Although not as instantly recognisable as the Wrangler, the 1983 Jeep Cherokee was a well-conceived and thoroughly engineered vehicle that served its maker well over three decades.
Genericization is a rather ugly word, but it describes a phenomenon whereby a market-leading proprietary brand name becomes so dominant that it is used to describe a generic product. It can be a double-edged sword for manufacturers. On one hand, it recognises their market leadership but, conversely, it can lead to the loss of valuable trademark protection.
Cellophane, escalator, zipper and aspirin are all examples of formerly trademarked proprietary names that fell victim to what marketing types term genericide. Aspirin, then owned by the German pharmaceuticals giant Bayer AG, was the subject of legal action against a rival drug manufacturer in 1921. Bayer lost the action because aspirin was already widely used generically instead of its pharmaceutical name, the unwieldy acetylsalicylic acid.
In the automotive world, one marque name that has sailed dangerously close to this particular wind is Jeep. In the United States there is little confusion but, elsewhere in the world, Jeep is often used as a generic name for 4WD off-road vehicles of many different sorts, even those bearing scant resemblance to the American genuine article. This tendency has been exacerbated by would-be competitors, most notably India’s Mahindra, which shamelessly ripped off Jeep’s signature styling details.
Today we will take a look at the genuine article: not the classic Wrangler model, successor to the original Willys 1941 MB and 1944 CJ, but one equally significant in the company’s history, the 1983 Jeep Cherokee XJ. This long running and highly successful model remained in US production until 2001 and in China until 2014.
The XJ was not the first of what are now known as Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs). That title is held by its larger ancestor, the 1963 Wagoneer. It was, however, the first to be built using a monocoque bodyshell rather than traditional body-on-frame construction. It was also of a size that fitted much more comfortably into urban and suburban environments outside the US. The XJ was designed during Renault’s ultimately ill-fated alliance with American Motors (AMC), which had acquired Jeep in 1970.
Former Renault engineer, François Castaing, was appointed head of product engineering and development at AMC in 1980. He instigated a new approach to streamline product development whereby a single team would be responsible for all aspects from conception to launch. Castaing was responsible for the drivetrain, Roy Lunn, AMC’s vice-president of engineering, the suspension, and Dick Teague, AMC’s vice-president of design, oversaw the styling. It was a neat and tidy design, rectilinear in the early-1980’s fashion, but that suited its intended role perfectly. It was offered in three and five-door versions with a conventional top-hinged one-piece tailgate.
The monocoque construction allowed the XJ to be downsized considerably over its SJ predecessor without a great sacrifice in interior space. It was 535mm (21”) shorter overall at 4,200mm (165¼”) but only 185mm (7¼”) shorter in wheelbase, which improved approach and departure angles considerably for off-road driving. Even more significantly, it was over 500kg (1,100lbs) lighter than the SJ, which allowed engines to be downsized significantly.
The SJ’s engines ranged in size from a 4.2 litre inline-six to a 6.6 litre V8, but the XJ’s engine range initially comprised a new 2.5 litre inline-four and a 2.8 litre V6, the latter bought in from General Motors. This was a rather odd choice: Jeep’s own 2,464cc engine in launch form developed 105bhp (78kW) and 132 lb ft. (179Nm) of torque. The GM 2,838cc engine bettered these numbers by only 5bhp (4kW) and 13 lb ft.(18Nm), barely enough to offset the additional weight of the V6. The anomaly was corrected in 1987 when the GM engine was replaced by Jeep’s own 3,964cc inline-six, which in launch form developed 173bhp (129kW) and 220 lb ft (298Nm) of torque.
A 2.1 litre Renault Douvrin turbodiesel inline-four was added in 1985. This 2,068cc unit produced 85bhp (63kW) and 132 lb ft. (179Nm) of torque. It was replaced in 1994 with a larger 2,499cc turbodiesel sourced from Italian diesel engine specialist VM Motori. This produced 114bhp (85kW) and 221 lb ft. (300Nm).
Between 1984 and 1990, Jeep offered an upmarket version of the XJ called the Wagoneer. It was immediately distinguished from the Cherokee by its vertically stacked twin rectangular headlamps and chrome-trimmed front grille. Faux-wood side panelling was available on this model, thankfully only as an option. It had been intended to replace its larger SJ namesake, but that model remained on sale and outlived its smaller sibling by a year to 1991.
Exports to continental Europe began in 1989 and right-hand-drive models reached the UK in 1993. The BBC sent Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson to Alaska to road test a US-specification XJ, fitted with the 4.0 litre engine and automatic transmission, and he was impressed. Clarkson praised its combination of decent on-road dynamics with excellent off-road capabilities.
Performance from the 3,964cc engine, by then uprated to produce 190bhp (142kW), was strong, with a 0 to 60mph (97km/h) time of around 9.5 seconds, comparable to the contemporary Golf GTI. He liked its compact size but still decent interior and boot space(1), although he criticised the restricted opening of the rear passenger doors. Overall, Clarkson thought it would offer stiff competition to the Discovery in Europe and should do well.
After thirteen years on the market, the XJ’s boxy shape was beginning to look old, so in 1997 it was given a subtle but highly effective facelift to update it. No metalwork changes to the body were involved, but the glass-fibre nose was replaced with a new, more rounded item to make it look a little less bluff.
At the rear, there was a matching new and smoother tailgate, now in steel rather than glass-fibre, and new tail lights. The flanks remained unaltered, except for the deletion of the fixed quarter-lights in the front doors, smoother wheel arch extensions and new side mouldings. Inside, a new more curvaceous dashboard replaced the cliff-like original.
US Production of the XJ Cherokee continued until 2001 and a total of around three million were sold. However, the XJ had also been manufactured in China since 1985, the product of an American Motors joint-venture company, Beijing Jeep, established in 1984, and Chinese production would continue until 2014. A number of unique variants were offered, including a 2WD (only) model called the City Special and a version with a raised roofline to accommodate chauffeur-driven customers.
Early Bejing Jeep models looked virtually identical to their US counterparts, but in 2004 the BJ2500 model was given a new sloping front end with larger headlamps. This was updated and renamed the BAW (Beijing Auto Works) Qishi in 2009. The Qishi was fitted with a 2.0 Litre petrol or 2.2 Litre diesel engine, both Nissan designs, mated to a five-speed manual gearbox and was available in two or four-wheel drive. Production continued until 2014.
The Jeep Cherokee XJ is one of Jeep’s most successful and enduring models. Its longevity was a result of the fundamental rightness of the original design. It was a car that quietly got in with its job, either as a family holdall, capable off-roader, or working vehicle: in other words, a modest hero.
The Cherokee XJ is also of personal interest, as my partner and I owned one, a 1998 4.0 Litre Sport, for three years. A report on our experiences with it will follow.
(1) This was pre-(in)famous Clarkson, who was not yet above commenting on such prosaic matters.