Why Grand Cherokee WJ?

Written by
Aleksandar Veljković

Because it’s simply best bang for the buck!

Yes, that is how you say it if you want to cut the long story short. But, many of you want to hear the long story, because they simply don’t believe that a vehicle which has been perceived as a phony, luxury SUV by the majority can actually be a capable offroader intended for performing serious offroad tasks on a daily basis.

There are so many other vehicles that spring to mind first when you say “hardcore offroader”. Like, the Land Rover Defender, or Nissan Patrol, or Toyota Landcruiser (especially the HZJ and HDJ series), or even the prestigious Mercedes G class. There’s also the tiny, but monstrously capable Suzuki Samurai / Jimny, and of course, not to forget the iconic Jeep Wrangler, or even the good old Cherokee XJ… So many of them take precedance to the “soccer mom SUV”, as the Grand Cherokee is perceived by most. People are simply caught in disbelief when they see that you’re actually using a Grand Cherokee to guide serious overlanding tours.

WJ in the Pindos mountains in Greece

It’s often mockery at the beginning of a tour, but never at the end. Because the Grand manages to defend it’s case and come out as the winner out of most tricky situations, conquering rough and muddy terrain with incredible ease – often better than the “hardcore”, proven contenders. So…

What exactly makes WJ the best bang for the buck?

  1. You just can’t get ANY other full size offroader as a used vehicle for 4-5000 Euros, invest another 2-3000 Euros in offroading upgrades and get a fully capable, go anywhere offroad vehicle for around 8000 Euros. Many of the forementioned double, even tripple that price when similarly equipped.

    Inside the cockpit: comfortable and aesthetically pleasing with good quality materials, quite unlike the “spartan” philosophy of hardcore offroaders
  2. It is a remarkable, one-of-a-kind combination of luxury, comfort and true capability. On difficult terrain it “floats” like on a foam cushion, retaining the limousine highway ride comfort (no truck like noises, nothing rough or spartan), and at the same time it has both solid rear and front axles, crucial for wheel articulation and terrain capability, that only the toughest, “old school” offroaders have nowadays.
  3. Both it’s budget Quadra Trac and the advanced Quadra Drive 4×4 systems perform remarkably well in bad traction conditions, far better than other vehicles without lockers, and even on par with vehicles equipped with lockers in many situations – they just keep moving forward, until the moment they hang on their diffs with wheels spinning in the air! And these systems are “idiot friendly”, so there’s nothing you can screw up by your ignorance – it simply delivers the best it can no matter if you use high or low range.
  4. It gives you the ease of use of an automatic transmission, and enables the layed back, relaxed driving style, so uncommon in most other truck-like, manual-transmission-only, “proven” offroaders.
  5. It’s a relatively compact (overall length not exceeding 4.7 m) and lightweight (around 2.1 ton) vehicle with good approach, departure and breakover angles, giving it decent manouverability.
WJ on the rocks

But what about the reliability and maintenance costs?

Lets dismiss a myth – there is no such thing as an “unbreakable, 100% reliable vehicle”. You can’t say such thing even for Toyota, the “god” of offroaders. The endurance of a vehicle is directly proportional to the amount of abuse it gets over time. Some tend to have more solid built parts than others, but those more solid parts also tend to be quite much more expensive, so in the end it all rounds up to whether you want to pay 100 € for a part and change it once a year, or you prefer to pay 500 € for an equivalent part, and change it once every five years.

Yes, even the “more solidly” built vehicles need maintenance sometimes, but it’s not so obvious to those who use them for a vacation lasting several weeks every year, and then let it rest parked in the yard until next season. You rather realize that only when you use the vehicle as an offroad workhorse all year long, as I do professionally guiding overlanding tours. So you simply can’t get away from regular maintenance if you’re regularly using an offroader in offroad conditions. You just have to get used to going to a garage (at least for inspection) every month or two. Period.

In that aspect, I could describe the Grand Cherokee as an offroader that needs average maintenance, and a vehicle that you have to get to know in order to sense when a component is approaching the end of it’s lifecycle and premeptively replace it, to save yourself some nasty surprises on the trail. However, as an “old school” constructed vehicle with solid axles and more mechanical than electronic parts, it’s also a very forgiving vehicle, where you can sense the wear of components months before they actually must be replaced – just like on any other solid axle / purely mechanical suspension offroader. You just need to know it’s weak points to make the experience more relaxed and satisfactory.

Why the 2.7 CRD?

