Junkyard Gem: 1990 Jeep Cherokee Laredo

Five-speed manual, four-wheel-drive, no cup holders.

31 - 1990 Jeep Cherokee XJ in Colorado junkyard - photo by Murilee Martin
31 - 1990 Jeep Cherokee XJ in Colorado junkyard - photo by Murilee Martin
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Counting manufacturing in China, the XJ Jeep Cherokee stayed in production for an amazing 31 years. This revolutionary small unibody SUV began as an American Motors-Renault project in the late 1970s, went into production in Kenosha for the 1984 model year, and continued to be built in the United States after the 1987 Chrysler takeover of AMC. By 1990, the XJ still had better than than a decade of production remaining here, and that's the year in which today's super-clean Junkyard Gem was built.

It has very close to 200,000 miles on the odometer, a much higher reading than I expected after a glance at the interior.

The only way you'll see seats and door panels this nice in a 30-year-old vehicle is when that vehicle had a lifetime of meticulous care from its owner or owners. The Colorado sun is very hard on upholstery, even the industrial-grade stuff that went into early XJs, so we can assume this truck spent its resting time in a garage.

Manual transmissions in American trucks were slightly more popular in 1990 than they are today, but still rare. With XJ Cherokees, however, I still find plenty with three pedals. This truck has the tough Aisin AX-5 five-speed, which replaced the Peugeot-built five-speed used in the late 1980s.

We can assume that lots of XJ buyers of this era took the manual transmission in order to save money, but few such buyers would have paid extra for frivolous power windows. Whoever bought this truck back in 1990 stepped into the Jeep dealership and insisted on six cylinders, five forward gears, four driven wheels, and a bit of luxury. Of course, 2020 SUV buyers would consider this truck intolerably primitive, but things were different three decades back.

The base engine in the 1990 Cherokee remained the 2.5-liter AMC straight-four (which looked a lot like the GM Iron Duke— also used in some AMC models— and still causes confusion for parts-counter staff to this day). This truck has the 4.0-liter version of the AMC straight-six, however, a very dependable engine with a lineage stretching back to the middle 1960s. Very few American XJ buyers were getting the four-banger by 1990, though I do find them now and then.

The Laredo was the mid-grade trim level for the 1990 Cherokee, selling for $18,935 for the four-door/four-wheel-drive version (that's about $38,700 in 2020 dollars). The base version was $16,145 and the full-zoot Limited cost $25,775 ($33,000 and $52,700 today, respectively). You got the six-cylinder engine as standard equipment in the Laredo and Limited that year.

So why did this zero-rust, very clean XJ get thrown away like the unremarkable Calibers and Durangos surrounding this machine in the yard's Chrysler truck section? My guess is that a high-mileage, cramped (by 2020 standards) truck with a manual transmission offers little appeal to mainstream Colorado used-truck shoppers, and it had some mechanical problem that would have cost more to fix than tight-walleted XJ aficionados were willing to pay. These trucks sold in such vast numbers here that everybody in the Denver area who wants one has a half-dozen by now.

Tough, reliable, and heartwarming.

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