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Buying Guide: The 1997-2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ

Nostalgia fuels the collector car market more than anything, and those of us who grew up in the SUV boom tend to fondly remember the Jeep Cherokee. The boxy SUV penned under American Motors ownership in the early 1980s survived two corporate takeovers before being unceremoniously scuttled in 2001 when Jeep introduced the cartoonish Liberty.

It’s unlikely that the Liberty will ever be considered more than a Jeep history footnote, but the Cherokee has seen a marked uptick in values over the last few years. Production has been over for nearly two decades, and despite many having been made, the relatively low cost of entry into Cherokee ownership means that few nice examples have been preserved.

Enthusiasts refer to the Cherokee by its internal code, XJ. Its Liberty replacement was called the KJ, and the current Cherokee is the KL. The current Cherokee is based on a front-wheel-drive chassis related more to the now-discontinued Chrysler 200 than to the larger, rear-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee.

We hope this information will help you sift through now-vintage XJ Cherokees to find a good one, so that you too can experience the charms of this forward-thinking little off-roader. Though the Cherokee was built for 17 years, this guide focuses on those produced after the first major face-lift in 1997. Later Cherokees are far more common today, and their dual airbags and wider availability of modern features such as power windows and locks, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and upgraded wiring throughout make them more appealing to most drivers.

What Body Styles and Trim Levels Were Available on the Jeep Cherokee XJ?

The Cherokee is a unibody vehicle — meaning it has no separate frame and instead has a carlike body welded to its chassis — and it makes use of solid front and rear axles that provide superior off-road suspension travel. This particular combination is unique to Jeep, though the automaker used similar construction on its first- and second-generation Grand Cherokees.

Most Cherokees make use of a strong 4.0-liter straight six rated between 1997 and 2001 at 190 horsepower, though a 2.5-liter inline four was standard fare on the base Cherokee SE. A 4-speed automatic transmission is far more common than the 5-speed manual gearbox standard on SE and Sport trim levels. The inline four could be had with a 3-speed automatic during some years, though Cherokees with the base engine are almost always former fleet trucks that tend to be very sparsely equipped.

A part-time transfer case called Command-Trac and not intended for use on dry pavement was standard on 4-wheel-drive models. An available transfer case called Selec-Trac added a full-time mode that could be left engaged year-round. Selec-Trac was generally optional, except on certain high-trim versions where it was standard, and is more common on well-equipped Cherokees, Selec-Trac was a line-item option most model years on the high-volume Cherokee Sport and could be had on certain fleet versions of the Cherokee SE. Manual transmission trucks came only with Command-Trac.

Two body styles were available. The 2-door Cherokee SE and Sport models have long front doors, while the 4-door configuration that was optional on the SE and Sport and standard on other trims is far more common. All Cherokees share a 167.4-in overall length, which makes them more than a foot shorter than a new Toyota RAV4. The Cherokee’s 101.4-in wheelbase is relatively long, though, which makes its ride fairly good for a small vehicle and improves its approach and departure angles when off-roading.

Depending on the year, the lineup started with the SE trim and moved upward through Sport, Classic, Country and Limited levels. Only two special edition versions were made for the U.S. market: Freedom and 60th Anniversary. We’ll cover trim levels later.

What Changes Were Made to the Jeep Cherokee XJ Over the Years?

For the updated Cherokee’s inaugural outing, the SE, Sport and Country trim-level lineup would set the stage for the next four years. Sports were most common, and most were ordered with optional power windows, locks and mirrors. The Country could be had with optional leather upholstery, while a power driver’s seat was optional on the Sport.

For 1998, Jeep revised the steering box, fitted an aluminum radiator and dropped the Country trim level in favor of the Classic. Optional on the Classic was a roughly $2,300 package that added leather upholstery, an overhead console, cruise control, tinted windows and Limited badging.

The 1999 lineup was largely a carryover from 1998, aside from body-color fender flares and bumper inserts for the Cherokee Sport. A running change included a revision to the intake system to improve emissions that also did a better job of bringing air into the cabin.

For 2000, Jeep added stylish 16-in wheels to the Classic (dark gray) and Limited (silver), and made heated seats and a power-adjustable passenger’s seat options on the Limited for the first time. Two limited-production models that built on the Sport were offered, the Freedom — which included different 16-in 5-spoke wheels, blue badges and unpainted bumpers — as well as the 60th Anniversary that had painted bumper corners, the Freedom’s 16-in 5-spoke wheels and various badges. Underneath, the 2000 Cherokee swapped in a distributorless ignition system that makes spark plug changes a cinch, as well as a low-pinion front differential generally seen to be less robust, though this is not typically a major reliability factor for unmodified Cherokees.

