Although the Jeep brand is largely synonymous with the open-top (and much-loved) Jeep Wrangler 4-wheeler, there’s another Jeep model that’s recently seen a resurgence in popularity and appreciation. It’s the Jeep Cherokee "XJ," the internal model code for the Cherokee that was sold from the early 1980s all the way until 2001. People love the XJ. People obsess over the XJ. People get into fights over the XJ when nice ones are listed for sale online.
I decided I had to see what all the fuss was about. So a couple months ago, I borrowed a nice 2001 "XJ" Cherokee from my friend Andrew, in Denver, and I spent the day driving it around town and filming a video. At the end of this day, I, too spent the afternoon browsing online advertisements to find clean, well-preserved XJ Cherokee models.
For those of you who don’t know the XJ Cherokee, a quick overview. The Cherokee was sold new from 1984 to 2001, and it lasted through three parent companies: American Motors, the Chrysler Corporation and DaimlerChrysler. It was offered in 2- or 4-door guise, and there were several different engines available — although, by the end, nearly every XJ was using a 190-horsepower 4.0-liter straight six. The XJ Cherokee’s styling primarily remained the same throughout its near-20-year lifespan, receiving upgrades but never a full redesign until the Jeep Liberty finally replaced it in 2002.
And that styling is one of the reasons people love this thing so much. The XJ Cherokee was famously boxy — and as its years on the market wore on, SUVs started to become rounder and curvier, with flowing lines to make them less utilitarian-looking. The XJ Cherokee proudly wore its boxy design, with right angles on just about every surface and virtually every body line. While curvy SUVs from the 1990s have become outdated with time (think of the original Mercedes ML320, or the Lexus RX 300), the XJ Cherokee’s design is still attractive today — largely because it wasn’t married to one time period.
But it’s not all about design. Another major benefit of the XJ Cherokee was its durability — especially the 4.0-liter engine, which was notoriously reliable and shockingly easy to fix when it did break. And that ease of fixing carried far beyond the engine, as the XJ Cherokee has exposed screws basically everywhere — suggesting the car can largely be taken apart with a screwdriver or a wrench. While other vehicles try to hide their construction behind trim panels and plastic pieces, the XJ Cherokee is a lot more earnest. If you want to remove the brake light, for instance, you can do it in about 30 seconds with a wrench — no need to strip away any trim pieces or order a special tool from the automaker.
The Cherokee’s durability and earnest attitude carries over to its driving experience. There’s no overassisted steering; it’s heavy, but there’s a nice steering feel, and little vagueness. The driving position is upright, just as you’d expect, and you can see basically everything everywhere — the benefit of a boxy vehicle manufactured before the advent of rising belt lines and many airbags. Sitting behind the wheel, you look at a squared dashboard with simple, easy-to-read gauges and no excess anywhere. There are levers where modern cars have buttons. There are buttons where modern cars have touchscreens. There are no touchscreens. Interestingly, however, there is a dimmer for the lighting on the sun visor, which makes the sun visor lighting far more advanced than in most of the expensive luxury cars I test.
The Cherokee also has another benefit that becomes immediately obvious the moment you get behind the wheel: size. Although the Cherokee is now a small SUV that’s borderline midsize, the old Cherokee is really a subcompact — it’s shorter in length than a Mazda CX-3. Combine that with endless visibility, and the Cherokee is wildly easy to drive and park, even if it’s not exactly the best-handling car on the market. You can just see everything, including exactly where the Cherokee ends and begins, and you can squeeze into parking spots the new Cherokee just dreams about. Then again, the new Cherokee offers an automated parallel parking system, proving there are some benefits to modern technology.
But Cherokee people wouldn’t look at it that way. Cherokee people like their vehicles simple, and durable, and boxy — and they also like the fact that it’s easy to modify the Cherokee for serious off-roading, which isn’t anywhere near as easy on modern Jeep models (save for the Wrangler, of course). The old Cherokee could be anything to anyone. A 4-wheeler for weekend duty. A family car with a cargo area and five seats — even if the back seats were a bit small. A city-friendly runabout that can be parked basically anywhere. A simple car for older people, or a cheap car for younger people. It’s the jack of all trades — and after 20 years on the market, just about everyone has a Cherokee memory. Factor it all in, and it’s easy to see why everyone loves the XJ Jeep Cherokee. Find a used Jeep Cherokee for sale
Doug DeMuro is an automotive journalist who has written for many online and magazine publications. He once owned a Nissan Cube and a Ferrari 360 Modena. At the same time.