(It was almost two years ago that I wrote my very first piece here at Curbside Classic on my mom’s 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee. I’ve often mentioned the ’99 that replaced it and ultimately ended her relationship with Chrysler. Now it’s time that I share its story. FYI the first three photos and the very last are of her actual cars.)
In her forty-something years of driving, my mom has owned a diverse range of vehicles. She’s had cars from three different continents, and owned at least one convertible, coupe, sedan, SUV, and CUV throughout her driving career. Although there have been exceptions, my mom usually purchases a new car every three to five years. In the spring of 1999, with her navy ’94 Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo having been paid off and approaching five years of age, she began looking for a new car.
She didn’t look far, as she went right back to Gary, the salesman who sold her the ’94 at Central Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep-Eagle and bought another Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo. She’d been happy with the ’94 – it was comfortable, commanding, and confident, especially in the snow. Over the course of its five years, she’d had no major issues. The only major headache with it occurred when it was severely rear-ended by a larger pickup truck with a snow plow attachment at a yield sign in the summer of 1998.
I was only six then, and can’t recall if there were really any other cars Mom considered replacing the ’94 with. I do remember her looking at the Toyota 4Runner during the auto show, but she deemed it too cramped in comparison to the Jeep. What I do remember is the buying process. It was the first such time that I was present for this, as I was an infant when she bought her last car.
Given that I was only six, I don’t remember all the details, but in the end, Gary and the sales manager talked her into leasing over buying – something she had never done before and has never done since. There must have some incentive for the dealer and/or salespeople to get customers to lease. The smaller payments were probably what won my mom over.
Leasing is an attractive option for some people, but for others it just doesn’t make sense. My mom regretted it right away, and could never get past the feeling of making payments on a car she would never officially own at the end of the three-year term. Switching to leasing also eliminated the trade-in capital she had been steadily accumulating with every new and more expensive car she purchased. She walked out of there with a sour feeling that stuck with her through her four and a half-year tenure with the car.
As I mentioned, mom went with another Grand Cherokee Laredo. Despite being almost entirely new, the new model was very similar to the old, with virtually identical layout and dimensions. To me it felt very much the same – everything was just a bit more rounded. I tried hard to talk Mom into getting Flame Red, but she went for the more subdued Bright Platinum Metallic with Agate cloth interior. A big selling point of the Laredo for her was its gray plastic bumpers, which were much less susceptible to scratches and dings than the body-colored bumpers of the Limited. The Limited was also significantly pricier.
Chrysler often builds each trim level of a car to several different specifications (think “sub-trim levels”), each with a set of standard equipment. Her’s was a Laredo “E”, or the middle spec Laredo model. By today’s standards, it was equipped fairly primitive – keyless entry, power windows, power locks, manual air conditioning, cassette player, and overhead console with a mini info screen were its most prominent convenience features. Hard, hollow-sounding plastics were in abundance, and two thin strips of tacky plastiwood on the dash were the only non-black surfaces in the interior. Chrysler must have had to make use of leftover woodgrain that had been laying around since the 1978 New Yorker Brougham’s discontinuation.
About a year into her lease was when she started having issues with the front rotors. It was right around 12,000 miles when the first warped rotors were replaced under warranty. This was a very common issue that plagued all 1999 through early 2002 Grand Cherokees. The rotor warping was actually caused by poorly centered opened-faced brake calipers. The problem was not addressed by Chrysler until 2002, which meant that the faulty calipers continued to warp each new set of rotors installed. In total, my mom’s Jeep went through five sets of front rotors – the original plus four replacements. Each replacement warped before its 36,000-mile warranty, so it was never a financial issue. Nonetheless, all those trips to the dealer for the exact same problem and the constant concern associated with faulty brake components created a major headache.
Among some of the other issues and irritants I can recall was the faulty coolant sensor that would cause the “Low Engine Coolant” warning to flash on the overhead vehicle info screen several times a month, despite adequate levels of antifreeze. The rear inner door seals each popped out at the corners, and would keep falling out in after being pushed back in. This made for elevated road and wind noise, as well as the allowance of small amount of water to enter in heavy rain or when going through the car wash.
With her lease ending soon, Mom began looking for a new car in early 2002. She was initially intrigued by the new Jeep Liberty, which she described in her own words as “cute”. She test drove one, but among several dissatisfactions, the near-vertical windshield and short dash gave her the sensation of having her face pressed up against the glass. I also went with her to test drive the then-new Saturn VUE. Reeking of cheapness inside and out, it too was crossed off the list. Mom also went to look at the Ford Explorer, but found it too truck-like compared to her Grand Cherokee.
With nothing really out there that to catch her fancy, and time running out, she came to the decision to buy-out the three-year old Grand Cherokee at the end of her lease. Between the lease and the buy-out, the total amount of money that went to owning the car ended up being significantly more than if she had just financed it back in 1999 – another source of frustration.
It was after this that the Jeep was subsequently involved in two accidents – one my mom’s fault, one another driver’s. In summer 2002, we were in stop-and-go traffic when a teenage girl in a Taurus rear-ended the Jeep. The low Taurus went up underneath the higher Grand Cherokee, and actually pushed-in the gas tank (which she discovered next time she filled up). The following autumn, she backed into a telephone pole inconveniently located at the end of my friend’s driveway (the exact one is pictured above via Google Earth). Extensive and costly damage was done to the rear-quarter panel.
In the end, the second Jeep Grand Cherokee was a less than enjoyable experience. While she still liked the car itself, after four and a half-years, the Jeep had become a source of too many headaches and unpleasant memories. By autumn 2003, she seriously began looking again, with two prospects on her list: the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. The Toyota’s more car-like interior won her over, and just before New Years, she purchased a 2004 Toyota Highlander Limited – a car that was the source of much more positive memories, and the vehicle that ultimately became my first car.