When we last left off with my $300 Jeep saga, the engine was disassembled to replace the leaky head gasket. Progress was slow over the holidays, as my Car Wizard went on a 2-week cruise in Mexico, where he was recognized by a few Oversteer fans while feeding monkeys at some Mayan ruins. Now that the Car Wizard is back in action, he’s wizarded back together my engine — and it’s unbelievable how nice this 20-year-old Jeep looks and feels after 361,000 miles.
Admittedly, I’m way past the 6-month mark of ownership with this 1998 Jeep Cherokee — but there hasn’t been much to tell since it vomited its cooling system on a Colorado mountain top back in May. Before that disastrous adventure, I had bought this Jeep non-running for only $300 — and I was able to quickly revive it with just a new starter. I then proceeded to throw more money at it by installing a suspension lift kit and tires, along with a few other minor repairs, sending my total investment to $2,800. With the head gasket failure, I decided to dive even further into this Jeep — and I gave the green light to fix all the oil leaks, as well as the newly leaking water pump and the dead passenger window motor. This now puts me $4,300 into this Cherokee — certainly way more than it’s worth.
This ownership experience certainly proves the adage “there’s nothing more expensive than a cheap car.” If I had the time and desire to do more of the work myself, I would’ve spent way less on this Jeep — but given my wrenching inabilities, doing more work myself would also result in way fewer limbs. I’m sure at this point, most will think I’m a fool for going this deep into a 360,000-mile vehicle — but I don’t regret it for a moment.
What has always struck me about this Jeep is the astounding cosmetic condition. The body is totally rust-free, with all original paint in great condition. The undercarriage is similarly spotless — especially now with the oil leaks fixed from the oil pan and oil filter housing gaskets. But what really gets me is the time capsule interior: With the exception of the worn leather steering wheel, the interior of this 361,000-mile Jeep could pass for 36,000 miles. I sold a lot of these XJ body Jeeps during my days as a used car dealer, and I can’t recall ever owning one this clean.
After nearly six months of not driving this Jeep, bringing it back home from the wizard’s shop reminded me of why I loved this generation of Cherokee in the first place. The rugged simplicity is the standard response most XJ Jeep enthusiasts will give — but many people are surprised when I tell them how comfortable these are. The high seating position with thick cushioning gives my long-legged body the thigh support that few modern cars provide. Automotive journalists of today would blast this bar-stool seat by comparing it to the La-Z-Boy-style cushioning offered by some modern cars — but I’ll never understand this trend of fitting Recaro-looking sport seats in vehicles that will never see track use outside of car magazine tests.
The other wonder of this Jeep is the engine — and it’s not just the incredibly high mileage it’s achieved. Somehow, this ancient pushrod 6-cylinder, probably designed by painting the schematics on a cave wall by torchlight, feels better than some modern Jeep engines. Its torquey nature is perfect for zipping this little Jeep around town — and it’s good for off-roading applications, too. The wheezy, fuel-efficient engines in modern little Jeeps, with their disconnected-feeling electronic throttle control, will never feel as good as this Cherokee.
Since most of these old Cherokees have been hacked, rusted or beaten to death, it makes sense why they’re starting to be collectible. Considering the high mileage of mine, it’ll likely never be worth much — but I truly feel like I’ve rescued this survivor from the brink. If I hadn’t given this thing a second glance, the next person who bought it would have probably given this Jeep a military camo paint scheme and light bars — and, thus, would have killed it in short order. So I guess you can call me the Jane Goodall of Jeeps — or the Sarah McLachlan of McHoopties. If only I could save them all … Find a used Jeep Cherokee for sale
Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.
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