Old vs New: Does The 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L REALLY Improve On The Best Grand Cherokee Over Made?

The second-generation Grand Cherokee WJ was hugely popular, but can the WL build an even greater reputation?

JeepJeep Grand Cherokee WL vs WJ
The Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ was a major seller, but this new WL takes the SUV into a bold new technological era. (Image: TFLcar)

Just how much has the Jeep Grand Cherokee changed in the past two decades?

This week, we have the brand new 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L at our HQ. We tested out its off-road chops, as you would with any new Jeep, but there’s another question we wanted to sort out. Just how much has the Grand Cherokee evolved from, say, the old 1999 – 2004 WJ generation? We just happened to buy one of those very models, a 2001 that’s stood the test of time (or perhaps weathered is more appropriate). In this video, Tommy takes a look at this old Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo against the brand new, three-row Grand Cherokee Overland to see if the new car is set to become the best version — ever.

2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L
While it has a new body, the 2021 Jeep Grand Cherokee L carries over the same engines as before at launch. (Images: Jeep)

The engines

Back in the old days, you had a few different options when it came to powertrains on the Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ. First up is the old warhorse you saw in the 4.0-liter straight-six. That’s an engine that’s been well-proven for its dependability, if not for its out and out performance or fuel efficiency. While the first-generation ZJ had a couple different V8 options throughout its life, the second-generation brought in a fairly potent 4.7-liter (287 cubic inch) PowerTech motor. The one we have puts out 235 horsepower and 295 lb-ft of torque, while a “High Output” version available from 2002 to 2004 managed 265 horsepower and 325 lb-ft of torque. Really, that’s not too far down on today’s Grand Cherokee, though we’ve clearly moved on from the old 4-speed automatic that came in the earlier examples.

Unlike the new car, the old Grand Cherokee WJ uses a solid front and rear axle, much like the current Wrangler. It also brought in the automatic ‘Quadra-Drive’ four-wheel drive option. That’s an option we’ve seen carried forward, although obviously refined, to this current Grand Cherokee WL Overland, while there are also a few other four-wheel drive system options depending on which trim you get.

As far as propulsion on the new version, we see the same engines carry over from the old WK2. You can either get the 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 with 290 horsepower and 257 lb-ft of torque, or the 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with 360 horsepower and 390 lb-ft of torque. In either case, the engine mates up to a modern 8-speed automatic transmission.

If you can wait a bit, there is a plug-in hybrid 4xe model coming, Jeep just announced this week. At launch, though, just the two familiar engines are available.

Jeep has gone to enormous lengths to improve its interior with the WL model, and it’s night and day against what Chrysler offered two decades ago.

Then there’s the interior

Even after more than 225,000 miles, the 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee WJ holds up well, not just under the hood but also inside the car as well. Naturally, the interior’s far more basic than Jeep’s bringing to the table with the new model. Here, you get manual climate controls, a CD stereo system, heated seats, a couple 12-volt outlets and that’s about it. The new Grand Cherokee, on the other hand, features a brand new infotainment system, digital gauge cluster, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, and a wide range of tech features and driver assistance systems.

There are still the “Laredo” and “Limited” trims here, as there were on the old Grand Cherokee. This time around, though, there are a few other options in between, like this Overland, as well as the Summit and Summit Reserve. This particular car comes out to an eye-watering $67,000, though you can get a new Grand Cherokee even more expensive than that should you pick the fully-loaded Summit Reserve. Back in 2001, the old WJ generation with four-wheel drive started out around $30,000 — or about $45,000 today. Dollar for dollar, then, the new Grand Cherokee L isn’t terrible value, but if you go for the higher trims that price tag can add up quickly. Automatic climate control, heated and ventilated seats, air suspension, and so on — you can get a seriously luxurious family hauler compared to what was available in Jeep’s lineup 20 years ago.

Old vs. New: Jeep Grand Cherokee WL vs WJ driving impressions

With solid rear axles versus fully independent suspension, old V8 versus new V8 and the tech differences, the new car is a much more sumptuous proposition than its ancestor. Still (despite some beeping in the old WJ), the engine still seems to be holding up well, and the driving experience offers some worthwhile perspective against the whole crop of current, big family haulers.

Check out Tommy’s driving impressions and more in the video below: