From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without. In this installment, we turn back the clock to look at one of the most significant SUVs of all time: the Jeep Cherokee XJ.
Quick, what comes to mind when you think about classic, hardworking, never-say-die SUVs? I guarantee you the Jeep Cherokee is at the top of the list. No, I'm not talking about the current Cherokee that looks like a modern hatchback and shares a platform with the Dodge Dart. Honestly, I don't ever want to talk about that thing. And I'm not talking about the first Cherokee, either, though I gotta tell you, I had some wild times in one of those back in the '70s with the 6.6-liter V8 under the hood. What I'm talking about is the first unibody Cherokee, the so-called XJ series, which was built from 1984-2001. You know, the boxy one. Couldn't improve on that styling if you tried. Everyone over 30 knows someone who drove an XJ, and there are still a ton of these things on the road today. Let's take a look at what made this Cherokee so great.
Easy to Maintain, Hard to Break
With due respect to the lesser engines Jeep offered, including a 2.5-liter four-cylinder that was pretty popular, I'm going to focus on the iconic 4.0-liter inline-6 here. Whenever I see a Cherokee in the wild, I look for that "4.0" badge on the back, because that's the one you want. It was only rated at 190 horsepower, but owners will tell you it feels stronger than that, with a nice low-end punch courtesy of 225 pound-feet of torque. The five-speed manual transmission was key for maximum performance, but the Aisin-Warner four-speed auto turned out to be a robust unit in its own right.
Either way, this powertrain is known to run for hundreds of thousands of miles without complaint -- you're more likely to encounter electrical gremlins in the power accessories. And if you're mechanically inclined, you can do most of the required work by yourself. That's why you see a lot of Cherokees in remote areas where the nearest mechanic is many miles away. Folks know they can count on this Jeep through thick and thin, and that's a big part of its legend.
When the Cherokee XJ debuted back in the mid-'80s, car-like unibody construction was all but unheard of. If you were designing an SUV, it had to be body-on-frame, just like a truck, because it just wouldn't be tough enough otherwise. But then the XJ came along, and the SUV landscape would never be the same. That's right. As unlikely as it seems, this boxy, go-anywhere Jeep is the one that got the unibody trend started.
Nowadays, you have to look long and hard to find a body-on-frame SUV in dealerships, but back then, the Cherokee was an innovator. There were plenty of doubters, of course, but the Cherokee proved its mettle in countless off-road scenarios around the globe. At the same time, it provided a relatively smooth ride and agile handling, which is why practically every SUV today has a unibody platform.
Easy to Mod
Although those unibody underpinnings were a revolutionary step forward, the XJ is still a simple beast at heart, and that means mods are a cinch. There's a whole forum dedicated to various Cherokee XJ tweaks, from lift kits and lockers to winches and performance exhausts. It's an open secret in off-roading circles that the stock XJ makes for a cheap and reliable rock-crawler with just a few alterations. You can pick one up for a song and have plenty of cash left over for building your dream XJ.
The Cherokee XJ is the kind of SUV that inspires intense loyalty in its owners. I know some of you guys can speak from personal experience, so let's hear it in the comments.