It's widely accepted that Jeep invented what we think of as the modern SUV. Domestic automakers have all offered various forms of 4x4s since nearly the beginning of the automobile, but the Jeep Cherokee, introduced in 1984, was the first to envision a 4x4 as a comfortable, family-friendly conveyance, an all-road-capable alternative to the station wagon.
The Grand Cherokee, introduced in 1992, took that notion even further. Larger and more luxurious than the Cherokee, this was the vehicle that helped establish the SUV as the family vehicle of choice, a trend that has shown no sign of subsiding.
But did you know the Grand Cherokee also invented the high-performance SUV?
This notion comes to mind today thanks to , wherein he reviews a 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited. This rare, one-year-only variant of the ZJ featured a 5.9-liter Magnum V8 kicking out 245 horses and 345 lb-ft of torque—big numbers for the day. With a full-time four-wheel drive system and a full slate of luxury options, this top-spec Grand Cherokee could do 0-60 in 6.8 seconds, making it the quickest-accelerating SUV on the market at the time.
It was a formula so simple, it makes you wonder why nobody else had come up with it at the time. Chrysler stuffed its muscular pickup truck engine in its extremely popular luxury SUV, slapped on some hood vents and a custom grille and wheels, and was off to the races. At auto shows that year, the 5.9 appeared on Jeep's stand with its front end spattered in . (At the time, an attendant at the Jeep stand told me the fake mud was made out of, among other things, oatmeal.)
And yes, before you stomp off to write a letter to the editor, I am aware of the GMC Typhoon and Lamborghini LM002. Both predated the Grand Cherokee 5.9 (the Lamborghini came out in 1986; the GMC debuted six years later). Both were undoubtedly influential vehicles—who can forget when and found the turbo truck could walk away from the scarlet supercar?
But the GMC Typhoon was an extremely limited production vehicle, just under 5000 built. Its slammed ride height and two-door-only body style meant it was a specialty vehicle for GM performance nerds, not something you'd buy as an all-weather family hauler. As for the Lamborghini, so few of them were built, it's a wonder we even know what they look like.
The Grand Cherokee 5.9 was the first time an automaker offered a muscled-up version of a "normal" SUV. It followed the sport sedan recipe: Aggressive performance in an unremarkable wrapper, a sneaky fast ride that looks, to the uninitiated, like just another family car.
The Germans recognized the power of this segment. The Porsche Cayenne Turbo and BMW X5 M made high-performance SUVs a competitive market segment. The second-generation Grand Cherokee didn't offer a muscle version, but the third-gen introduced the Grand Cherokee SRT. Today, you can even get one with a 707-hp Hellcat engine.
They all owe their existence to the 1998 SUV that started it all: The Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited. Its performance may no longer put it at the top of the SUV heap, but without it none of them would have been possible.