• Apr 14th 2009 at 7:59PM
  • 72
Jeep XJ Cherokee - Click above for high-res image gallery

It's easy to deride American Motors Corporation as mediocre to the point of failure. Legions of fans will argue vehemently that the last independent was a nimble innovator that consistently outflanked the competition with creative, clever products. In fact, the final vestiges of the company have just been worn away by the sands of the current decade, even though Chrysler hungrily swallowed up AMC for its Jeep property in 1987.

Jeep's value is undeniable. Just as it was the crown jewel in AMC's portfolio, it's likely the most valuable asset Chrysler has right now, too. There's been further depth to the Jeep line virtually since the beginning, with offerings like the Willys Jeep Wagon, Jeepster, Cherokee/Wagoneer, and J-series pickups expanding options for buyers. While those vehicles all trended toward larger, more deluxe offerings, one Jeep vehicle helped start a movement that's still with us.

The Jeep Cherokee, designated the XJ, was a deft move in the early 1980s, and was a major factor in making SUVs the modern family car over the last 15 years. In the late 1970s, plans got underway at AMC for a new Jeep vehicle, one that shared only the Cherokee name with its older SJ sibling. The chiseled styling was so handsome and well-balanced that Jeep's current Patriot and Liberty are still aping it in an attempt to close sales. Two- and four-door models made up the initial offering, joined shortly thereafter by the shorter-lived Comanche pickup.

Fitting in the lineup between the CJs and the much larger Wagoneers, both classics in their own right, the Cherokee was just the right size in 1984. The Cherokee's arrival on the market coincided with Ford's introduction of the Bronco II, and Toyota's rolling out of its 4Runner. Just a year prior, General Motors launched its S10/S15 Blazer/Jimmy twins, and Nissan would chime in with its Pathfinder in 1986. Competition in the segment was less fierce, and there were fewer choices, but the Cherokee was considered by many to be the standard bearer.

Consumers flocked toward these newly debuted SUVs as a replacement for the family wagon. Manageable size made the Cherokee as easy to maneuver as a car, and it did so while packing serious off-road prowess. Most of the engineering for the Cherokee's running gear had been worked out in earlier AMC vehicles like the Concord and Spirit; sedans and wagons which carrying transfer cases up their sleeves. In the swaths of the country that experience winter weather, the Cherokee was a safe haven from tail-wagging family trucksters, able to surefootedly press on in nasty conditions. Heading off road, as very few original XJ buyers did, was another revelation. The Cherokee is a billy goat.

Engines were the largest stumbling block for the early Cherokees. AMC's own 2.5-liter four-cylinder was present, and an optional GM-sourced 2.8-liter V6 was also available for a bit more oomph. Neither motor set the Cherokee back on its heels with accelerative force, and it wasn't until the arrival of the revered 4.0-liter inline-six in 1987 that there was finally adequate grunt from the engine room. Interestingly, a Renault turbodiesel was also offered early on, between 1985 and 1987. Today, they are as rare as hen's teeth and a perfect candidate for a greasecar conversion.

AMC became newly chic with the Cherokee as troublesome European wagons were traded in for this broad-shouldered progeny of Toledo. The ride and handling had an edge of Jeepyness, feeling stiff-kneed, and exhibiting some mild head toss, but buyers found the tradeoffs acceptable and Jeep was smart enough to dress up the XJ in a few ways to entice customers, too. The Wagoneer name migrated down to the XJ, and those were trimmed more luxuriously. Wagoneer and Wagoneer Limiteds have four headlamps, and there's also the classical woodgrain applique on the flanks of the Limited models. The interior design is a product of its time, though it is clean and straightforward. Legroom wasn't gigantic in any seating position, but overall, the Cherokee accommodated four people happily, five with a little grumbling.

