The early 1990s are starting to seem like a long time ago. McMansions were barely a twinkle in the Toll brothers’ eyes. Apple stock was less than fifteen dollars a share. The Iraq war was going great. A tea party was something for little girls. And Justin Bieber hadn’t even been born.
In the U.S. car market, perhaps the biggest difference between then and now is that the SUV, as an automotive force, was in its infancy. Sure, Wranglers, Blazers, Broncos, Scouts, and the like had been bouncing along on the fringe of the American automotive scene for a while, but their numbers were small.
The Ford Explorer, which debuted in the spring of 1990, is the vehicle that, more than any other, brought the sport-utility vehicle out of the wilderness and into suburbia. The Jeep Grand Cherokee, which followed in 1992, was the second most influential agent in the mainstreaming of the SUV. Both were smash hits, and in May 1992, we pitted the Grand Cherokee against the Explorer down at the Y.O. Ranch in Texas.
Both SUVs have had a long history since then, and after nearly twenty years on the market, the Explorer and the Grand Cherokee have just undergone intensive redesigns. It seemed like the perfect reason to get these rivals together to assess how they’ve changed and how (and whether) they still compare with each other. To do it, we took a journey from suburbia, where the Explorer and the Grand Cherokee reside in real life, to the iconic American West, where they live in our collective imagination-and in the advertising imagery that helped make them such a success.
We set out from the northern reaches of San Diego County, part of the Southern California suburban megalopolis that, like countless others, has over the past two decades become SUV territory. Our two trucks were at home in that upscale area not only because they were surrounded by so many of their brethren but also because of their rather upscale sticker prices. Identically upscale, as it turns out-in V-6, four-by-four, Limited spec, both retail for $39,995.
Where the most deluxe Ford Explorer originally was the Eddie Bauer, the Limited is now the top trim level. Eddie has been retired, and the XLT and the base car sit below the Limited. The cheapest, two-wheel-drive Explorer starts at $28,995.
Limited once denoted the ritziest Grand Cherokee, complete with cheesy gold accents because it was, you know, so money. Thankfully, the gold days are over. Today, the money Jeep is the Overland ($42,690 with four-wheel drive), while the least expensive, two-wheel-drive Laredo is priced at $30,995.
Although the Limited is the top-spec Explorer, it doesn’t have quite as much standard equipment as the not-quite-top-spec Grand Cherokee Limited, which includes a sunroof, heated rear seats, and navigation. Both have heated leather front seats, a backup camera, and keyless ignition. Our Jeep added twenty-inch wheels (which are standard on the Explorer Limited), bringing its total to $41,090. The Ford was optioned with navigation, blind-spot warning, a power liftgate, and power-folding third-row seats, among other add-ons, for a total of $43,555.
In suburbia, an SUV is often a family hauler, a role it has assumed more prominently ever since the Dodge Durango introduced third-row seats to the sub-battleship-class sport-ute. The Explorer was first fitted with a third row in 2002, and it’s now standard. The third row is actually adult habitable; the second row is a nice, high perch; and the front seats are wide and soft. Inflatable seatbelts, which help distribute crash forces for children or elderly passengers, are available for the second row. This new-generation Explorer migrates to a car-based platform, shared with the Taurus and the Flex. That may be a further domestication of the species, but it enables an easier climb in, particularly for kids.
The Grand Cherokee has resisted the three-row trend, but it, too, has become more welcoming to rear passengers. Thanks to wider-opening doors and a 5.3-inch-longer wheelbase, access to the back seats has finally opened up. Once there, passengers enjoy a significant four more inches of legroom than before; the front seats are firmer than the Ford’s but not bad.
These vehicles have grown larger, but the Explorer has gotten a lot larger — it is now more than seven inches longer than the Grand Cherokee and nearly half a foot wider. Still, it’s not that much more unwieldy around town, thanks to a reasonable turning circle. A backup camera is a necessity in both vehicles, but for drivers who still find the prospect of parallel parking just too daunting, Ford offers the option of an automated parking system that will do most of the work for you.
We left suburbia behind as we headed east into the hills on California 78. Up around Julian, we found ourselves on some serious switchbacks, a knee-dragging, sport-bike-rider’s delight. It’s no sport bike, but when it first came out, the Grand Cherokee was considered fairly agile thanks to its coil-spring suspension and relatively light weight (3600 pounds). Like so many Americans, the Grand Cherokee’s svelte past is but a memory (the V-6 four-by-four has put on roughly 1000 pounds). Meanwhile, the unlikely emergence of a whole crop of high-performance SUVs like the BMW X5 and the Porsche Cayenne means there are lots of sport-utes that could eat up a road like this. The Grand Cherokee is not one of them, but this new version — which was initially developed in tandem with the Mercedes-Benz M-Class and which now uses an independent rear suspension for the first time — was far more fluid than we expected, even if it is still tall and heavy-feeling. Credit also the vastly stiffer body structure, which helps create a ride that is positively plush. Owners of previous Grand Cherokees might not know what to make of it.
