instead of an iPhone 4.
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