Detail changes abound throughout the Cherokee's nearly twenty year run from 1984-2001. 1997 brought revised styling with a softened nose and retrimmed rear hatch and taillights. Older examples are more likely to have some rust, and the age of the bodyshell's design may make the structure more susceptible to rot than more modern efforts. The XJ's winter prowess probably makes it more challenging to find one that hasn't tasted road salt, but there are still good Cherokees to be found.

The running gear, whether it's the four-cylinder, the inline-six, or even GM's V6, will not be hard to find parts and pieces for, although some powertrain combinations are more desirable than others. Watch out for the 2.8-liter mill and Peugeot gearboxes. The unit body with integrated ladder frame reinforcement was also further stiffened for the '97 update, but all Cherokees go down the road with a solid confidence, especially when there's a torquey 4.0 underhood. There were two variants of four-wheel drive systems - Command-Trac and Selec-Trac, and all versions used Quadra-Link front suspension. The chassis is a little trucky, but it's quite well behaved for the class, especially considering its capabilities.

Other markets have known the joy of the Cherokee. European XJs were available with a VM Motori diesel, and a commercial version was also made with metal in place of the rear side windows, like a sedan-delivery. China, too, has had the Cherokee move in. AMC had blazed the trail with automotive partnerships in China, and Beijing Jeep kept the XJ alive as the Jeep 2500 until 2006, 19 years after AMC disappeared from the face of the planet – impressive legs for a company that always had to do more with less while competing on the big stage with better funded Detroit competition.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 6 Years Ago
      My first Cherokee was a 1990 Laredo, fully loaded including electric antenna, tow package, Select-Trac transfer case and the poorly designed and failure prone 1st generation ABS. Other than the ABS junk this vehicle was a tank and would go everywhere including deep snow. Also pulled a 3,500 lb 18-ft I/O boat with no problems (I did have surge brakes on the boat trailer). Added Air-Lift bags all around and a Meyer Snow Blade. After 197,000 miles (virtually no oil consumption) the lifters started making noise and after replacing the ABS pump for the 4th time I removed the snow blade assembly and sold it. Then went on the hunt for the 2001 Cherokee Limited. The last year sold in the USA and all the bugs worked out. Found one in Patriot Blue, again with the Select-Trac transfer case and this time with an Infinity sound system, leather seats (front heated). Unfortunately, without the towing package. I've since added a Class III hitch, Air-Lift all around again and installed the retained snow plow assembly. I also plan on adding an AT oil cooler. Purchased it 2 years ago with 96,000 miles, now at 147,000 miles. Been using Amzoil Synthetic oil and filter changing it every 7,000 miles. Oil consumption is zero! The only bad thing about this vehicle is Chrysler's love of using thread-lock sealer on its bolts making them a pain to remove. Otherwise, I'll keep this vehicle forever.
      • 6 Years Ago
      The XJ was a great vehicle. The first models with the GM 2.8L V6 were horrible. Terrible power. But when AMC placed the 4.0L i6 into them (A smaller EFI version of the 258), it became a truly great SUV. A solid chassis, they cost much much less than what the other auto makers had, and lasted for a long time (you still see plenty of 80's models on the road).

      Another vehicle that put AMC ahead of its competition was the Grand Cherokee (ZJ), which was to be a replacement of the Grand Wagoneer. It was originally designed in 1984. But was pushed off due to funding. When Chrysler bought Jeep, they took the designs for the Grand Cherokee and put them into production. And used that design all the way up until the WJ came out.

      And the 4.0 i6, they used that all the way until 2006.
        • 6 Years Ago
        @Nude: Sorry dude, but 115hp in an SUV just doesn't cut it. There were versions of the engine with 150hp, but neither Cherokee's or S10's got them :/
        • 6 Years Ago
        @ NudeLove,

        I'm sorry, I had an '84 Cherokee with the 2.8 and it sucked...really...really...bad. It was borderline dangerous on the Interstate in Virginia due to the hills...nothing says "Hmm...I wonder if I can shoehorn in a 4.0" like a Peterbilt badge rapidly closing in from behind while going up a hill.
        • 6 Years Ago

        *Sniffle* My S10 has the GM 2.8L... *Sniffle*

        Thanks a lot...Jerk...

