(first posted 8/13/2015) Since its introduction, the Jeep Grand Cherokee has been an immensely successful vehicle and arguably Chrysler’s most valuable current nameplate in terms of prestige, brand equity, and profitability (behind only the Ram pickup, it was Chrysler’s best-selling vehicle in 2014). While Jeep has sold millions of Grand Cherokees in the popular Laredo and Limited guises since 1992, there have been numerous lesser known trims and special edition models to provide buyers with a bit more personalized experience, among them, the 1995-1997 Orvis Edition.
Through the years, many automakers have partnered up with famous fashion designers and retailers to offer special edition vehicles, most notably Lincoln’s Designer Series editions of its Mark Series personal luxury coupes. While these editions often vary in production numbers, from very limited to mass-produced, when effectively executed, they generate interest in vehicles that may already be popular, but have become overly commonplace. Of course, before special editions can be discussed, a vehicle must first make it into production, something the Grand Cherokee might have never seen the light of.
As far back as the early-1980s, sales of compact SUVs such as the Chevy S-Blazer, Ford Bronco II, and Jeep XJ-Cherokee, were already gaining momentum. These vehicles had broad appeal, were compact enough to fit in most garages, and conveyed greater “hipness” than any station wagon or van. They also were making strides to become more car-like in comfort and amenities, with AMC offering the first 4-door in this class – all things that unquestionably spawned their growing popularity.
SUVs were also an appealing product to produce for their automakers, as steep demand kept transaction prices high. Additionally, their classification as light trucks exempt them from the stricter fuel economy and safety standards which cars were subjected to. AMC likely would have died sooner had they not introduced the XJ Cherokee in 1983. In spite of this and Renault’s investment, the automaker was still greatly struggling and in need of a white knight to save (or salvage) it.
Having noticed the profitability and greater potential in the XJ Cherokee, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, in one of his few less questionable moves, decided to buy out the struggling automaker, for a very good deal. Other existing Jeeps, AMC’s talented engineers (most notably François Castaing), and several other resources that would later prove valuable to Chrysler were merely sprinkles atop Lee’s ice cream sundae. The fact that AMC had already planned the more powerful 4.0L inline-6, newer 4-speed automatic, and the luxurious Limited model for the XJ’s 1987 model year was the cherry on top.
As valuable an asset as the Cherokee was, there was something even grander in the AMC pipeline that Chrysler was salivating over – the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Although the XJ was an instant hit and selling quite well, almost immediately AMC was already thinking ahead, envisioning a successor that was larger and more luxurious, as well as more car-like in refinement compared to both the XJ and elderly SJ Grand Wagoneer. Work on this project began as early as 1983, with famed designer Larry Shinoda completing a clay model that would bear a striking resemblance to the production model for AMC in 1985.
At the time of the buyout, development for the Grand Cherokee was already well underway, and in fact near completion. The Jeep Concept 1 vehicle was shown in 1989, looking very similar to the ultimate production model. AMC had originally planned the vehicle for a 1990 launch, however its roll-out was delayed by several factors. Upon review in 1989, Chrysler (likely at Lido’s insistence) demanded that the proposed interior be completely redesigned before the vehicle was green-lighted for production. Additionally, with the refresh of Chrysler’s aging minivans deemed a top priority, the automaker simply did not have the resources to devote to both vehicles at once.
Regardless, when the Grand Cherokee finally debuted in 1992, it couldn’t have arrived at a better time. The U.S. was just getting over a mini-recession largely spurred by the Gulf War, station wagons were dead, minivans were no longer hip, and SUV fever was fully under way, fueled by new wave of “compact” SUVs including Ford’s Explorer. The Grand Cherokee was the perfect vehicle for SUV-thirsty Americans (among others) to ride out the remaining peaceful, prosperous, and cheap-priced gas years of the 1990s.
In comparison to the XJ Cherokee it was intended to replace, the ZJ Grand Cherokee brought numerous increases in the areas of size, performance, safety, luxury, comfort, technology, and overall refinement. Dimension-wise, the ZJ rode on a 4.5-inch longer wheelbase, and was eight inches longer overall with four-inch wider rear doors for easier access. Interior-wise, the Grand Cherokee offered three inches more front-shoulder room, five more inches rear-hip room, and nearly 7.5 additional cubic feet of cargo space.
All Grand Cherokees came with a multi-link front- and rear-suspension and QuadraCoil solid axle, which along with the Grand Cherokee’s unibody construction (something most competitors lacked), gave the vehicle a trifecta of greater comfort, performance, and off-road capability. A heavier-duty “Up-Country” suspension was also option, standard on Orvis Editions. Four-wheel drive was not standard, but nonetheless was found in one of several forms on most ZJs produced.
Four-wheel drive initially came in either the part-time Command-Trac or Selec-Trac systems, the latter of which permitted “4Hi” mode on pavement. A permanent full-time AWD system, Quadra-Trac was also available on higher-end models. Power came in the form of the same 4.0L inline-6 found in the XJ and dating back to the AMC days. Initially making 190 horsepower (45 more than the Exlporer’s 4.0L) and 225 pound-foot of torque for best-in-class 6-cylinder power, Chrysler revised this engine for quieter operation and more low-end torque for towing in 1996, with horsepower and torque losses of five each.
Mid-way through the Grand Cherokee’s inaugural year, a 5.2L Magnum V8 became available on Laredo and higher trims, boasting 225 horsepower and 285 (later increased to 300) pound-foot of torque. For 1998 only, a 5.9L version of the Magnum V8 appeared as part of a special package on the Grand Cherokee Limited, bringing with it 245 horsepower and 345 pound-foot of torque, and making for a zero-to-sixty acceleration time of under seven seconds.
