- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

The old gunslinger still has grit.

Like John Wayne in his advanced years, the 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee may be long in the tooth, but it can still duke it out with the pretenders. A little over a decade ago, when Jeep first introduced the Grand Cherokee, it was state-of-the-art for SUVs.

Over the years since, as manufacturers scrambled to get on the SUV band wagon, the Grand Cherokee was often the vehicle they sought to emulate.

Though its looks and size have changed little over the years, the Grand Cherokee went through a redesign in 1999, and it’s been freshened for 2004, as well as receiving a new top-line model, the Overland. That’s fitting, because Willys-Overland was one of the companies that first built the Jeep in World War II.

Now, as automotive history rolls on, Jeep is part of the Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler Corp., which itself produces competitors to the Grand Cherokee, including the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and the Dodge Durango.

Unlike most sport utes, the Grand Cherokee was designed as an SUV from the tires up. As a result, it cannot be pegged as either car-based or truck-based. It is what it is — one of the better-performing SUVs on the planet, both on and off-road.

But is it ever getting expensive. The tested Overland has a base price of $39,640 and, with a few options, topped out at $41,120.

While it’s true that there are far more expensive SUVs out there, including most models of the Mercedes M-Class, that’s tilting into luxury SUV territory, which is not an area most people associate with the Grand Cherokee.

True, it carries a lot of equipment. But that’s not always an indication of value or quality — as witness some of the car and truck offerings from South Korea.

It is what it is — one of the better-performing SUVs on the planet, both on and off-road.

Of course, you don’t have to spend that much money to get Grand Cherokee goodness. The base two-wheel-drive Laredo model has a sticker price of $27,625.The new Overland starts out with a robust powertrain, including a 260-horsepower, 4.7-liter V-8 engine linked to a five-speed automatic transmission and full-time all-wheel drive.

For many SUVs, that would be enough.

But this is a Jeep, so it also has a low-range four-wheel drive for crawling over bumps in the boondocks. It is controlled by a separate lever — yes, a lever, not a push button — next to the automatic transmission shifter. Got to keep the Jeep traditionalists happy.

As important as the horsepower is the high-output V-8 engine’s torque rating of 330 foot-pounds at 3,600 rpm. Torque is a measure of low-speed pulling capability.

In this case, it means the Overland can pull horse trailers and other heavy loads — up to 6,500 pounds.

Other standard equipment includes leather upholstery, side air bags, antilock brakes, a variable-locking rear differential, skid plates to protect the fuel tank and the transfer case underneath, rain-sensing windshield wipers, dual-zone automatic climate control, a beautiful wood-and-leather steering wheel, remote locking, cruise control, memory settings for the power seats, mirrors and radio, CD player, an alarm system, a universal garage-door opener, a motorized sunroof, automatic headlights, fog lights and 17-inch chrome-plated aluminum wheels.

In addition, the test Overland had a DVD-based navigation system, a trailer-towing package, a tire-pressure monitor and power-adjustable pedals.

The navigation system is incorporated into the radio, and it has one of the smallest screens of any out there.

Moreover, on the test vehicle, it refused to perform some of the functions.

Inside, the Overland has soft but supportive bucket seats up front, with plenty of elbow and head room, even with the sunroof. Instruments are easy to read and the controls are ergonomically functional.

In back, the seating is tight, especially in the center position, and the seatbacks do not recline. However, the seats fold flat for extra cargo.

With the rear seats up, the Overland has just over 38 cubic feet of cargo space; with the seats folded, it grows to more than 72 cubic feet.

That’s on the smallish end of SUVs in the midsize class. But the Grand Cherokee was deliberately designed not to be ponderous.

In urban traffic, the Overland displays nimble moves. It’s obviously no sports sedan, but it doesn’t have the heavy feel of some of the truck-based SUVs.

The handling characteristics are more like that of some of the lighter car-based SUVs. With heavy-duty coil springs and gas-filled shock absorbers at the ends of solid axles front and rear, the ride is not plush, but it is not punishing, either.

Off-road, the Overland — like other Grand Cherokee models — is not as capable as its smaller sibling, the Wrangler.

But it still can outperform all but the newest and most expensive of the competitors from other manufacturers.

Top gun it ain’t, but like the John Wayne legend the Grand Cherokee still has the stuff to hold its own out on the range and on the road.

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