AMC Jeep is high on luxury but low on fuel mileage

By , Charles E. Dole is the Monitor's automotive editor.

The snow came down hard last night, leaving 10 inches or more on the ground by the time I left for work. Was I concerned about getting to the job on time? Or at all? Not with a Jeep Grand Wagoneer sitting in the driveway. All I did was make a path to the door of the super Jeep, clear the glass so I could see, start the engine, snap a dashboard switch into 4-wheel drive, and pull onto the road.

In 4-wheel drive, I had no qualms about the 27-mile trip ahead. It was all in a day's work, and there was little excuse for not making it on time. The 4 -wheel-drive Jeep stuck to the road as if the ''white stuff'' were only a dream.

The American Motors Jeep Grand Wagoneer, once known as the Wagoneer Limited, is still the largest 4-wheel-drive wagon in the industry. Sharply lighter in weight for 1984, it is 21 inches shorter in overall length than the '83 version, 6 inches narrower in width, and 4 inches lower. Even so, according to American Motors Corporation, it still retains 90 percent of its predecessor's interior space and has even more cargo room.

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If smaller, it certainly is not more Spartan. The list of standard amenities runs on and on, including tinted glass, tilt steering wheel, and bucket seats up front, with a 6-way power adjustment for the driver's seat.

Jeep vehicles offer a choice of two 4-wheel-drive systems: Command-Trac, a synchronized system that incorporates ''shift-on-the-fly'' capability; and Selec-Trac, the carmaker's present system, which requires the motorist to bring the vehicle to a full stop before shifting from 2- to 4-wheel drive, or vice versa.

The high-luxury Grand Wagoneer is heavy - 4,221 pounds with the standard 4.2 -liter, 6-cylinder engine; and 4,451 pounds with the optional 5.9-liter V-8. The weight is what gives the traction and firm feel on the road.

The high weight, of course, means fewer miles on a tankful of fuel, especially with a V-8 engine beneath the hood. With the optional V-8 and 3-speed automatic transmission, plus the high-performance axle and trailer-towing package, it has plenty of power. But, as a friend says, ''It's a 10 -miles-per-gallon vehicle.'' The Environmental Protection Agency lists it at 12. With the 6-cylinder engine and 3-speed automatic, it's a little better - 17 - the EPA says.

It's as simple as this: If you're looking for high fuel mileage on the road, you're not looking for this size and weight in a utility car. But if you want off-road capability while retaining living-room comfort inside, then the Grand Wagoneer Jeep is one of your options.

The standard Wagoneer and Cherokee are something else. Equipped with the new AMC-built 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder engine and 5-speed manual transmission, the basic Wagoneer is rated by the EPA at 24 m.p.g. With an automatic transmission, it's several miles less.

There's a lot more to a vehicle than gas mileage, however. Despite the shrinkage in size, the Jeep Grand Wagoneer provides a living environment that's first class, plus the versatility of having the 4-wheel-drive option when you want it.

Another plus, of course, is the fact that you travel well above the competition, except for the trucks. Visibility is excellent, not only in front, but all the way around. Ground clearance is a constant 7.6 inches.

It's rugged, it's durable, and it gets a job done in style, whether it's a carload of people, trash to the dump, or, as in my case, transporting a dishwasher 50 miles.

All of this doesn't come cheap. The test Grand Wagoneer carries a sticker price of $20,764.

Meanwhile, American Motors has just launched the recall of about 5,000 Jeep Grand Wagoneers and Jeep trucks because of what it says is a front-wheel-bearing problem. The carmaker says the bearings may have been lubricated inadequately and could, in some cases, freeze up.

The point is, the problem was unearthed and the company is doing something about it - fast. The day the item ran in the paper, someone at the local AMC office called and asked that I bring the vehicle in for a check.

The Jeep Grand Wagoneer competes against such sports-utility vehicles as the Ford Bronco, Chevrolet K-10 Blazer, and the Ram Charger by Dodge.

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