I realize I am The Boy Who Cried “Holy Grail,” but trust me this time. This 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee is the real elixir of life! The chalice of immortality. The sacred cup of youth. It is so rare and so bizarre, I simply cannot forgo writing an article about it. So please click this and read, even if it is out of pity for my clearly delusional love of base-model ZJ Jeep Grand Cherokees.
For years, I’ve been celebrating the “holy grail” Jeep Grand Cherokee as one of the most underappreciated heroes of the Jeep world. The vehicle offers all of the reliability and off-road prowess of the Jeep Cherokee XJ that everyone knows and loves, but adds much cushier and more durable seats, a smoother coil-sprung rear suspension, and a quieter ride thanks to aerodynamic design considerations that were clearly ignored on the XJ.
And yet, very few appreciate the ZJ Grand Cherokee, in large part because the non-holy-grail versions that made up 99.9 percent of production were not particularly reliable. The biggest achilles heal that ruined the ZJ’s reputation? Its Chrysler-sourced transmissions.
But, as I’ve been saying for years, if you can find a ZJ without a Chrysler transmission, then you’ve got one of the greatest Jeeps of all time. You’ve already heard about the five-speed Aisin-built AX-15 manual transmission found on only a few thousand 1993 and 1994 models (and, legend has it, a couple of 1995s, though I haven’t been able to confirm this). But there was another excellent, rare transmission offered prior to the proliferation of the unreliable Chrysler automatic transmissions. It was available only in the first half of the first model year, 1993, so it’s quite hard to come by.
It’s called the AW4, short for Aisin-Warner four-speed. A joint project between Aisin Seiki and BorgWarner, this transmission is the same one found in the XJ, and it’s in the same family as the Toyota A-Series transmissions found in millions of Toyota Land Cruisers. Suffice it to say: The AW4 is unstoppable, and lasts as long or longer than the also-unstoppable 4.0-liter AMC inline-six that was standard on Jeep Grand Cherokees up until 2005.
The way you can identify an AW4 in a 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee is by looking at the shifter. The AW4 did not allow for a first-gear lock, so the shifter’s lowest position isn’t “1" like it is on the Chrysler transmissions that were the only available autos starting in the second half of 1993. Instead, it reads “1-2" as seen here:
What makes the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee that reader Korby emailed me so special is that it not only comes with the death-proof AW4, but it’s a base model. And I do mean base model.
Back in February, I bought what I thought was the most bare-bones Grand Cherokee left in the world — the 1993 model shown on the left in the picture above. It has crank windows and manual locks, manual seats, a manual transmission — hell, it doesn’t even have grab handles. Look at these block-off trim pieces:
And instead of power mirrors (which the crank window/manual lock-equipped 1994 base model that I bought in May has. That’s the red one in the middle of my fleet picture above) it has this block-off:
But Korby’s green 1993 ZJ takes “base model” to the next level. Notice the lack of an air conditioning button on his climate control switchgear. Here’s how both of my “base model” (which I’m now realizing may as well be a Rolls Royces) Jeeps’ center stacks look:
Here’s another look at Korby’s:
But that’s not all. Look at the steering wheel in Korby’s image. Notice how it looks like textured plastic. Here’s another look (it’s not a great picture, but you get the idea):
Both of my “base model” ZJs have leather-wrapped wheels that look like this, and both feature cruise control buttons (Korby’s Jeep does not have cruise):
But it gets wilder. Korby’s Jeep doesn’t even have rear window defrost! Here’s one of my “base model”:
And here’s Korby’s true base model:
But that’s not all. Korby’s Jeep is the very first Grand Cherokee that I have ever seen without a center console. Here’s how all of my Jeeps look (ignore the wood trim and aftermarket stereo that the previous owner put in. Also, the center console cubby lid should be gray and not black):
And here’s Korby’s:
Look at that little cubby! And it’s not even connected to the shifter-surround; there’s carpet showing in between. Plus, there’s not even a center armrest for either front occupant!
This Jeep is special. It has an unkillable engine and transmission, and very, very few electronics to go bad. Plus, it only has 63,400 miles on the odometer and no rust. If properly maintained, Korby could probably drive this Jeep for the rest of his life without having to conduct any major repairs. Ever. He might have to swap a crankshaft position sensor and an O2 sensors every 10 years, but that’s about it.
What’s amazing is that this Jeep shouldn’t really exist. The Grand Cherokee was an upmarket version of the Cherokee XJ. At the time, very few buyers were interested in buying a ZJ without AC, tinted windows, rear defrost, or a center console. A Grand Cherokee with manual windows, manual locks, manual seats, manual mirrors, steel wheels, and base exterior door moulding just wasn’t alluring; why would it be if customers could get a decked-out XJ for the same price?
Jeep realized this, so it quickly cranked up the standard content on ZJs, and by 1995, you really couldn’t get a true “stripper” ZJ anymore. If I had to guess, the only reason such a stripper model ever made it to production was to get the entry price down. Automakers are known to do this: They offer a decontented model that they won’t send to any dealers unless a customer specifically orders it solely because it allows the brand to advertise a lower entry price. It’s a classic move, and it means that very, very few stripper models exist.
Korby emailed me this message yesterday:
It was suggested that I contact you for Some information / Recommendations regarding a jeep I recently acquired. One owner car my son found for sale in Walgreens parking lot. We purchased it to make into a off-road Rockcrawler but after seeing how clean it is thinking it might be somewhat rare ?
After I told him that indeed, this thing is special thanks in part to that unstoppable transmission, he responded by asking:
Is it rare enough to leave stock and find another one to build up to use off road / hunting / light crawling ?
This is a tough question for me. A few years ago, I wrote an article titled One Thing I Can’t Stand About Off-Road Culture: Hacking Up Perfectly Good Trucks. And while I believe someone who owns a car can do with it what they please, I stand by that story. Some bits of automotive history should be preserved for the good of car culture, and not hacked up to later inevitably be junked.
This Jeep has such high potential to be a good daily driver solely because of its reliability, but at the same time, it also has tremendous potential as an off-roader thanks to its lack of options, meaning there’s less to break and the vehicle is as light as a ZJ can possibly be.
I think the move is to modify it lightly. Throw a three-inch lift on it along with some 31-inch all-terrains. Outfit it with some skid plates, and have fun. I wouldn’t hack anything up or even trim any bumpers/fenders — I’d just throw a small lift and 31s on. Because in reality, these Jeeps are incredibly capable even when mildly modified. If he wants something to really beat on, though, I don’t think this is the Jeep for that. There are enough battered and bruised ZJs out there. Why beat this one up? In the end, it will be Korby’s choice.