Every engine type on the WJ has it’s own specifics, but I’ll concentrate on what you should expect if you choose a Mercedes 2.7 litre common rail diesel engine, which is, in my opinion, the best choice for the WJ for several reasons:

  1. Low fuel consumption
  2. Great torque / power curve (ideal for offroading)
  3. More durable than most other engine choices

Do not let someone trick you into buying a WJ with a 3.1 litre VM engine, because it’s an absolute disaster, in every aspect – weaker and less dependable, you’d just be burried in a workshop with it. So get a 2.7 litre CRD, which was produced between 2002. and 2004. and you’ll have many years of hassle free performance.

How many kilometres on the odometer is not too much? That has still to be established. But the very same, 5-cylinder in-line diesel engine running in Mercedes vehicles easily exceeds 500.000 km (mine is at 320.000 km and running like a young boy). So I don’t think it’s any worse than the Toyota 4.2 litre engines selling with 500-600.000 km for biiiig money… Maybe just a bit more sensitive to diesel quality, since it has a common rail injection system.

The weak points of the WJ (2.7 CRD)

Of course WJ has it’s weak points, and it’s important to know them to spare yourself from some nasty surprises. I’ll try to address them one by one.

  1. The major weakness of the WJ is the fact that it’s suspension, axles, rods, bearings, joints, bushings and other underbody parts are not really intended for serious offroading, so they don’t last long if you use them constantly offroad. However, the life cycle of every of those parts is quite predictable, and after a while you’ll know exactly when the time for replacement comes. And they’re dirt cheap, and easily available in Europe and USA (but not in Asia or Africa). For some components that wear more quickly, you might decide to use some more durable replacements (such as the polyurethane bushings, for example), in order not to have to service them too often.
  2. The PCB of the automatic gear shifter (situated right under the shifter in the middle console) is a component that most likely fails after 10+ years of operation. Luckily, you don’t have to pay big money to FCA for an “original” – aftermarket new ones (even better made than the “original”) can be ordered for as low as € 300.
  3. Somewhere between 200.000 and 300.000 km your injectors will need an overhaul. Luckily, they’re not piezzo injectors, so they’re simple and cheap to refurbish (depending on the country you come from, you can finish that for some 100 to 150 € per injector). And then you’re worry free for another 100-150.000 km.
  4.  The torque converter is rather less durable then the rest of it’s automatic transmission, so expect to need it replaced from time to time.
  5. The steering box is prone to failure when the vehicle is used in heavy offroad conditions (especially sensitive to hitting the wheels sideways). Watch if it’s leaking steering oil, and always have a replacement in your spare parts box, just in case.
  6. Automatic aircon is buggy, prone to getting the blowers stuck in hot position.  But there’s a simple trick to get them unstuck; just turn the temperature selector to HI for a few seconds, and then turn it back to your desired temperature – it will resume normal operation (manual aircon models are more reliable).
  7. The CV joints on the front driveshaft don’t last very long when used in offroad conditions, and, as they’re relatively expensive to replace (and hard to find in good quality), it’s sensible to replace the factory standard CV joint based front driveshaft with a non-standard, telescopic one, based on universal joints (cross-type joints).

Well that about depletes the list of major problems that you have to count on with the WJ. As I have more work every year and more need to have a 100% reliable vehicle all the time, I often think about what offroader to get in order to achieve that goal, but after considering the prices, and weak points of the competitors, I always conclude that the most budget friendly option would be to get another WJ 2.7 CRD to serve as a backup vehicle . Simply getting ANYTHING else would cost a whole lot more money to start with, and could not be justified by the minor endurance and reliability gains that it could possibly bring me (and many of those would mean accepting some kinds of compromise that I’d rather avoid accepting).

But isn’t it better to buy a new car?

I hope I’ve helped some aspiring overlanders with making their vehicle choice by writing this article.  Some people think that (when money is not a concern) it’s always better to choose a new, instead of a used vehicle for ovelanding, believing that no used vehicle can match the reliability level of a new one. To some extent that may be true, but keep in mind that, if you buy a new vehicle and use it in serious offroading conditions for most of the kilometres driven, it will not retain the reliability level of a new vehicle very long. In such conditions, already after having driven some 50.000 km many components will enter their used vehicle replacement cycles, and you should know that for newer vehicles spare parts tend to be much, much more expensive than for the older ones, so your overall maintenance costs can be much higher than those for an older generation vehicle.

Another factor to consider is that modern cars are, in most cases, just not as tough and really built for endurance in offroad conditions like the older models (there are very few exceptions to this). Most models have way too much electronics and things that could potentially break down, which you simply can’t fix in a wilderness environment without expensive diagnostics and a fully equipped workshop. So please think twice is it really a good investment to buy a new overlanding vehicle, or just a senseless waste of money that would gain you nothing but frustration in the long run.

A fully featured expedition vehicle to get you ANYWHERE

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