Jeep Cherokee XJ - Contender for the Overlanding Crown?

ADK_XJ

Observer
There is obviously a business to be run by Expedition Portal / Overland Journal and I think they do a great job - I'm always checking the site, reading reviews and gawking over decked out Land Cruisers, Rubicon Wranglers and more. However, when it comes to my own hard-earned dollars, I have to draw the line at things like a $200 camp chair or self-activating sway-bar disconnects and, at least for me, that extends into the realm of what type of vehicle I can actually afford to own and maintain.

So, if you look beyond the catering to manufacturers' sponsorships and aftermarket dealers' ad dollars that keep EP and OJ going, I feel like the focus on brand new, extremely expensive and heavily outfitted vehicles is overlooking a very obvious contender for the Overlanding crown and one that is attainable for us mere mortals: the 4.0 Liter, 4-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee XJ.

I hope you'll indulge me and maybe throw in your 2 cents as I go on a minor rant about how badly overlooked the Cherokee is for expedition and overland travel and, maybe, just maybe, Expedition Portal will do a feature on USED or BUDGET Overland Vehicles. (EDIT: As a commenter has pointed out below, EP did do a Used Overland Vehicles rundown but, in addition to featuring the same vehicles as in any "New" segments, the fact that the Jeep Compass somehow edges out the Cherokee for inclusion makes this post of mine all the more relevant.) I'm not going to delve into every single detail and I'm sure folks will take issue with many of my points, but I really just want to round out the picture of great Overlanders to include a car that I know and love. Okay, here goes.

Stage 1 - Pedigree
The term "Sport Utility Vehicle" was literally invented by the Jeep Cherokee when first used in a 1974 sales brochure for the XJ's predecessor, the Jeep "SJ" 2-door wagon. This was also the first year of FourWheeler Magazine's "Four Wheeler of the Year Award" which went to, you guessed it, the Jeep SJ Cherokee. The evolution of this design into a light-weight, but rigid unibody frame and chassis yielded the release of the XJ Cherokee in 1984 and all other carmakers scrambled to copy it. I point this out because one of the first things to be mentioned in so many overviews of these $40,000 Land Cruiser/Rovers/etc is their pedigree and history of excellence - true, but I don't know how you overlook the vehicle that created the category. Just ask the guys at Top Gear in this comically British, but equally awesome roadtest (YouTube link).

Image: The XJ Cherokee's forefather, the SJ Jeep Cherokee Chief.
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Stage 2 - Stock Performance
Development and breed aside, the Cherokee is an insanely capable 4x4 even with a bone stock setup. I've seen XJ's with sagging rear-springs and 23" bald tires go straight up the side of a rock-slide, through hood level water, 3 feet of snow and, once on road, even do 0-60 in an impressive 9 seconds (check out the infamous Michigan State Police speed tests for some shocking XJ performance numbers). I would never suggest against modifying this vehicle because there's just too many options for performance enhancement and it's just too damn fun, but I doubt there's many so-called SUVs out there that could confidently take you off-road and over-land without significant investment up front like this one. My point is, if you don't have a lot of money to sink into build features up-front like so many of us, this is a great place to start.

Video: Incredulous off-roaders watch this XJ stocker climb.

Stage 3 - Reliability
Now we're heading more into the territory of what separates an overlander from an off-roader. So many folks will trailer some monster truck rig to a trail and spend the day bashing it around, which is fine - to each their own, but in overlanding we're looking for a vehicle that gets you there, takes you into the **** and brings you back home all on the same 4 wheels and without taking crippling damage. Couldn't think of a vehicle better suited than the Cherokee. Again, I'm not going for an exhaustive feature list but a couple of key factors in the XJ's long-term performance on- and off-road are a strong timing CHAIN rather than belt, a no-frills inline 6 cylinder engine (second only to diesel engines in terms of low maintenance), a mechanical 4x4 transfer case over fussy push-button technology and relatively simple, centered front and rear axle differentials that put this 4-wheel technology to good use. Perhaps as good an indication as any of the XJ's reliability is the fact that the same Michigan State Police department officially retires their Cherokees at 300,000 miles - more than 3 TIMES the service life of their Crown Vics, Fords and Chevies.

