The Jeep Grand Cherokee has been around for 26 model years, and of the many millions built, only a few hundred came with manual transmissions. One of them can be seen in this 1992 episode of MotorWeek, so get ready to feast your eyes on the greatest Grand Cherokee ever.
Oh yes, I said it. The greatest Jeep Grand Cherokee ever. The past two generations, both with platform names “WK,” have gotten softer, lacking solid axles and the approach and departure angles they need to be real off-road contenders (they’re much more comfortable, it’s worth noting). The WJ before those was decent, though it had a really low-mounted fuel tank, and was saddled by questionable Chrysler-built automatic transmissions (admittedly, the 4.7-liter came with a decent 45RFE or 545RFE).
And then there was the AMC-designed ZJ—the original Grand Cherokee that Bob Lutz drove up the steps of Cobo and through a pane of glass in 1992—which had potential to become just as legendary in the off-road world as its smaller brother, the XJ. But then, in 1993 and 1994, Chrysler made a boneheaded move: they changed the transmissions.
The first generation Grand Cherokee, when it launched for the 1993 model year, came with two unkillable gearboxes that have made the XJ a mainstay in the off-road world: the Aisin-Warner AW4 four-speed automatic and the lovely Aisin AX-15 five-speed manual.
But Chrysler dropped the stout AW4 after 1993 (I’m not entirely sure why, but I’d guess it either had to do with cost or shift quality, the latter of which the company wanted to make buttery smooth for its new luxury SUV), replacing it with the much less reliable Chrysler-built 42RE (V8 models had better transmission options, but nothing as stout as the AW4). The AX-15 was also taken off the option list during the 1994 model year.
Finding a 1993 model with the AW4 automatic isn’t that difficult (and a good way to tell if the Jeep has the “good trans” is to see if there’s a first gear lockout option on the shifter—the AW4 did not have one). But spotting a manual that isn’t a European diesel model has become borderline impossible. Rumor has it that only a few hundred were ever built, with Hemmings guessing a total production run of only 400.
That makes the Jeep in this video the holy grail of Grand Cherokees to enthusiasts. It’s got stick axles (admittedly, the rear axles on these weren’t know for their strength) with lots of articulation, good approach and departure angles, a great transfer case, one of the stoutest engines in history, and a tough and fun to shift transmission.
It’s essentially just an XJ Cherokee with a bit more space, coil springs for a little more ride comfort, and a cushier interior. It’s a reliable and capable Jeep, but not as rough around the edges as its younger brother, and that’s really what the Grand Cherokee was meant to be. (In fact, it was actually originally meant to be a replacement for the XJ).