Handling has never been an Explorer forte. Built as it was on the Ranger pickup chassis, the first Explorer rode on Ford’s ancient “twin I-beam” front suspension and a live rear axle. Later, of course, when its Firestone tires started failing catastrophically, the Explorer revealed a fatal handling flaw — the tendency to roll over, which helped create the worst automotive recall disaster in a generation. The follow-up version was totally reengineered and had an independent suspension all around, but it still wasn’t what you’d call agile. So to say that this new Explorer is far and away the best handling to date is really not saying much, although it’s certainly true. The Explorer understeers resolutely, and you can tell the front wheels are doing all the work, but it doesn’t have the body lean of its predecessors. Push it in a corner, and it feels like an extralarge Taurus. For the new Explorer, Ford adds a feature that it calls curve control, which senses when the driver has entered a turn at too high a rate of speed and then applies the brakes to help stabilize the vehicle.
When we dropped down out of the hills, we found ourselves on the flat floor of the California desert. Route 78 dips south of the Salton Sea and then turns north through irrigated fields, becoming a long, straight two-lane highway. As the sun sank behind the mountains to the west-creating a Technicolor sky — we put the pedal to the metal, trying to make time as we pushed toward Kingman, Arizona.
Six-cylinder power launched both of these SUVs, and both have new V-6 engines this year. The Explorer now uses the same 3.5-liter unit found in the Edge, with 290 hp and 255 lb-ft of torque. That’s a big improvement over the outgoing SOHC V-6’s 210 hp and 254 lb-ft, not to mention the weakling 155-hp V-6 at the Explorer’s debut. It’s no wonder that when Ford added a V-8 — as gas prices tumbled and Ford learned that many Explorer owners used their vehicles for towing — it proved a popular choice. However, the V-8 is no longer available on the new Explorer — and Ford’s Ecoboost V-6 isn’t offered here, either. The new optional engine, arriving midyear, is an EcoBoost 2.0-liter four-cylinder, which will have less output (237 hp, 250 lb-ft) but better fuel economy.
The first Grand Cherokee came with a 4.0-liter straight six that wasn’t exactly new back then, and Jeep, too, soon offered an optional V-8. Eventually, the 4.0 would be replaced by a 3.7-liter V-6, but it was the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that garnered all the attention. With the 2011 Grand Cherokee comes Chrysler’s new Pentastar V-6. The 3.6-liter, aluminum-block V-6 blows away the old 3.7-liter’s 210 hp and 235 lb-ft, making 290 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque — virtually the same output as the Explorer’s. But as we rolled north along the California/Arizona border, the Jeep seemed to have an easier time passing pickups and semis. Those who don’t find it quick enough, however, at least have the option of more power with the Hemi.
Leaving the next morning from Kingman, we couldn’t resist spending some time on old Route 66, the epochal cross-country highway. This part of “the mother road,” as John Steinbeck called it in The Grapes of Wrath, stretches long and straight to the horizon, running parallel with the railroad tracks just to the south. Here you really get a sense of the vastness of the landscape. It’s the kind of driving that affords you plenty of time to contemplate your surroundings. The Explorer’s ultramodern driver interface is a stark contrast with the faded roadside retro. The Limited’s standard MyFord Touch and Sony HD Radio, along with the optional navigation system, make for an Apple-like instrument panel that is the last word in modernity. Dual reconfigurable screens flank the speedometer; a large, eight-inch touch screen houses the nav unit as well as climate, phone, and audio functions; below that is a gloss-black flat panel with more touch-sensitive buttons. It all looks impressive, and the graphics are superclear, but neither the touch screen nor the touch-sensitive black panel provides the feedback or the positive operation of real buttons. And the screen is chock-full of info, making for very small touch points that demand a lot of attention to hit precisely. Elsewhere, the interior is less spectacular; there are few hard plastics and decent soft touch points, but the standard leather is pretty industrial-grade.
The Jeep has richer leather and lots of nice padding. There’s not a lot of flash, but the overall interior quality level has risen dramatically. The Grand Cherokee’s electronics seem old-tech, though; the touch-screen nav unit is essentially the same one Chrysler has offered for years, and the logic and the graphics are rudimentary. Too many functions are on-screen, but at least the Jeep has more traditional, and more user-friendly, climate controls. The Grand Cherokee cabin isn’t as wide and spacious feeling as the Explorer’s, but the Jeep doesn’t seem like such a big bus from behind the wheel, either.
