Jeep traditions are proudly held, dating back to the original Willys MB of 1941 and continued through the CJ series to today’s Wrangler. Another integral part of Jeep’s past is the 1984-2001 XJ Cherokee, the first American unibody compact SUV, which set the pattern for many imitators. It was sold in nearly every country in the world and in true Jeep fashion, the XJ profile was recognizably the same from beginning to end.
The XJ Jeep Cherokee was the company’s first new model since the 1960s. Its origins dated back to 1978, when AMC and Renault designers were jointly working on a replacement for the bulky SJ Cherokee. Veteran designer Dick Teague took charge of the project, and opted for both two- and four-door compact Sportwagons. These featured an immensely strong unibody design with 3200 welds to create a rigid structure light enough to utilize a smaller engine than previously employed. The XJ Cherokee weighed 1200 pounds less than the SJ it replaced.
It was also 31 inches shorter and 6 inches narrower but offered 90 percent of the previous model’s interior space. The XJ had more ground clearance, better articulation and steeper approach, departure and breakover angles than the old Cherokee. It was much more agile off-road.
Much of the new Cherokee’s design work was accomplished through computer-aided-design programs (CAD) from 1985. All drawings were centrally stored and available for quick updates. When Chrysler bought AMC in 1987 it expanded the CAD system to its own vehicles.
French designer Francois Castaing had joined AMC as part of the Renault merger in 1979 and developed the XJ’s drivetrain while engineer Roy Lunn created the “quadra-link” front which located the live front axle with four leading control arms – two above and two below. These limited longitudinal movement and also rotation – when the vehicle accelerated or braked. A Panhard rod located the axle laterally and coil springs on top of the axle were matched with gas-charged shock absorbers.
The XJ Cherokee was relatively unchanged from 1984-2001 with a dizzying list of optional engines at different times. The barely 3000-lb weight meant that even a four-cylinder engine was enough for light work. Both four- and six-cylinder OHV engines were available through 2000, but only six-cylinders for the last couple of years. Two-wheel drive was optional from 1985 when the XJ-based compact Jeep Commando pickup was introduced – with a separate frame. Cherokees were fitted with a wide range of transmission options, including a 4-speed manual, four different 5-speeds, and three different automatics.
A number of different models were sold over the years. The Chief ran from 1984-90, with plaid cloth upholstery. The Pioneer and Pioneer Olympic were built from 1984-90 as an upscale Chief. The Sport ran from 1984-96, with a two-door model from 1989. From 1984-1990 the Jeep Wagoneer was offered with a fancy Limited option. These can be recognized by vertically stacked headlights from 1985 and the Limited featured vinyl wood trim on the sides, like the full-size Grand Wagoneer. The Wagoneer was replaced by the Briarwood for 1991-92.
The Laredo was built from 1985-92. It was an up-market edition minus the Wagoneer trim, but featuring two-tone paint, power seats, door locks, air conditioning and keyless entry. It was replaced by the Country in 1993 which ran from 1993-97 with the same equipment, plus a leather interior option and superior Jensen stereo. The Country was replaced by the Classic and Limited in 1998.
The Limited was offered from 1987-92 and again from 1998-2001. It included most power and luxury options including air-conditioning. It too was replaced by the Country between 1993-1998. The Sport ran from 1988-2001 with selected power and luxury options. The Classic appeared in 1996 and was replaced by the Limited in 1997. The final Cherokee models were the Freedom in 2000 and 60th Anniversary in 2001, both of which were based on Sport model options.
A police package was available on the Cherokee from 1992, notable for the lack of interior door handles in the rear and a 190-hp High Output motor. Right-hand drive Cherokees were built from 1993 – initially for the US Postal Service – but found favor in Japan, the UK and other right-hand drive markets.
The Jeep Cherokee was updated significantly in December 1996 receiving a stiffer unibody to mitigate noise and vibration, with improved door seals. The steel tailgate was replaced with a fiberglass one and additional plastic molding was added to the doors. The dash was redesigned with a new instrument panel which could be used in left- or right-hand drive.
The 4-liter, six-cylinder engine was modified in 1999 to meet stiffer emissions regulations and the four-cylinder engine was discontinued in 2000. The six-cylinder engine received coil-on-plug ignition in 2000 and the Cherokee was replaced by the Liberty after 2001, though the original name was retained overseas. The Cherokee name returned to North America for the 2014 model year with the fifth generation (KL) Cherokee, a midsize crossover.