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.