        *Goes into a corner and cries*
      • 6 Years Ago
      The Cherokee is one of the few SUVs that actually embodies the spirit, especially in this modern age. With it's simple design and light weight, it was a very versatile and capable utility vehicle. Ample cargo space, a drop dead reliable drivetrain, and just enough amenities to make it suitable for a daily driver. It could carry your gear deep into the woods and still carry the groceries on the way back home. There's just nothing the XJ couldn't do.

      I have and always will love my 1989. I bought it with 186000 miles on the clock to use as a high school vehicle. At the time it needed an exhaust manifold and a front u-joint. Since then the only non-regular maintenance item it has needed has been a crank position sensor and a rear main seal. The rest of the Jeep still goes strong at 219000 miles. It's rough on the edges, but by god, it still runs and doesn't complain while doing it. It doesn't burn oil, the transmission doesn't slip and the a/c will still turn the cab into a meat locker. By god, it just works. At 19 mpg it's no worse than any other modern SUV out there. I find that sad considering it's now 20 years old. I'd also like to see any modern vehicle make it to this age and be any more affordable to keep on the road.

      To heck with the ride or the size of the rear seats, this is a utility vehicle. Pull your nuts back out of your stomach and get back in the ring. If you wanted something to pamper your butt, you're looking in the wrong corner. Personally, I'm happy that I can still rely on this vehicle to do what I ask of it.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have a '00 Jeep Cherokee Limited 2WD with the 4.0 liter and 180k miles. It is a great vehicle that just keeps going.
      • 6 Years Ago
      If they built this same vehicle today completely 100% unchanged, I guarintee I would buy it as my next car.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I have a 96, 4 door, 4 spd Auto, and Command-Trac 4WD. It's a tank with only 117,000 which low considering the year. I'm the third owner and I plan on beating it into the ground, which hopefully won't be for a long time. My only concern is trying to keep up with preventing the corrosion of the body. Mechanically I know it will still be going strong for a while. I'm just concerned that the rust is going to overtake it before I'm ready to get rid of him.

      If there was one problem, for me it was the paint job.... Black clearcoat must've had a defect because many areas are wearing to the primer, not peeling but just cracking and dissolving-like. Anyone have a similar problem?
      • 6 Years Ago
      Like the old 4Runners and Blazers, a treasure from the days when designers had latitude for specialization instead of NHTSA/DOT/EPA mandates to build fat jellybean looking things exactly like every other fat jellybean looking thing on the market.

      The Liberty is basically the same thing built to 21st century government standards. It picked up real close to a thousand pounds, the hood sticks out another foot, the belt line went up 8", the ground clearance and visibility went down, the tin can bodywork and decorative bumpers won't hold up a month driving through scrub, culminating in yet another extraordinarily reliable, safe and numb conveyance primarily used for taking women to and from shopping malls.
      It's too bad Chrysler bought the Jeep but ditched the Eagle 4wd when they bought AMC. AMC may not have been perfect as far as American car companies go, but I don't believe they were a bad company, they just had difficulty meeting the needs of everyone, particularly during the awful time of the 70s, with Govt. regulations for safety, fuel economy, emissions, etc. All wreaked havoc on the car companies that wanted to sell in the USA, and/or even Canada.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Here we are over twenty years later and Chrysler is the new AMC.

      Broke, up a creek and looking for a foreign tieup and anything it can do to stay solvent. That was AMC in the 1980s and they tied up with Renault.

      Renault cars were sold at AMC dealerships and AMC recieved so much needed cash to bring designs like the XJ Cherokee, their last revision of their inline six (the 4.0L) and start work on the ZJ Grand Cherokee which Chrysler later finished after buying out AMC.

