Jeep Wranglers are really awesome, but they are super expensive. If you want something budget oriented an XJ Cherokee is a great option, but what if you want some more luxurious than an XJ, but cheaper than a Wrangler? Enter the ZJ Grand Cherokee.
The Grand Cherokee has been Jeep’s most luxurious option for quite a while now, but it has also earned quite the reputation for being a good off-road rig. You can often find them pretty cheap on Craigslist and in this short guide, we’re going to cover what you need to look for when buying a ZJ.
Which Engine do You Want?
Luckily the ZJ is young enough that it never had to deal with the Renix 4.0-liter engine and its terrible wiring harness. The standard 4.0-liter H.O. found in the ZJ is one of the best Jeep engines ever made. We’ve praised it in many of our Jeep related articles for being one of the most reliable engines on earth.
Because the ZJ was heavier than most Jeeps, the 4.0L was a little underpowered in the ZJ chassis. Because of this, many of the ZJ Grand Cherokees produced came with a 5.2-liter V8. This engine makes more horsepower and more torque while still being extremely reliable. It’s not as bulletproof as the 4.0-liter, but it’ll put many other engines to shame.
If you get really lucky you may be able to find a ZJ with the 5.9-liter V8. These models were only made in 1998 and not very many of them were made so finding one of these may be pretty difficult. The only problem with all this horsepower is that the tiny factory axles may start to fail. Basically, you can’t go wrong with the 4.0-liter, but most ZJs have the 5.2-liter which is also good.
Just like any other Jeep, the ZJ is known for some common problems. Many of these problems are fairly easy to fix and can be used as leverage during the negotiation process. There are a couple issues, like the transfer case, which can be fairly difficult to replace.
The most common engine oil leaks on the 4.0L engine are the rear main seal, oil pan gasket, valve cover gasket, and the oil filter adapter gasket. The most common engine oil leaks on the 5.2-liter and 5.9-liter engines are the rear main seal, valve cover gaskets, and the oil pressure sending unit. Most of these leaks are fairly easy to diagnose and repair, but the rear main seal can be a multi-day repair.
The ZJ Grand Cherokee was available with the NP242 transfer-case which used Jeeps full-time 4WD system. This is great for driving in snowy conditions, but this system uses more moving parts than an NP231 which results in more failures. It is pretty common for the t-case shifting linkages to get stuck, preventing you from shifting into a different drive mode. Many people end up blowing up their NP242 and just swapping to the much simpler, part-time 4WD NP231.
Death wobble is a fairly common issue that can theoretically occur on any solid front axle vehicle. Unfortunately, it’s obnoxiously common on Jeeps most due to their suspension geometry. When you test drive the Jeep you’re looking at buying get it up to 35-50 MPH and see if any violent shaking begins to occur. Typically the lower track bar bolt is the culprit to this problem, but there are many other issues that can cause death wobble.
Other common issues include: rear hatch getting stuck closed, alarm system failure, broken auto dimming rear view mirror, rear wiper motor failure, and the cooling system being insufficient.
Common Rust Spots
Unfortunately, ZJs rust fairly easily and unless you live in the desert pretty much every ZJ you find will have a little bit of rust. The lower parts of the doors and rocker panels are pretty common spots for rust. The bottom of the hatch can rust causing it to be hard to open. Unlike the XJ Cherokee, the ZJ isn’t prone tor used floors. If you find a ZJ with heavy rust on the frame we recommend staying away from it.
Obviously, you want to make sure there aren’t any super weird noises or handling characteristics when you test drive the ZJ. There are plenty of them out there so don’t be afraid to walk away if you feel the owner is hiding issues from you. Beat up ZJs can be bought for around $1,000 and nice ones go for $3,000 or more.