Before the first Jeep Grand Cherokee drove up the stairs and through a giant glass window at the 1992 Detroit Auto Show, a dramatic entrance for a vehicle that generated huge interest at the time, Jeep had previously shown off the Concept 1. The Concept 1’s lines were a direct preview of the “ZJ” Grand Cherokee to come, but that wasn’t the intent at the time. This was supposed to be the next Cherokee.
Jeep wanted its next Cherokee to be roomier, with greater passenger comfort and cargo space. They also wanted to update the Cherokee’s appearance, with a smoother and more elegant look. The XJ Cherokee is a cult classic now, but by the late ’80s it was simply a boxy SUV starting to age. The Concept 1, using the same unibody architecture underneath, brought a lot more sophistication and modernity to the basic idea. There aren’t a lot of photos of this concept floating around, but we found this archival video that shows the Concept 1 from all angles, and in motion.
After building the Concept 1, Jeep had a “why not both?” moment, and decided that it could complement (rather than supplant) the XJ Cherokee. Launched with the venerable 4.0-liter inline-six, the “ZJ” Grand Cherokee quickly came into its own and was further differentiated from the Cherokee with its available V-8 engines: a 5.2-liter unit at first, and later a powerful 5.9-liter. Quick for a vehicle in its class, the 5.9-liter Grand Cherokee set the tone for quick Grand Cherokees to follow, like the later Hemi-powered SRT8 models. And at launch, it was such a watershed it became our 1993 Truck of the Year.
The transition from Concept 1 to ZJ Grand Cherokee was fairly wholesale, but some important details changed. The door handles changed style, the very interesting quad auxiliary lights in the bumper fell by the wayside, and the body cladding changed slightly, no longer running up into the top of the wheel arches. The completely flush side glass, which hides the pillars, made way for more conventional windows. And the smoked headlight covers didn’t make it, either, although the aftermarket could certainly help ZJ owners out if they want to replicate that particular look.
The rear bumper and tailgate also differed from the final product. But show this show property to any Jeeper and they’d recognize it instantly as a ZJ Grand Cherokee. It does make us wonder what might have happened if this had actually become the Cherokee, rather than the Grand Cherokee. Would it have ever gotten a V-8? Would the go-fast Jeeps exemplified by the current Trackhawk ever have happened? Who knows, but we think Jeep made the right call.