Jeep dropped the 2.5-liter 4-cylinder for 2001. A running change included discontinuation of the Classic trim level, at which time the leather upholstery, a power-adjustable driver’s seat, wood grain trim, tinted windows, an overhead console and other items that were previously standard on the Limited became optional. Presumably this run-out change was to help clear a proverbial overstock of Jeep parts. Production of the Cherokee ended in June 2001, and the last model off the line was a black Sport.

What Jeep Cherokee XJ Options, Features or Combinations Should I Get?

Most Jeepers will want 4WD and the 4.0-liter straight six, since the Cherokee’s reputation is in part built on its off-road capability and, anyway, the 4-cylinder was slow but not particularly frugal. The Command-Trac transfer case is more common, but the Selec-Trac system is more versatile for drivers in the snow belt thanks to its set-it-and-forget-it full-time mode.

Underneath, the 1997 through 1999 examples have a stronger front axle. The rear axle is a Dana 35 unit in models equipped with anti-lock brakes and is generally considered less robust than the Chrysler 8.25-in rear axle in non-ABS versions. However, all late 2001 model year Cherokees have the Dana 35, again presumably due to limited parts availability toward the end of production

Anti-lock brakes are said to be more troublesome, though the trade-off for their superior braking power in panic situations strikes us as worthwhile.

Optional all five model years and generally more common on higher-specification Cherokees is the Up Country Suspension package, which added taller springs, a limited-slip rear differential, enhanced cooling, skid plates and tow hooks. Though these features can be added separately, finding a Cherokee with them saves a fair amount of effort for drivers who plan to go off road, Plus, the higher ride height looks a little better anyway, though by now the springs in most have sagged with age and use unless they have been replaced.

The optional trailer towing package included upgraded engine cooling and a 5,000-pound rating, though realistically the Cherokee’s short wheelbase and light weight — even a loaded-up model weighs just 3,500 pounds — mean it’s not a great hauler. The trailer hitch is fine for small utility trailers or bike racks, though, and it provides some bumper protection off-road.

Handy owners can add many formerly optional features on their own, but a Cherokee with the overhead console, a power driver’s seat and cruise control is considered well-equipped.

What Are Some of the Jeep Cherokee’s Common Problems?

The Cherokee has a deserved reputation for its durability, though these were relatively inexpensive vehicles and were not noted for their assembly quality. The 4.0-liter straight six is largely reliable, with one glaring concern. For the 2000 and 2001 model years, Jeep switched suppliers for the head casting, and these later heads are known to crack. Replacement can run into four figures, though it’s worth doing for a clean example. However, it’s also worth asking if the previous owner has had the head replaced or inspected, as many have been rectified by now.

Small leaks are common with any vehicle of this age, and most gaskets are easy enough to replace.

Rust is a serious problem on cars that have lived in damp climates or where salt is used on the roads in winter. Corrosion should be obvious, and it can get expensive to repair since every bit of steel is structural on a unibody vehicle. Even on an example that doesn’t look rusty, look closely at the bottom seams inside the doors. These can be repaired inexpensively at home with a wire brush and chemical treatment, and doing so will prevent future problems.

The paint Jeep used wasn’t of a particularly high quality, and in sunny areas like the Southwest or Rocky Mountains, horizontal surfaces including the hood and roof can blister, which exposes bare metal. Not only does this look unsightly, but bare metal is quick to rust.

The Cherokee is a pretty simple vehicle without too many electric features to go wrong. More often than not, a nonfunctioning door lock, power window or speaker can be traced to the cheap wiring Jeep used that has a tendency to crack. Susceptible points include where wiring enters the door panels (behind rubber boots visible when the doors are open). Cracked wiring can be spliced for a repair, which more often than not fixes inoperative features.

The available power front seats — a power passenger’s seat was added in 2001 — have plastic gears that fail, preventing the seats from moving up/down or back/forth. These gears are reproduced and take a few hours for a home mechanic to replace.

Finally, a door that pops loudly as it opens almost certainly has a bad door check. Again, these are available new and require a couple of hours for most handy folks at home to replace. Plan on buying a plastic trim removal tool and some spare door clips since inevitably a few will break. Find a Jeep Cherokee for sale

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz is an author specializing in helping in-market consumers get the most bang for their buck -- and the best car, while they're at it. When not virtually shopping for new and used cars, Andrew can probably be found under the hood of a vintage classic that's rapidly losing fluids.

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