Thinking Inside the Box: Why the Jeep Cherokee XJ is an Off-Roading Icon


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When one pictures a Jeep they often think of open top, tub on frame, short wheel-based vehicle that pays homage to its military ancestors, but perhaps the most successful model of Jeep to come off an assembly line for civilian use looked nothing like that. The Jeep Cherokee XJ was a full-bodied, lightweight, luxurious, sport utility vehicle that at first glance could have been more closely related to a van than a Willy’s flat-fendered 4×4. When the XJ was introduced in 1984 it did not boast classic round headlights or the radius’d wheel wells of the CJ-7 Jeeps in the dealerships. This new Jeep’s boxy appearance and low ground clearance did not readily display off road capability, but as with many of the all time greats, looks proved to be deceiving.

The Jeep Cherokee XJ developed into one of the undeniably most successful automobiles ever made. Its production lasted almost 20 years (from 1984 to 2001) with little change. With the right combination of drivetrain, they have proved to have nearly unstoppable reliability. The secret to the Cherokee’s success is likely due to the fact that, unlike the Jeep CJ’s, the XJ was comfortable and well mannered as a daily driver and, unlike the earlier Wagoneers, the XJ Cherokee was compact and very reasonably priced. Due to the Lightweight unibody construction, the XJ was sturdy, nimble, and reasonably fuel-efficient.

Above: Robert Smith’s 1999 XJ is one of our favorite Cherokees around. With a variety of modifications including roll cage, custom long arm suspension, 35-inch tires, FOX shocks, and skid plates his Cherokee has made its way through gnarly rock trails all over the West Coast and has been know to eat up high speed miles in the desert.

While street performance is certainly important, the XJ was no pavement queen. The Cherokee has earned a reputation over the last 3 decades on trails, deserts, and off-road parks all over the world. In 1984 the XJ was in an offered class of its own due to its stout drivetrain components, wheelbase, and suspension. The XJ was equipped with a coil strung 4-link and track bar front end and Leaf springs out back. The XJ’s suspension was reminiscent of early Ford Bronco’s suspension, but this was Jeep’s first coil sprung vehicle and the XJ’s suspension with a little modification made it a competitive force in desert racing and rock crawling alike.

The many positive aspects of the XJ Cherokee are especially apparent with a side-by-side comparison with the Jeep YJ Wrangler. The YJ was released in 1987 after the Cherokee had been on sales floors for a few years, but the YJ far from outperformed the Cherokee. The XJ was comfortable, lightweight, refined, featured sophisticated coil spring suspension, and a high pinion Dana 30 front end. The newer Jeep YJ had to make due with much less desirable components and functionality. Like the YJ, 1987 brought a new 4.0l inline six-cylinder motor to the XJ. This motor would go relatively unchanged for 20 years and find its way into nearly all Cherokees, YJ’s, and the later Jeep TJ Wranglers. Unlike its open topped counterparts, the XJ received the Aisin AW4 transmission that helped cement the Cherokee’s place as one of the all time reliable SUV’s.

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Above left: TnT Customs is a premier company in the Jeep Marketplace and they have a number of stylish and hardcore products for the XJ Platform. Above right: Here is a prime example of a XJ that has evolved well beyond its stock limitations.

In its production run the XJ had a number of changes, but really only one change in appearance that took place for the 1997 model year. The rugged good looks of the Cherokee were maintained for its entire production until its end in 2001. Because the XJ Cherokee was produced in such large numbers and for 17 years, used models are readily for sale all over the country, and good running models can be had for as little as a thousand dollars in some cases. The XJ likely has the most online forums of any vehicle ever made and as such, a wealth of knowledge and support can be found to help the most novice Jeep owners keep their Cherokees street and trail ready.

XJ’s are still one of the most common vehicles navigating trails around the country. They have been contenders in off-road competitions, such as the King of the Hammers Stock Class, and in 2001 the XJ inspired its own class of desert racing called JeepSpeed. While the Jeep XJ Cherokee has a boxy shape equivalent to the average refrigerator, its designers and builders certainly thought outside of the box to build a vehicle whose reliability, capability, and style will continue to make it a long living legend.

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Kyle Cunliffe

Growing up in Southern California many would expect Kyle to spend his days looking for the next gnarly wave to catch. Luckily waves don't have a throttle or steering wheel so his attention was devoted elsewhere. Kyle can nearly always be found looking for a way to go faster, or get over an obstacle just a little bigger than the last. Because he wasn't a trust fund baby he has spend years working on his own vehicles to keep the excitement going.

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