The Wrangler’s rock-solid rep as the standard bearer of the off-roading universe remains intact. But some of its most fervent competition for space on trails, in four-wheeling blogs and how-to build threads continues to come from a very familiar place: the Jeep Cherokee.
As Wrangler’s bigger, younger and equally-renowned Jeep sibling, the Cherokee remains a perennial favorite nearly two decades removed from its heyday. It’s heralded for its durability, attainability and reasonable price tag. This makes the XJ, its shorthand Jeep call sign, as desirable as ever on the trails. And even more so in today’s ever-expanding renaissance of aftermarket modifications.
Its unmistakable physique is often credited as the spark that ignited a national frenzy, inspiring the explosion of the compact SUV genre at the turn of the 21st century. The XJ debuted in 1984, though the name was around for a decade prior as an offshoot of the Wagoneer. The dual off-road beater and daily driver experienced consistent evolution through mechanical and cosmetic tweaks during its early years.
Last Gen Jeep Cherokee Stands Out
But a great many XJ lovers still believe the golden age of the brand to be its final form. Those produced between 1997 and 2001 are something extra special. And there are as many reasons to show love for this era as there are XJ’s still on the road. Which, by the way, is a helluva lot.
It’s not difficult for even the untrained eye to distinguish between 97-01 XJ’s and those that preceded them. Major renovations in ‘97 smoothed out front and rear corners of the vehicle. The manufacturer rolled out restyled taillights and additional plastic molding on the door as well. Gone were the front vent windows of years prior, reducing wind noise. The spare tire moved to the interior.
Inside, the XJ was treated to a long-awaited restyling. There was an all new design and a modernized instrument panel, integrated cup holders and stereo systems with available cassette and CD players. A more solid unibody frame, in contrast to Wrangler’s less stable body-bolted-to-frame approach, and more effective door seals led to improved marks in noise, volume and harshness (NVH) readings.
The massively beloved Power Tech HO 4.0L inline 6-cylinder engine is often the first spec mentioned. Bulletproof. Legendary. Unkillable. No lie, Paul Bunyanlike stories about how incredibly long one can be run without any oil at all litter the Internet. It was introduced in 1991, souped up in 1996 and stuck around until production ceased in 2001.
But 1997’s massive overhaul saw its ‘96 engine revamp improved upon with a simplified wiring configuration and better connectors. Its 190 horsepower capability and 225 lb-ft of torque at 3000 RPMs was and remains more than adequate. So expect zero issues maneuvering The Rubicon Trail or favorite local backwoods terrain. There are, of course, inline 4-cylinders XJ’s to be found since they were produced until 2000. But c’mon, that bulletproof inline six!
The XJ’s stock suspension is a combination of coil springs up front and a leaf-spring back end. Believe it or not, this made the Cherokee a better option than the Wrangler for both towing capacity and the comfort of extra passengers. And it was born ready for semi-serious crawling exercises right off of the assembly line.
The years 1998 and 1999 endured minor adjustments, with trim levels flip-flopping in value and colors being added. Limited replaced Country in the top spot, a Classic package debuted, etc. New bells and whistles abound on the road to continued refinement. Roof racks, air conditioning, heated front seats and anti-theft devices all became possibilities with one trim package or another.
In 2000, the famed inline six improved yet again. This time running cleaner to meet Low Emission Vehicle criteria. Chrome highlights on Limited Cherokees were introduced during this year, further distinguishing it from the pack. Finally 2001, the XJ’s swan song (until the Cherokee name’s resurrection in 2013) sees the discontinuation of the lilliputian 2.5L engine, and little other news.
Yours for the Taking
Understandably, 2017 is a fantastic time to own a nearly 20-year-old vehicle. And they’re out there for the taking. Just over 900,000 Cherokees rolled off of the line between 1997 and 2001. It’s difficult to say exactly how many are still on the road, but the simplest answer is, “A lot of ‘em.”
And there are still plenty near you. Although, many bemoan the consequences of 2009’s “Cash For Clunkers” government program that took untold thousands of perfectly serviceable XJ fixer-uppers to the compactor far too soon. And they’re still plenty affordable too, especially compared to a Wrangler TJ from that era. Kelley Blue Book lists a 1997 XJ in good condition at just a smidgen over $3,000 from a dealer. And pay roughly half of that from a private party. (Cue the sad Sarah Mclaughlin music: “For just dollars a day, you can bring a former daily driver into your home and give it a new chance at life as a trail-crawling second vehicle.”)
Personalize Your Ride
The explosion in popularity of XJ’s as something to be customized with aftermarket modifications has grown far beyond its cottage industry underpinnings, from lift kits and cargo racks to custom tubular doors. This means your rig can be as lifted, or as murdered out, or as chrome-covered, or as mean, or as weird as you think it should be.
So when they say sibling rivalries can often be one sided, think again. When Frank Stallone is at his folks’ house for Thanksgiving, it’s not hard to picture his story about a speaking role in an upcoming made-for-TV movie being cut short by big brother Sylvester snarking something like, “Yeah yeah that’s great Frank, nobody cares. I made Rocky. Now pass the sweet potatoes.”
The Cherokee is no Frank Stallone. The XJ stands alone as a bonafide American classic with no help from anybody. A trail-ready Cherokee is every bit as capable as the competition and currently occupies a sweet spot in the market. Time to embrace the Cherokee’s rich tradition!