Image: Yes, that's 500,000 as in a Half-Million Miles
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Stage 4 - Transportation: Crew, Cargo and Capacity
This is where I start to go a little batty when people raise the flag for the Rubicon Unlimited (JK) 4-door as having "saved" the fatal flaw of limited space for Jeeps and being the "must have" of overland vehicles. I cry foul. You do not need to spend $30-40,000 to get a Jeep that will take you and your family overlanding, it's just not true. There are any number of dimensions to consider when it comes to transporting people, gear, food, water, etc overland effectively and efficiently, but let's just assume you're the typical overlanding couple with a dog, a kid, one of each (or two of one for that matter) and a decent amount of gear that you need to get from one place to another on only your own tank of gas. The 4-door Cherokee (there is a more rare 2-door model out there) can hold up to 5 passengers (I've done it on a 260 mile roundtrip excursion), with a crew space of 111.9 cubic feet from dash to rear seat. Almost as important is the additional 50 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk, which immediately doubles when you're traveling as a pair and can fold down the rear seat completely flat. To put this in perspective, I have on many occasions lacking a tent shacked up in the back of my Cherokee and many other enterprising owners have been known to build fully contained sleeping platforms (Google it). Finally, even the heaviest laden Cherokee will do between 15-20 mpg depending on terrain and conditions on a 20 gallon tank giving it far superior range to any but the most efficient of diesel engines which, as we all know, are hard to come by in the great U.S. of A. Many XJ owners swear by the addition of a simple cold-air intake and high-flow exhaust to generate a limited, but significant bump in fuel economy with the added benefit of kicking in up to 10 extra horses.

Image: A Search & Rescue XJ loaded with gear but room to spare.
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Stage 5 - Modification
Let's be honest, this is what we're all really here for - the pleasure that comes from planning, building and using modifications to stock vehicles for overlanding purposes is second to none. Whether it's something as essential as suspensions or as luxurious as a built-in mini-fridge, every vehicle has an innate capacity for and ease of which it can be modified. Again, I write this post mostly because I think the Cherokee has been largely overlooked in this department and I'd like to remedy that. Rather than regurgitate the work of others, I'd direct anyone interested to the best all-in-one resource I've found, Off-Road Adventure's Finessing The Jeep Cherokee, a 4 part series on the essential and most efficient structural upgrades to the Jeep XJ (just Google "Finessing The..." for Parts 2-4). Whether you do these upgrades yourself or have the help of a pro, there's proof that a relatively small investment can have you out in any terrain with the same vehicles that are touting 5 figure overhauls on a $40,000 car.

Image: Wheel articulation is a calling card of the modded Cherokee.
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Conclusions & My Cherokee
If I were to guess what has held the XJ Cherokee back from inclusion on many of Overland Journal and Expedition Portal's "Best Of" or in-depth overview features is that it's no longer sold. It's a real shame and a cautionary tale of what happens when you start messing with a good thing; the short version is that some cost-slashing executive from Mercedes named Wolfgang Bernhard was brought in to reinvigorate the line and deemed it best to shake-up the product line by killing the Cherokee and replacing it with the froofy Liberty. Now how many of those do you see off-road? In the end Bernhard was promoted to the chair of Chrysler group the last I heard but, in many ways, by killing the Cherokee he created a sought after classic. The beauty for those of us mere mortals that I referenced before is that these cars can be found in abundance on any city's Craigslist, on the lots of every used dealer and in some front yard of most neighborhoods. In the absence of severe rust from salt-happy Northern states, you can pick up a functionally sound Cherokee for typically between $1,000 - 5,000 depending on year, options and the usual road wear.

Which is exactly what I did last year as I began building my Overland Expedition vehicle with the purchase of my second XJ. My first car was a 1999 Jeep Cherokee, but I had strayed from the flock when I began commuting 350 miles a week for work. So, with my replacement Civic paid off and a relocation to the mountains of Western North Carolina I went out and found the best condition, last production model 2001 Jeep Cherokee I could find. My all black "ADK_XJ", named after the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate NY that I grew up in, is just in the infancy of its build-up but it is a pleasure to drive, has been fully overhauled in the suspension with a Rusty's Offroad 3.5" lift, 30" tires and is just waiting for the addition of all the goodies that make overland vehicles so bulletproof (think bumpers, lights, recovery, storage, on-board air, battery power, towing, etc). The best part is that a year into the project I'm still well under the $10k mark for a vehicle that will literally go anywhere that shiny new production vehicles will go and then some.

