The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Pathfinder

This is actual a review of three different vehicles - three Jeep Grand Cherokees and a Nissan Pathfinder. Despite their similarities - same price, same size, same gas mileage - they are very different.

Jeep Grand Cherokee Six
Clearly Superior In: Off-road ability, four wheel drive systems
Above Average In: Programmability
Needs Work In: Six cylinder engine, transmission, rear seat room, gas mileage
Jeep Grand Cherokee V8
Clearly Superior In: Off-road ability, speed, four wheel drive systems, transmission feel
Above Average In: Programmability, interior design, on-road handling (Overland)
Needs Work In: Rear seat room, gas mileage
Nissan Pathfinder LE
Above Average In: Interior space, horsepower
Needs Work In: Kickdowns, wind and vent noise, gas mileage

The Jeep was designed to go off-road first, and to go on-road second, but it still manages to pack in all the options most people can think of, from leather to a programmable body computer. Even with its strong off-road prowess, newer Grand Cherokees manage to grip the road surprisingly well, and the 4.7 V8 provides strong acceleration.

Our first test Jeep was set up rather perversely, with the ancient AMC four-liter in-line six-cylinder engine, currently putting out 195 hp. Given the weight of the Grand Cherokee, 195 hp isn't really that much. The engine noise of the six is fun in a Wrangler (which, by the way, it pushes with alacrity), but not pleasant in the Grand Cherokee. Yet, acceleration is similar to the Pathfinder, despite the latter's extra 45 ponies, thanks no doubt to the old six's strong low-end torque.

Like the Nissan, the six-cylinder Grand Cherokee has a problem with downshifting, especially at highway speeds. The Grand Cherokee six needed to be manually downshifted via the O/D OFF button to pick up speed on gentle inclines. Whether kickdown is achieved via the button or naturally, though, it has a tendency to lurch. The transmission is considerably nicer under normal, slow acceleration.

With the V-8, the Grand Cherokee is transformed. The 4.7 liter engine revs quickly and with exciting high-po noises, yet is quiet and restrained under most conditions. Power is always available, thanks partly to a new five-speed automatic transmission which has a special gear ratio for highway passing. Gas mileage is similar to the six, but the feel of the car is changed due to the lower noise, higher revving, and mid-seven-second zero-to-sixty times - several seconds less than the six-cylinder or the Pathfinder, and that's without even considering the bonus power of the Overland edition. That luxury version of the Grand Cherokee, which is quite reasonable compared with the Navigator, Escalade, and others, makes the Grand Cherokee as fast as many sporty cars.

Our Jeeps had full-time four wheel drive, using Chrysler's new Selec-Trac II and Quadra-Drive systems. There are only three settings with these systems: four wheel drive, neutral, and low range four wheel drive. No more are needed, though when turning once on wet concrete, we suddenly found ourself with a wider turning radius than we expected because the four wheel drive had kicked in. We'd expect the same issues with a full-time four-wheel drive system from any other automaker as well; the only way around it is all wheel drive, a different system not usually meant for off-road use. In any case, we had no skidding or "traction control" feelings even starting out on wet cement pavement.

The seats on both vehicles were comfortable, though there was not much room between the seats and the door on the 2000-2002 Grand Cherokees, making it somewhat difficult to reach the seat adjustments at first. The 2003 and newer Grand Cherokee Overlands did not have that problem, and indeed had classier-looking seats than the others.

The optional Infinity stereo on the Jeep was exceptional, providing bass as deep or shallow as you want, with easy-to-use knobs and sliders for audio control. The CD cartridge is stored in the back, in its own compartment (Nissan's cartridge is part of the stereo unit itself - you feed CDs in one at a time). The 2001 Grand Cherokee also had a slot in the control unit, which is much more convenient.

Jeep's instrument panel contains a speedometer, tachometer, gas and oil gauges, and a temperature gauge. We appreciate the information. Most of the controls were sensible and easy to use. The hand brake is far over on the right side, inconvenient for shorter drivers.

Handling on both the Jeep and the Nissan is far better than we expected, with little roll on sane turns and no torque steer (not that we expected any on big heavy rear-wheel-drive vehicles with automatic transmissions). The ride on our 2000 Jeep was a bit jouncy, mainly because of the optional towing package, which includes a stiffer suspension. Stock Grand Cherokees are more comfortable - on par with the Nissan Pathfinder, from what we understand. The 2001 Jeep had a smoother ride than either of the other vehicles, still a bit stiff over rough pavement but otherwise luxurious. Handling on the '01 was very good, with no feeling of top-heaviness and surprisingly good traction - better than some cars. The Overland had a moderately stiff ride, but eliminated larger bumps and, surprisingly, provided the kind of traction we expect in sporty cars.

Both vehicles had rear seats which fold down, extra power outlets, and easily visible controls. The Jeep's display was easy on the eyes at night despite its traditional green backlighting.

The Jeep had relatively little wind noise. Both had noisy interior fans, though the Nissan's was extremely noisy - indeed, it was the noisiest we have seen. We hope that was just our car, but suggest you try before you buy. Even at low speed, the noise was intrusive. The Jeep's fan was only loud at high speed, a setting generally not needed thanks to its baking heat in winter and powerful air conditioning in winter. The 4.7 engine heated up very quickly.

The Nissan has an overhead display with a compass reading and the outside temperature. The Jeep goes several steps beyond, with its trip computer (gas mileage, temperature, compass etc.) It also tells how long you have till the next service - you set the intervals yourself - and a menu which allows you to tell the Jeep how it should behave. This includes things like whether the horn beeps when you lock it, whether all the doors unlock when you press the unlock button, whether the doors automatically lock and unlock, whether the wipers activate the headlights, etc. It's a cool feature that every car should have.

