The Incredible Timeline of the Jeep Grand Cherokee

September 17th, 2021 by

A red 2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee is shown driving through a city.

Jeep has proven its ability to keep up with a world that constantly changes. They consistently make solid vehicles and have been doing so for decades. The Jeep Grand Cherokee is one of their most iconic models and the most-awarded SUV ever, earning top marks in categories like safety, off-road capability, and value. If you’re in the market for a used Jeep Grand Cherokee, you really can’t go wrong. When you get a Grand Cherokee, you’re not just getting a well-rounded high-performer; you’re getting a little piece of history.

1941: The Father of All Jeeps

To understand the history of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, you have to go back to World War II, when the United States government enlisted the help of several companies to develop a 4×4 reconnaissance vehicle. Out of prototypes from three manufacturers, the Willys-Overland MB Jeep was born. Calling it an upgrade from horses is an understatement; at the time, the Willys Jeep was a marvel of engineering. President Dwight D Eisenhower himself described the vehicle as “one of three decisive weapons the U.S. had during World War II.” That’s right, those cute little Jeep Liberty’s you see cruising around? Basically, war machines.

A long run of success in military applications proved to translate well to the commercial market. The Jeep CJ (literally, “civilian jeep”) was the first version to be available for purchase by the public in 1945, but Jeep soon expanded its lineup to include a variety of high-performance 4×4 vehicles. The production of Jeeps for use by the public really hasn’t stopped since then, much to the delight of American consumers.

A grey 2020 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit is shown from from the side parked in a city after searching for a used Jeep Grand Cherokee.

1974: The Cherokee

A few decades and several iterations of Jeep later, the 1974 Jeep Cherokee SJ was the first to don the “Cherokee” moniker. It was a full-sized SUV derived from the Wagoneer. True to its nature as a history book regular, this Jeep became the first vehicle to be dubbed a “Sport Utility Vehicle” or SUV as we of the 21st century like to call it. The Jeep Cherokee XJ followed in 1984 as a compact SUV that can only be described as the best-looking SUV in all of human history. Its good looks are largely credited to Dick Teague, one of the most prolific automotive designers of all time. It’s got a squared-off look that works better than it should, and the big wheels, ample ground clearance, and iconic Jeep grille don’t hurt, either.

1992: The Jeep Cherokee Gets Grander

Jeep wanted to capitalize on the popularity of the Jeep Cherokee XJ, and thus work on what would eventually become the Jeep Grand Cherokee started in 1983. It didn’t come to fruition until a decade later with the 1993 ZJ model. During this delay from the drawing board to the factory, Jeep’s manufacturer, American Motor Companies (AMC), was purchased by Chrysler. The entire Jeep line was fiercely competitive in the market, and AMC developed a modernized and highly effective process dubbed “product lifecycle management (PLM)” while developing the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Chrysler took note of the earning potential the Jeep had to offer and jumped on the opportunity.

The 1993 Grand Cherokee ZJ was the first generation of this iconic vehicle, and it came in three trims: the SE, Laredo, and Limited. Nifty new features set the budding ZJ apart from its competitors, including a digital Electric Vehicle Information Center (EVIC) that gave drivers feedback when certain complications arose. It also displayed the direction the vehicle was headed and the outside temperature. Production of the Grand Cherokee ZJ ceased in 1998.

1999 – 2017: Generations of Success

In 1999, the second generation of the Jeep Grand Cherokee debuted: the WJ. This was a full redesign of the model, and the new version shared few commonalities with its predecessor – only 127 parts were carried over from the ZJ to the WJ. The 1999 Grand Cherokee also had Chrysler’s then-new PowerTech V8 engine option, which was lighter and more fuel-efficient than engines found in the ZJ. It also came available with brand-new Quadra-Drive, an innovative, off-roading-friendly 4×4 system that added a new clutch pack limited-slip differential for boosted traction. It had different modes that meant drivers could trek through snowy terrain just as effectively as a mudslide.

In 2005, the third generation Jeep Grand Cherokee WK was born. It featured the Quadra-Drive II 4×4 system and had even more power than its predecessors. The WK got up to 420 hp and 420 lb-ft of torque with the optional 6.1-liter HEMI V8 engine found under the hood of the high-performance SRT8 trim. However, the WK was not just about raw performance. It also introduced a new independent double-wishbone front suspension that gave it a far more comfortable and responsive ride than the old live axle.

The WK2 was the fourth generation of the Jeep Grand Cherokee, unveiled in 2011. It was developed on a limited budget during the Great Recession, and Chrysler used the project as evidence of its profitability when requesting a federal loan. The highly-awarded new Grand Cherokee was a huge success, but repercussions of the Great Recession took their toll, and in 2014, Chrysler was bought by Fiat.

A grey 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee is shown from the side parked in a desert.

2021: The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Beyond

In 2021, the fifth-generation Jeep Grand Cherokee WL debuted with the all-new Grand Cherokee L, the first Cherokee to have three rows of standard seating. It’s available in six trims, providing buyers with plenty of options: Laredo, Altitude, Limited, Overland, Summit, and Summit Reserve. Jeep likes doing things first, which explains the extravagant 19-speaker McIntosh sound system, the first of its kind in any vehicle.

Despite decades of development and changing markets, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has managed to stay true to its high-performance roots. The 2021 Cherokee L is a real powerhouse with a best-in-class towing capacity of 7,200 lbs and up to 357 hp and 390 lb-ft of torque with the available 5.7L HEMI V8. It can even drive through up to two feet of water! However, Jeep’s rugged image doesn’t exclude niceties like the back massagers in the front seats, standard in the Summit and Summit Reserved trims.

It’s hard to say what’s next for the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Jeep announced it was taking the Wagoneer off the bench for the first time in 30 years, rounding out the top end of Jeep’s SUV lineup and taking some pressure off the Grand Cherokee. One thing’s fairly certain; we can probably expect to see more electricity incorporated into Jeep’s vehicles.

The Grand Cherokee is scheduled to be available as a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), and if the current market is any indication, Jeep will likely jump on board with electrifying its vehicles sooner rather than later. Jeep has demonstrated an uncanny ability to embrace the future wholeheartedly while remaining true to its wartime origins, resulting in an incredibly loyal fan base that is ever-growing. Jeep does not just keep up with the market; it sets trends and shapes the market. The Jeep Grand Cherokee literally made the modern SUV what it is today – who knows what we’d be calling this particular segment of vehicle today if it hadn’t been for the ingenuity of the Jeep Grand Cherokee.