Hope you got some of value out of my rant / rundown and I really would LOVE for EP to do (another) feature on used overland vehicles if they could find the advertising revenue to support it ;). Welcome your thoughts, comment and, for you rich bastards, don't worry - I'll still be gawking at your imported Defender 110, but I may be pulling you out of a ditch while doing it. Thanks for reading!

Image: My 2001 Jeep Cherokee Classic - 130,000 Miles
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deadbeat son

Explorer
maybe, just maybe, Expedition Portal will do a feature on USED or BUDGET Overland Vehicles.
This has already been done.

http://www.expeditionportal.com/forum/threads/61287-Top-10-Used-Overland-Vehicles-Do-you-agree

Currently on page 19 of discussion, with a few people disappointed the XJ made neither the "Top 10" list nor the honorable mentions.

The term "Sport Utility Vehicle" was literally invented by the Jeep Cherokee when first used in a 1974 sales brochure for the XJ's predecessor, the Jeep "SJ" 2-door wagon. This was also the first year of FourWheeler Magazine's "Four Wheeler of the Year Award" which went to, you guessed it, the Jeep SJ Cherokee. The evolution of this design into a light-weight, but rigid unibody frame and chassis yielded the release of the XJ Cherokee in 1984 and all other carmakers scrambled to copy it. I point this out because one of the first things to be mentioned in so many overviews of these $40,000 Land Cruiser/Rovers/etc is their pedigree and history of excellence - true, but I don't know how you overlook the vehicle that created the category.
The Jeep Cherokee didn't create the category, the company's marketing department simply named it. However, the XJ did invent the car-like SUV market with its first-in-class unibody construction and compact form.
 
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jeepdreamer

Expedition Leader
Mine

I feel your pain ADK XJ... but as a fellow jeeper and XJ owner I am actually a little glad our rigs don't get the credit they deserve. While I will doubtfully ever be able to go plop down (or be ever willing to finance) 30-50K on a Jeep, Our XJs always seem to pop up for sale at a reasonable sum. The more that realize how good they are will only raise that entry price and make the buy in cost go up as the fade into history.
I also just scored a 2001 Sport. Granted its only 2wd for now (another good trait of the platform, interchangeability!), that will change once I'm back in the states. But this is the newest and nicest Jeep I've owned...all for the measly sum of 1200 bucks! If I took that imaginary new Jeep price tag and subtracted my purchase price...gotta wonder at how far into a build I could go.!. Being thrifty (ok, cheap) I could almost buy an entire rebuilt drive train to keep around as storage, perform most common modifications (lift, lockers, tires, racks etc) and drive the snot out of it. Then when the drive train got tired, swap in the all fresh/new stuff and rock it some more. :)
The reality is that we kinda need the manufacturers and those folks willing to sell their soul to buy "new". As they turn out new, future used Jeeps and the buyers flock to them it keeps them away from us scoring good deals! haha!
I'll eventually start a minor build thread of my new XJ but for now it is going to have to serve as DD/grocery getter. Plus I have a 91 XJ that is currently being hacked...uh, fixed by me. Can't swing building two (uh, three technically) Jeeps at the same time.
 

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ADK_XJ

Observer
The reality is that we kinda need the manufacturers and those folks willing to sell their soul to buy "new". As they turn out new, future used Jeeps and the buyers flock to them it keeps them away from us scoring good deals! haha!
Hey JD, thanks for the response! You're right - I shouldn't lament the XJ's exclusion too much because it's part of the charm of the Cherokee that people have forgotten it as the more capable cousin to the plastic molded Liberty's, Compass's, Commander's and other 21st Century mall crawlers.

That's a great looking Sport you have there and you also bring up a great point about the interchangeability of parts in these boxes of bolts; I'll be heading down to the pick n pull this afternoon to snag a number of redundant parts for the trail and possibly score some new wheel caps. The beauty is that, aside from drivetrain, the entire 17 year service history of the Cherokee offers pretty much the same setup - hence the name, Just Enough Essential Parts (JEEP).
 