Also cool, and new in 2002, is a tire pressure sensor with a warning readout in the overhead display - which optionall shows all four tires at once. It's now a $150 option, and probably well worth it.

We should probably also mention that you can get a readout of computer fault codes rather easily from the Jeep - unlike many automakers, Jeep has always made it easy to learn what the computer thinks is wrong, which can save a lot of diagnostic time.

Shorter (or taller) drivers will be happy to learn adjustable pedals have moved over to the Grand Cherokee, so you can, with the press of a switch, move the pedals fore and aft. The system works easily from a prominent switch, but costs $185.

Our 2004 Grand Cherokee had a new option, a built-in navigation system. The unit is smaller than most, presumably to fit into a limited space, but still well-designed. Both the radio and the nav system can be controlled (within reason) from the steering wheel controls, and there are both knobs and pushbuttons so controls don't have to do too many functions, and you have the usual pushbuttons to choose common radio cahnnels. There are also physical buttons to choose AM/FM (with a large station and song display), CD/AUX, audio tone, channel scanning, and navigation.

The system is fully featured, providing vocal and visual directions, and allowing you to choose destinations by address, name, or telephone number. It also lets you look at other parts of the map, then press the cancel button to resume the "dynamic" map that follows your travels. It can zoom close up, or provide a good overview. Our main complaint is not unique, that it requires the driver to press "OK" to a safety warning and every time the car is started. (We could also quibble about the small Enter and Cancel buttons, or the fact that you have to press Cancel to get to the map - when pressing Nav, you get a destination/setup/option/route menu, and can either scroll down to Map, or press Cancel, which is far easier.) In short, though the screen is relatively small, the system itself has all the capabilities of just about any other navigation system. If you travel to a lot of unfamiliar places, it could well be worth the $1,200.

Both vehicles let you pop open the rear window glass, but the Jeep has a pushbutton release. The Nissan makes cargo space by putting the tire underneath the car, a debatable practice. Neither allows you to open the rear side windows, as minivans do.

The Jeep's base vent controls are large and easy to understand; they can be operated by a new driver with gloves on, without much thought. An optional system senses skin temperature - clever.

Nissan's center console is terribly clever, with a large storage area that can be treated as two different center compartments. Jeep's is good, but not that good.

We like the luxury touches of the Grand Cherokee Overland and Limited; the Overland, for example, has a wood-and-leather steering wheel, just like a Cadillac's, as well as classy leather seats and tasteful wood trim. The impression of luxury is strong and makes the driving experience more enjoyable. You don't need to get a massive Chevy truck with Cadillac logos (and prices) if you want a polished wood steering wheel and classy interior; you can get a nicer, more usable interior in a Jeep. The controls generally have a quality feel, including the convenient wheel-mounted cruise (complete with cancel button).

The Overland also includes side curtain airbags, antilock four-wheel disc brakes (very handy in snow), a rear window defroster and washer-wiper, Quadra-Trac II on-demand four wheel drive, a locking progressive rear axle, skid plates for the fuel tank and major components for off-roading with confidence, rain-sensitive automatic windshield wipers, which work quite well, dual-zone air conditioning, power windows and locks, cruise control, tilt wheel, leather-wrapped wood steering wheel for that luxury look, alarm, information center, Infinity CD stereo with cassette and changer, automatic rearview mirror, Sentry Key, universal garage door opener, heated memory seats, memory radio, driver's seat, and mirrors, power sunroof, fog lights, and heated, foldaway driver's side auto-dimming mirror.

The heated driver's side mirror seems like a luxury item until you get a day with lots of snow. Then, the windshield wiper design suddenly becomes a real advantage, since the wiper bay isn't clogged easily with snow and ice, and the heated mirror preserves visibility - along with the rear wiper/washer. The auto-dimming feature is good on the highway to keep night vision intact.

We also appreciated little usability touches, like the automatic door unlocking (which can be shut off), the ability to set our own preferences, and the fact that the door buttons actually say "LOCK" (or their other functions) at night. Someone actually put some thought into the interior of the Jeep, though they apparently missed out on things like dome lights that go on when the key is removed, and power memory for the stereo.

The cargo area has a cover held in place (rather firmly) with Velcro, underneath which are the spare tire and room for jumper cables and other supplies. You don't have to take out all the cargo to get to the spare tire. The cargo area is quite large, making us wish we could move the rear seats back.

We do miss some features that were cut to save costs, such as the rear headrests that must be removed instead of just folded, front-door courtesy lights, and the hood struts on some models.

At a time when many people are showing their "patriotism" by flying Chinese-made American flags on Japanese SUVs, it is worth noting that the Grand Cherokee is designed in the United States, using primarily American components, and is built in Detroit. All Jeeps are made in the United States, with a strong presence in Kenosha, Ohio.

The gas mileage of all these vehicles is excessive by commuter-car standards (or, for that matter, compared with the Toyota 4Runner), and their interior space is comparable to small minivans such as the Dodge Caravan or Nissan Quest. At the same time, their price can be quite high - our Grand Cherokee Laredo, admittedly with lots of options and a V8, listed for $37,000. For that price, you can buy a minivan and a normal car, or, even better, a minivan and a Jeep Wrangler for off-roading. Or you can hold off on the extras and get basically the same vehicle for nearly $10,000 less.

Off the beaten path, the Jeep stands out. It retains the traditional Jeep off-road-readiness, while adding creature comforts. We strongly recommend getting the V8.

How good is the Grand Cherokee? The next generation will be rebadged and sold as the next-generation Mercedes SUV. That's good, considering how Mercedes feels about American engineering. The Grand Cherokee combines excellent off-road capability with (if you get the V-8) civilized manners and performance that beats many cars. It's hard to argue with that.

Buyers may also wish to try out the off-road-ready Mitsubishi Montero.

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