      So will history repeat itself? Will Chrysler tie up with Fiat and recieve some much needed capital? Will Fiat cars be sold at Chrysler dealerships across the country? And will it somehow work out?

      I wouldn't hold my breath for that.

      Chrysler has also done a wonderous job of jumping the shark with the Jeep brand itself. They were excellent stewards of it up until the time they thought that rebadging Dodge cars to make the Compass and Patriot and the supersized, super ugly Commander was a good idea. Discontinuing the Cherokee in favor of the Liberty was also a terrible, terrible move.

      The Big Three are fond of deep sixing their storied brand names and introducing new ones that nobody cars about that weaken the brand. It's a real shame it had to finally happen to the Jeep Cherokee.

      Wherever Jeep ends up I hope the Cherokee is reimagined for our time and brought back in proper form with it's tough boxy shape and a four cylinder and a powerful six. Not unlike the new old Camaro and Mustang we have that do their names proud.

        • 6 Years Ago
        Well the difference between Chrysler of today and AMC of twenty-five years ago is that Diamler didn't screw over AMC.
        • 6 Years Ago
        I agree with everything you've said. Chrysler really is the AMC of this generation.
        • 6 Years Ago
        Nah, part of the difference between AMC and Chrysler is that Chrysler is still in the top 10 of auto manufacturers in volume worldwide. AMC was always small. Their best sales year ever (1974) involved less than 600,000 units that year. Ford sold nearly as many Pintos in '74.

        AMC was producing quality, innovative products, with high levels of consumer consciousness. But they were always an underfunded David among Goliaths. They had to take risks (Pacer, Matador coupe) to keep from getting stepped on. And for much of their 33-year history, they did well.

        Chrysler is MUCH bigger today, has MUCH more market share than AMC ever had (AMC peaked at less than 5%, Chrysler's got about 10% now, at their nadir). AMC also had only 3 full vehicle assembly plants, employing an all-time maximum of 32,000 employees (both white and blue collar).

        Chrysler is today what AMC was in 1980 only in that they're pretty thoroughly screwed until the new foreign tie-up's money and products come through. They also have Jeep (which for AMC in 1980 wasn't selling because of the Oil Crisis of '79, which led into the massive recession of 1980-82).

        The reason Chrysler is in this fix is because Daimler totally and absolutely scuttled them. AMC started swirling the drain when they blew their entire product development budget on two cars (i.e., Matador coupe and Pacer) that were critically acclaimed and very popular when they came out, but then sales collapsed once the bloom had worn off, and they didn't have the money to update their bread-and-butter volume cars (Hornet, Gremlin, Matador sedan/wagon), so those simply got low-cost facelifts (with Hornet and Gremlin turning into Concord and Spirit, then as 4WD Eagles) until no one cared enough to pay attention anymore. When the last of the 2300 '88 Eagles rolled off the line, its platform was 19 seasons old.

        Anyway, AMC and Chrysler got to this same point for totally different reasons. And their situtions are pretty different. But yeah, just like it didn't look good for AMC, it doesn't look good for Chrysler, either. We'll see if they can pull it out long-term, and what's left of them if/when they do.
      • 6 Years Ago
      i LOVE this car. im actually in the process of trying to find another.

      this was my first car, a white 89 with maroon interior.

      these cars are cheap and cheap to fix and run forever, the perfect transportation
        • 6 Years Ago
        No doubt- my sister has a 93 four-door. Its been upside down in a ditch, in a couple fender benders, and basically thrashed since she got it. But she can't kill it- it just keeps going. Oh and the 4.0L HO is, IMHO, still a better motor than anything chryco offers now.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Love my '01 XJ so much, I can't comprehend why they don't bring back a worthy successor to it, the Liberty and Patriot really don't appeal to me at all.
      • 6 Years Ago
      I too feel that this is one of the best posts on Autoblog. The Liberty does not have the charm and rugged feel of this one.
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