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jeepdreamer

Expedition Leader
And to expand on the interchangeability and cost value... I needed an alternator since I snapped the POS wire stud off mine. Went to the junk yard on the main post (I'm in Germany) and found one sitting and waiting for me in a 96 Grand Cherokee. Same Alt and I got it free! :) I've owned Jeeps all my life and was admittedly a little skeptical on the Uni body idea. I'm a reluctant change type person but if you show me a good deal I may give it a whirl. My first XJ was an 89 that I traded a friend that needed a pick up. No money swapped and that jeep took me from Atlanta to CO to Moab where I played a while and then did the return trip, never even a hick up. I later scored a 91 Briarwood for free since the ABS (horrible idea) went out. Found a regular booster and MC from a junked XJ and had a running and driving jeep for about 30 bucks. It had over 280K on it when I finally said good bye to it and as far as I know it is still on the road... 4 years later!
My current two are polar opposites. One is highly neglected and rusted beyond belief. Its a 91 4 door 5 speed. The nicer one is an 01 2wd that will be coming back to the states with me when I leave here. The body isn't 100% perfect but there is ZERO rust and only a few lumps and bumps that may be able to be massaged out. But it IS a Jeep.. so a show body is not my intent. Its just an outstanding good blank canvas from which I will start a less aggressive Expo style wheeler.
 

BIGdaddy

Expedition Leader
i've put 40000 trouble-free miles on my cherokee in 4 years. Never been stranded. Ever. Never down for more than a few hours with repairs, while parked comfortably in my driveway.

All failed parts swapped were idenified as OE 20 year old components. (alternator, radiator, thermostat, u-joints, etc.) Engine, tranny, tcase, axles, driveshafts, etc are all original units with almost 200,000 miles on them.

I drive it everyday to and from work with a bullbar and winch mounted and regularly get 19mpgs. It's truly done everything I've asked of it, including taking my family of 5 on trips all around socal.

This durability, and my ability to work on it myself with simple tools when it does need repairs, as addition to the points you list, are what truly make it an accomplished overland vehicle.

:)
 
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jh504

Explorer
I'm a Toyota guy, nobody matches the build quality. Having said that, the XJ is one of the best 4x4's built for someone with a normal budget, anyone who says different is purely an idiot. Along with my 7 Toyota's I've owned and offroaded 4 XJ's, and my current project is an 88 Comanche with a long arm kit. The "elitist" attitude, among other things, is why I haven't posted on this site in over a year.
 

jeepdreamer

Expedition Leader
History and "things"...

Thought I'd toss up a couple pics I've had one here now and again. The tan XJ is the free trade one I got that made the trip west and back. Lift was ACOS w/Grand cherk springs and the rear was AALs and shackles. The roof rack, bumper, and paint were all done by me in the driveway. Like I said, not a hick up the entire 3500 mile journey. Sadly I parked it in the driveway and the first weekend I was back a huge pine tree fell and cereal crushed it! :O
The white 91 is a work in progress here more to give me something to do. It will get modded and played with while I am here and then sold before I leave. The Black one is the new (to me) nice one. I'm itching to start doing stuff to it but I need the white one able to move under its own power first. :( I call those two thing one and thing two. :elkgrin:
 

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reece146

Automotive Artist
The "elitist" attitude, among other things, is why I haven't posted on this site in over a year.
It's not elitism as much as ignorance.

Ignorance as in not aware of other methods or products so what they have in front of them is "best". Anything different must be substandard. If they haven't experience with it then it is "wrong".

You know, normal forum BS. The key is turn your BS filter on high and ignore the tools.

XJs have terrible build quality, particularly compared to anything built in the last five years or anything not American in the last 20+ years. The original AMC XJs were decent for the time they were built but needed to be updated by the time the 90s rolled around. I remember when a friend traded his Wagoneer for an XJ in 1984. It was pretty spiffy for the time.

The redesigned interior is particularly bad in the 97+ plus Jeeps from a tactile and quality point of view. The plastics are down right nasty and the interior is not very well screwed together. It looks decent enough for the time it was designed - late `90s "modern".

The unibody needs stiffening help but if you can weld it's not a big deal, really. When I crawled around under my MY01 XJ to weld stiffeners on and looked carefully I could see the unibody stamping equipment was pretty worn out by 2001, especially when compared with my `87. The crappy quality stamping on the exterior body parts annoys me also - the waves and imprecise edges.

That said, I luv my Jeep but it in no way resembles what it did when it left the factory. It's just the right size for two adults and two kids. By the time the kids are complaining about lack of room in the back either they need to go on a diet or get their own Jeep. It's just the right size for trails in the east - it'll keep up with SWB Jeeps and Suzukis. 5" of lift and 32s, an extra 1000lbs of equipment and armour and it pushes 20 mpg on the stock engine while not feeling like a slug. The inline 6 is a tractor engine from the `50s.