After a spell on Route 66 and the road that consigned it to a historical artifact, I-40, we headed south along 89A, which follows Oak Creek Canyon into Sedona. Here, the Explorer’s electrically assisted steering showed a weakness. Although it’s fine at straight-ahead, it has a vagueness off-center that makes placing the vehicle more work than it should be on long, sweeping curves. The Grand Cherokee’s steering is heavier overall, but not unpleasantly so, and it’s fairly consistent through both curves and straights.
We went to Sedona looking for an off-road trail we’d done years ago, in 1993, at the introduction of the Explorer Limited (denoted by its running boards and three fetching hues of bright white, forest green, and purple). The trail was at the back of a subdivision that butted up to spectacular, towering red rocks. Well, given the number of red-rock formations all around Sedona and the mushrooming subdivisions in the area, we didn’t immediately find it. We did find a different trail, Soldier Pass, and after walking in only a few hundred yards, we feared that it was too much for the Explorer. But we let the Jeep have a go at it, since our Grand Cherokee had a four-wheel-drive system with a low range.
Both vehicles have a Land Rover-style terrain-selector knob. The Jeep’s includes a mode for rocks, but you have to select low range first. Jeep claims improved approach and departure angles for the new Grand Cherokee, but that’s with the Quadra-Lift air suspension and the front air dam removed. We didn’t have the former and didn’t bother with the latter, and the Jeep still managed fine on the section we tried. We had to pick our way very carefully, however, and it wasn’t easy because the high hood makes for lousy sightlines when you’re trying to place a wheel precisely. You really need a spotter.
Finally, we found what we’d been looking for: Broken Arrow Trail. A look at the first obstacle, a foot-high sheer slickrock step topped by a second, slightly smaller one, made us realize that any attempt to relive 1993 would relieve the 2011 Explorer of its front fascia, particularly as the Explorer lacks a low range to walk the truck slowly up the rock. (We should mention that the ’93 Limited didn’t fare so well, either. Several of the test Explorers suffered damage to their molded running boards.)
After a night in Flagstaff, we continued northeast into the Painted Desert, where signs along US89 warned of possible ice on the road. Ironically, most early SUVs would have offered no advantage under those conditions-patches of ice on an otherwise clear highway. Most had part-time four-wheel-drive systems that were designed for loose terrain off-road or very slippery conditions on-road. For all its emphasis on off-road capability, one of the most noteworthy aspects of the original Grand Cherokee was that it offered a full-time four-wheel-drive system (Quadra-Trac) that could be used on-road. In the years since, Jeep has offered a bewildering array of 4WD systems, and that’s still the case today. The Laredo’s Quadra-Trac I has no low range and no terrain selector. Four-wheel-drive Limiteds and Overlands get Quadra-Trac II, with low range and the terrain dial.
Quadra-Drive II (standard on the Overland V-8, optional on other V-8s) adds a limited-slip rear axle.
For its part, the Explorer has switched to a FWD/AWD system, which is fine for slippery highways. Back in the ‘burbs, though, we noticed that because its default torque flow is to the front wheels, you can get a tug at the steering wheel when pulling out quickly onto a busy highway before the system shifts power to the rear.
When we finally got to Monument Valley in southeastern Utah, we felt as if we’d truly entered SUV country — not because you need an SUV out here, but because the towering red buttes provide the kind of heroic western backdrop that fits so perfectly behind these vehicles. We stopped at the Mexican Hat rock formation and both trucks-even the Explorer-got to scramble around a bit on the rocky two-track.
We’d driven more than 1000 miles according to the trip computers, which also reported a 20.0-mpg average fuel consumption for the Jeep and 18.8 mpg for the Ford. The trip was nearly all highway, so the Explorer’s figure was disappointing (it’s EPA rated at 25 mpg on the highway and 17 mpg in the city, versus the Jeep’s 22/16 highway/city mpg rating). The Explorer’s figure, though, is likely predicated on cruising in sixth gear, whereas the Jeep’s transmission has only five speeds. On this trip, there were numerous uphill grades, so the Explorer spent a lot of time in lower gears, and its gas mileage suffered accordingly. Perhaps because it has no ultra-low-rpm cruising gear favored by the EPA tests, the Jeep got closer to its advertised mileage in real life. On flatter terrain, the Explorer might have reaped more benefit from its tall sixth gear.
Back in 1992, then-deputy-editor Jean Jennings pronounced the Ford Explorer the winner for truck people and the Jeep Grand Cherokee the best for car people. Today, that situation is reversed. The Explorer has deftly moved with the market. Reborn as a FWD/AWD three-row crossover, it has become much more of a car — which makes sense, because that’s how people use it. The Jeep, though, has too great a sense of self to follow the vicissitudes of the market. It has to be a Jeep, after all, and — despite missteps like the Compass and the Patriot — that still means something. It could be that eventually the great majority of SUV buyers will no longer give a damn about the ability to go off-road, but a Grand Cherokee nonetheless will still provide that ability.