The Jeep Grand Cherokee brought with it a host of other advancements and features that easily made the ZJ the most refined SUV on the market short of the ultra-luxury Range Rover. As a matter of fact, in some ways, the Jeep was an even more refined vehicle.
At the time of introduction in April 1992, Grand Cherokees were initially available in base, mid-range Laredo, and luxurious Limited trim, the latter two of which have remained Grand Cherokee trims to this day. Within these trim levels, equipment levels greatly varied, as numerous packages and standalone options were available. Externally, these models were far more easily identifiable.
Limiteds bore a monochromatic scheme, with body-colored bumpers and grooved lower body cladding, along with gold paintstriping and lower trim. Laredos sported gray polymer bumpers and cladding, with black-accent lower trim and paintstripes that varied by exterior color. The base mode also featured gray polymer bumpers, but it had a darker gray upper portion with bright trim that mimicked the side trim. Base Grand Cherokees’ grilles were gray plastic, and they lacked lower body cladding.
While Laredo and Limited trims were the volume leaders, over the course of the ZJ’s run, several special edition models appeared, adding some additional flair. The first of these was the 1993-only Grand Wagoneer. Equipped identically to a Limited, the Grand Wagoneer honored its long-running ancestor with woodgrain exterior siding. ZJ Grand Wagoneers proved unpopular, and the trim was hastily discontinued after just a nod over 6,000 examples produced.
Several other special edition appeared over the years, including the TSi, which sought to bring some much belated unity between the Jeep and Eagle brands, and the 5.9 Limited made a performance vehicle out of the Grand Cherokee, packing a 5.9L V8 under its hood. Among the most interesting of these was the Orvis Edition that was sold from 1995 to 1997.
Partnering with the high-end outdoors clothing and equipment retailer, the Orvis Edition was Jeep’s answer to the Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer Edition. Using the Grand Cherokee Limited as its starting point, all of the 10,020 Orvis Editions produced for 1995 were finished in Moss Green with Roan Red and Maize (gold) accents. The Limited’s spiral cast alloy wheels (swapped out for Laredo wheels on this example) were retained, but were finished in Moss Green on their insides. A more piney-shade of green would’ve made this Jeep look very Christmas Tree-like in your author’s opinion.
Additionally, the 1995 Orvis Edition previewed two changes that would come to all Grand Cherokees in 1996. First, larger Chrysler-font “Grand Cherokee” badging replaced the AMC-stylized badging on front doors. “Orvis Edition” badging was naturally present on this model too. Secondly, the 1995 Orvis Edition made available an opening rear liftgate glass as an option.
All Orvis Editions used the Limited’s standard Highland Grain leather interior, but in a two-tone champagne and green combination, with red piping on the seats. Faux woodgrain accents on the dash and doors were carried over from the Limited, with green leather door inserts and special badging. The trunk-located spare tire also gained a special color-keyed cover with the Orvis logo and storage pockets.
Both the 4.0L I6 and 5.2L V8 were available, as were all other Grand Cherokee Limited features. The Limited’s optional Quadra-Trac all-wheel drive, Up Country suspension, and trailer tow prep came standard on Orvis Editions. Considering that the Orvis Edition was mainly a decor package, with no real unique features beyond color scheme, it retailed for a mere $663 over the base price of a regular Limited model in 1995.
Changes to the Orvis Edition over the next two years would largely follow the rest of the Grand Cherokee line. New bumpers and lower cladding came to the Orvis in 1996, in the process losing its red exterior trim. New alloy wheels mimicked the Limited’s new design.
Inside, the interior was completely redesigned for 1996, with new instrument and door panels. Seats also sported a new design, with the Orvis Edition continuing to offer its standard green and tan (now as darker shade) leather seats with red piping. Overall, the new interior was cleaner and more modern looking, but somehow came across as cheaper, with plastics and upholstery that didn’t look nor feel as premium in your author’s opinion.
The already limited-production of the Orvis Edition would decrease significantly after 1995, with just 2,341 produced for ’96 and 2,733 for ’97. For 1997, a second exterior color was added, but other than that, the Orvis Edition carried over largely unchanged. 1997 would prove to be the last year for the Orvis, as Jeep ended their agreement with Orvis, thus forgoing the rights to use their name. The decidedly different 5.9 Limited model would be added for 1998, succeeding the Orvis Edition as the top-rung Grand Cherokee.
Despite just a nod over 15,000 Orvis Editions produced, as a whole, the ZJ Grand Cherokee was an immensely successful model that helped define what we’ve come to expect in a modern SUV. With global production levels over a quarter-million units for each of the ZJ’s six model years, totaling 1,647,188 units overall, the ZJ Grand Cherokee provided some much welcomed cash flow to the seemingly always-just-a-few-years-from-disaster Chrysler.
Although the SUV and the automaker haven’t had the smoothest journey over the past two decades, the Grand Cherokee’s strong brand equity has nonetheless remained a key asset to Chrysler. With the significantly improved fourth generation (WK2), the Grand Cherokee is back on the trail of prestige and high sales, playing a significant role in restoring Chrysler to profitability. Over the years, various special edition Grand Cherokees have appeared, but none have been quite as colorful as the Orvis Edition – the car for those who wanted to stand out when everyone else owned an Explorer Eddie Bauer.