What I'm Driving At: Just Ducky

In case you haven't noticed, there's always a lot of contention among sport/utility manufacturers regarding cargo space. There's a lot of qualifying of that space, as well. Do you measure it with seats folded, or unfolded? Is it "boxy" space with straight, square sides; or are there a lot of intrusions, such as a spare tire, that render the cargo hold better suited to storing a large volume of liquid?In my experience, it's fairly irrelevant to know, for example, that the Jeep Grand Cherokee Limited 5.9 will hold 40.9 cubic feet of cargo with the "rear seat up." More to the point is the knowledge that this SUV's cubic storage translates thus: four shotguns in their cases; four sets of chest-high, insulated waders; four manly-man-sized sportsman gear bags; three military-surplus ammo boxes; a gadget bag full of all-you-could-ever-want-but-never-need hunting accessories; a tool box; jumper cables; assorted ropes & bungees; several towels; a cooler; and four huge goose-down parkas, with hoods, liners, and flaps, that resist any sort of orderly packing.Floor to rafter and wall to wall, this is the gear that fits into the back of Jeep's latest luxo-truck, and it's an impressive assemblage. It's also a perfectly opaque barrier to rearward vision through the back window -- a fact that inspires mild discomfort when you're driving what's billed as the world's fastest production sport/utility and wondering if old Smoky is knocking on your back door.For this year's pursuit of debauchery and ducks in exotic Stuttgart, Ark., the 5.9 Limited served as an apt and able symbol. Its "Bright Platinum" paint scheme (a.k.a. "Platinum Plus"?), its exclusive 16-inch "Ultra Star" wheels, and its $38,900 price tag somehow seemed appropriate to a quartet of careerists who envision themselves irresistible quarry-hounds for one long and sleepless weekend each December. In other words, this top-of-the-line Jeep is meant to smooth the edges off of roughing it. There's a herd's worth of "calf's-nap grain leather" seating for enduring six hours of driving, dirty jokes, and faulty digestion. There's 180 watts of radio/cassette/CD stereo for making 10 speakers thump in their tubs -- perfect for listening to Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" on interminable repeat while driving at I'll-never-tell speeds, at night, with windows down, sunroof open. (Don't even bother asking....) There are two 12-volt accessory outlets up front for keeping a pair of cell phones powered and at-the-ready in case The Wife back home needs reminding to feed the dogs next morning.And then, there's that hood -- the one with the pair of functional, shark's-gill louvers on top and the earth-tremor rumble emanating from underneath. That's 245 galloping horsepower under them thar gills, and it's good for confirming that at least 92 percent of the speedometer's 125-mile-an-hour sweep is in good working order. Those 335 foot-pounds of gut-thumping torque, on the other hand, are enough to rate the reputed 7-second zero-to-60 times on which much of this vehicle's hype-factor is based. These speed feats are especially impressive, moreover, when considered in light of the Grand Cherokee's full-time Quadra-Trac four-wheel-drive system. Impressive as well are the 50 gallons of premium fuel and the $72 expended in pursuit of the wild outdoors. Our trip's average mileage of 14.5 miles-per-gallon fit comfortably, if expensively, within the published range of 13-city/17-highway.A tad less comfortable, perhaps, were the individual passengers on this trip. The driver, being this little racer-jockey type, was amply accommodated behind the wheel. There are 10-way adjusters for the two front captain's chair buckets; but when the former prep-star tight end in the front passenger seat racked back into the former prep-star nose guard, who in turn encroached sideways over onto the former prep-star right guard -- well, let's just say there was a bit more male bonding going on than originally contemplated.Between stints in the watering hole gang-blasting at ducks just after dawn and stints at the watering hole repping 12-ounce curls just after sunset, the Grand Cherokee had an opportunity to exhibit its idiosyncrasies. One clever feature that surely has other manufacturers thinking, "Why didn't we think of that!" is the "organizer" cover for the interior spare tire. The cover has expanding pockets and a mesh net on the outside to hold smaller items; underneath a large zippered flap, there's a substantial storage compartment that takes advantage of the depression made by the spare's wheel hub. Of course, one reason some of the other SUVs don't have such a handy accessory is that they've managed to stow their spares under the vehicle and out of the way.Behind the wheel and surrounded by every imaginable convenience, the driver is master of his domain. "How much farther, Daddy?" is answered by a touch of a button on the trip computer overhead. Is Chumbawamba still Tubthumping too loud? Just turn it down -- and amaze your friends! -- with the remote radio controls hidden on the underside of the steering wheel. (The cruise control system occupies the front surface.) Wanna strike a pose on the road? Turn on the parking lights and fog lamps only, bypassing the headlights. The driver's seat is a virtual playground of gadgets.It's also the perch from which to survey some of the 5.9 Limited's shortcomings. Special "Wrangler HP, vertical serrated blackwall tires" are touted as on-and off-road capable; but their soft, flexible sidewalls favor comfort over precise handling so that the Grand Cherokee's tall ride height feels a bit wobbly and "stilty" at 'round-town speeds. Oddly, the tires are nothing but poised at, shall we say, upper-spectrum velocities; and for the vast majority of off-road terrain to and from the duck blind or country cabin, they are also more than capable.A trait that shows the Grand Cherokee's age somewhat is the steering bind that occurs during hard turning at slow speed. This is characteristic of older four-wheel-drive transfer cases that, like the Quadra-Trac system, are always engaged. Other manufacturers, however, have by now surpassed Jeep with full-time systems employing more articulate viscous couples. The result is better slow-speed steering feel, tighter turning radii, and none of that crabbing-lurching behavior when you're trying to bank, full-lock, into a tight parking spot.It was inevitable that something like Jeep's Grand Cherokee Limited 5.9 would come to be. Other manufacturers have staked reputable claims to being tougher, more luxurious, more expensive, or even more basic, so it was only a matter of time before someone would set their sights on being faster -- the fastest, in fact. Behold the muscle-car of the '90s, the SUV successor to the venerable Dodge 440 Hemi. From here, who knows where the sport/utility road will lead? From Stuttgart, Ark., on the other hand, the road leads back to yet another year of best behavior with family and colleagues, punctuated perhaps with an occasional nod and wink and furtive whisper.

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