One could say that day is upon us already. If so, what keeps the Jeep from being irrelevant is that Chrysler engineers have done such a good job of building a vehicle that works well as a car, despite its off-road capability. The sacrifices a Jeep once demanded are finally gone. They were sacrifices we once were happy to make, because driving a Jeep was so cool; but then, like everything cool, it eventually became less cool, and we weren’t as willing to put up with the lousy gas mileage, the unrefined powertrains, the poor ride quality, and the poor quality in general.
The Explorer is better attuned to real life, and it’s comprehensively well executed in the way of most modern Fords. But the fact is, we preferred driving the Jeep — it felt less mundane. Twenty years on, the romantic notions that originally popularized SUVs have largely dissipated, but out here in the iconic American West, where the landscape is like something out of a John Ford western, you realize that, in the Grand Cherokee at least, that romance isn’t entirely gone.
1990 FORD: The Explorer, introduced as a 1991 model, is based heavily on the Ranger pickup truck’s mechanicals. Ford’s sport-ute is available with two or four doors and comes standard with the Ranger’s 4.0-liter V-6 engine with 160 hp and 220 lb-ft of torque.
1991 FORD: Enamored of its prowess on- and off-road, we name the Explorer an All-Star for 1991 and take delivery of a Four Seasons test car. After 40,613 miles, we pronounce it “a perfect middle point between a minivan and a station wagon.” The Mazda Navajo, a clone of the two-door Explorer, arrives.
1992 JEEP: The Grand Cherokee makes a smashing debut at the 1992 Detroit auto show, when Chrysler president Bob Lutz drives one through the front window of the hall. It was originally conceived as the replacement for the Cherokee, but Jeep decides to sell both vehicles side by side as the SUV segment starts to take off.
1993 JEEP: Nostalgic for the Grand Wagoneer, Jeep offers faux woodgrain on the Grand Cherokee, but the effect is not the same and the model is dropped after one season. Longer-lasting additions include an optional V-8 (5.2 liters, 220 hp) and the off-road-ready Up Country suspension option.
1995 FORD: The refreshed Explorer debuts with control arms replacing the twin I-beam setup in front. Late in the model year, a 210-hp V-8 is added. The Mazda Navajo is dropped.
1997 FORD: A SOHC V-6, also 4.0 liters, is added to the engine roster. Its 205 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque shame the standard V-6, which manages to soldier on for several more years. The Mercury Mountaineer, essentially a dressed-up Explorer, debuts.
1998 JEEP: Chrysler merges with (is taken over by) Daimler-Benz, setting the stage for today’s 2011 Grand Cherokee, which will eventually be designed alongside the Mercedes-Benz M-class. The profit-gushing Grand Cherokee is one of the chief attractions for Daimler.
1999 JEEP: The second-generation Grand Cherokee is longer, wider, and taller, and its redesigned rear suspension improves the ride quality. The spare tire moves out of the cargo area and under the vehicle.
2000 FORD: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opens an investigation into faulty Firestone tires fitted to several Ford models, including the Explorer. In the case of the Explorer, many instances of tire blowouts lead to vehicle rollovers and ultimately more than 100 deaths. The investigation results in a huge recall of more than six million tires. Even so, 2000 was the Explorer’s best sales year, with 445,157 sold.
2001 FORD: Ford drops the two-door Explorer.
2002 FORD: An all-new Explorer debuts, sharing only the 4.0-liter V-6 with the previous model. A revised rear suspension improves ride quality while hardly diminishing the Explorer’s off-road ability.
2005 JEEP: The third-generation Grand Cherokee brings a 3.7-liter V-6 (210 hp). An independent front suspension and rack-and-pinion steering are used for the first time.
2006 FORD: The Explorer is updated with the latest Mustang 4.6-liter V-8, now producing 292 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, and is
equipped with a six-speed automatic.
2006 JEEP: The SRT8 joins the lineup. It features a 6.1-liter Hemi V-8, 420 hp, and 420 lb-ft of torque. Jeep claims it will reach 60 mph in less than five seconds.
2007 JEEP: Mercedes-Benz lends the Grand Cherokee a 3.0-liter V-6 diesel engine (215 hp, 376 lb-ft) with EPA fuel economy ratings of 18/23 mpg (RWD) and 17/22 mpg (4WD). Daimler sells Chrysler to Cerberus Capital Management.
2008 FORD: The Explorer America concept previews a new era for Ford’s iconic SUV with its unibody construction.
2009 JEEP: The Grand Cherokee’s diesel engine is dropped. Chrysler files for bankruptcy.
2010 JEEP: Chrysler emerges from bankruptcy with Italian automaker Fiat holding a twenty percent stake in the company.