They are good little vehicles. Screw the purists.

 

deadbeat son

Explorer
I owned an XJ as my only vehicle for a number of years, and drove it for about 90k miles. It was an inexpensive, simple, reliable, dependable vehicle. IMO, the following was it's biggest drawback:

The redesigned interior is particularly bad in the 97+ plus Jeeps from a tactile and quality point of view. The plastics are down right nasty and the interior is not very well screwed together. It looks decent enough for the time it was designed - late `90s "modern".
Then again, that simplicity and no-frills attitude was part of its charm. In addition to the "miles of plastic, as far as the eye can see...", complete with its assortment of squeaks and rattles from the outset, the driver's seat was horribly uncomfortable for significantly long drives.

My other issue with it was in inclement weather. It had no issues when in 4wd, but with just a little snow, it was practically useless in 2wd. I've been considering purchasing another XJ. If I do, I will likely swap in a 242 if not already equipped with the Selec Trac system.
 

reece146

Automotive Artist
The problem is not with a plastic interior but how that interior is put together. Everything is plastic nowadays, but it doesn't mean that crap plastic should be used. For example, take the dash apart on an XJ. It's just plain nasty and crappily made. Actually, it might not seem that crappy if decent plastics were used with more bearing surfaces where it snaps and is screwed together.

I find the driver's seat fine... I can drive my Jeep for hours on end without a problem. <shrug /> That said, mine has cloth seats. My buddy complains about how hard the leather seats are in his XJ.

Biggest problem for any vehicle in weather in terms of grip is tires and where the weight sits. XJs likely have a weight distribution similar to pickup truck. That and they have a torquey engine... whenever someone not familiar with XJs tries to drive my Jeep their first tip into the throttle ends up in wheel spin and thrown rocks when it occurs on gravel. <shrug />

I have Select-Trac in my Jeep but I don't drive it in the winter (salt belt) so if anything ever happens to it I'll likely swap in a Chev 241 w/ 2.72 ratio just for fun.
 

VanIsle_Greg

I think I need a bigger truck!
Interesting read.

I loved the Cherokee XJ from the day I saw my first one in 1984 ish. I have wanted one right up until I got mine in 2007. Yes, build quality is not as good as other makes... but in all honesty it very utilitarian and does everything I ask it to. For what I paid I am happy with what I got. The stock XJ will go anywhere, it will tow up to 5000#, and has decent power. They were built for offroad, hence the solid front axle, and all the 4x4 stuff the OP mentioned, and they lack some of the creature comforts (ok most) that the newer generations have. Lots of great 4x4's out there, Toyota, Land Rover, Nissan etc. but this is the one I chose, and I don't think I could sell it if I wanted too?

If I were to part with my XJ, I would consider the Xterra as a potential replacement, or possibly the Wrangler, hopefully with a CRD should they ever wise up and release it in NA!! Bottom line, Cherokee XJ is capable, reasonable on gas, has good power, is simple and rugged and if maintained will outlast most of the wannabee junk out there. Mine is becoming exactly what I want, and with the trailer is going to take my wife and kids and I lots of interesting places we have yet to visit!

Trailer lid under construction...

 

baca327

Adventurer
Its really hard to argue with a engine design thats been evolving for 50 years, also backed by the Toyota AW4. Secondly solid axles front and rear and the ability to run the same driveshaft front and rear really makes it sound even better. Some uni-body stiffening plates and a good designed roll cage really tighten up the body. My complaint is not the interior build quality as the plastic mass manufactured panels are not what will bring you home. The vehicle does need upgrading for any serious terrain, specifically the cooling system but in reality its cheap and simple. I've highly contemplated selling my XJ but in reality at the end of the day I don't need a vehicle with heated seats, push button four wheel drive, or a quiet interior I want a vehicle that I know will start and if it doesn't the repair usually is not too labor intensive. I will soon bu updating my thread that I started so long ago as I move into another phase, essentially making the old new and upgrading the weak areas from a new paint job in sahara tan to long arms and a rebuild of the entire drivetrain. Also throughout the US the vehicle was mass produced for over a decade with essentially the same parts aside from sensors, ignition and fuel delivery so parts stores usually have the part you need in stock.I am forever sold on my XJ with the 242 as I have the ability to run AWD on the street or run 2wd on the highway for more MPG's.
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