Modest Hero

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.

1985 Jeep Cherokee Limited (c)

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.

Lesser spotted (outside North America) 1993 Jeep Cherokee two/three-door (c)

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.

Woodie: 1989 Jeep Wagoneer XJ (c)

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.

Colour-keyed: 2000 Jeep Cherokee Limited (c)

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.



Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

34 thoughts on “Modest Hero”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Thanks for the lovely insight into the XJ. I have a soft spot for both the SJ and XJ. The XJ is of course better suited to European conditions. I’ve never driven driven one (same is true for the SJ), so looking forward to your experience with the XJ.

  2. What on Earth was the point of the 2WD Chinese Jeep having a 77mm shorter wheelbase? It seems like a lot of engineering and money to produce very little difference, and goes against what we often hear about the Chinese market wanting more rear room for status purposes.

    1. Hi Andy. There was certainly a RWD version, the BJ7250, also called the ‘City Special’ but sources seem to differ about its dimensions. Another source says that it was 90mm shorter overall, but only 5mm shorter in wheelbase. Because of the lack of corroboration, I’ve amended the text to reflect this uncertainty.

  3. Behind the styling and engineering, there’s a lot of human history in the XJ: Dick Teague’s last design to go into production, François Castaing demonstrating how capable and versatile he could be, and of course fellow European Roy C Lunn, a Londoner who moved from Aston Martin to (sort of) replace Gerald Palmer at Jowett, going on to a meteoric career progression at Ford of Britain and USA, then joining AMC to direct engineering for Jeep.

    Moving on to dull commerce, a friend who moved to the USA in the mid-80s was astonished at the success of the Cherokee in the UK, and the prices being charged. His view of the Cherokee was that it was a lowest common denominator product, bought mainly by government agencies and local authorities. Private buyers were usually those too hard up to afford a Bronco, Blazer, Montero, or Trooper. He may have been somewhat partisan in this, as he was, and still is, the manager of a Mitsubishi franchise in Florida. Also I don’t think he realised the scale of the UK’s “can’t wait for a new Discovery or Shogun” market at the time.

    1. Good morning Robertas. I’ll keep my powder dry for now, but I think your friend was being more than a little harsh on the Cherokee. I speak as someone who ran both a Discovery and a Cherokee, each for three years, the Cherokee replacing the Discovery.

    2. Daniel, as I’ve hinted, I would not promote my friend’s view as gospel. This was in the early ’90s long before SUV-mania conquered all, and the ‘utility’ part was very much to the fore in what was available. Florida was not prime territory for rugged, go-anywhere vehicles, and I suspect that the Cherokee’s strengths were better valued in the northern ‘snowbelt’ states.

      Chrysler, by then Jeep’s masters, deserve credit for seeing an opportunity in the UK and making a success of it.

  4. I hope I’m not pre-empting, but the Comanche, the Cherokee’s pick-up twin, is worthy of honourable mention:

    Unusually for the USA at the time, it is constructed in a similar way to the chassis-cab Transit and many other European vans, with a monocoque cab and boxed chassis rails from the back of the cab rearwards, topped by an unstressed pick-up bed.

    A very neat design, but it was never a great sales success, with fewer than 200,000 produced between 1985 and 1992.

    1. Hi Robertas. Thanks for making mention of the Comanche, which I really rather like. The hybrid construction makes sense as it would have allowed the load-bay to be easily replaced with a more specialised rear deck if required. It’s a shame it didn’t do better, although 200,000 sales is not to be sniffed at.

    2. The Comanche’s sales were likely restricted by the lack of an extended-cab model to compete with the Chevrolet S-10 and Ford Ranger. While it lingered in the lineup for several years after the Chrysler buyout, it was dropped since it competed internally with the Dodge Dakota which by that time had a broader range including extended-cab and V8 availability.

  5. Looking forward to reading your report about personal experience. Just bought a 2001 model – still seems like a good choice to pull heavier trailers, even though prices have gone up lately for decent ones.
    It’s also quite interesting to follow the various engine, gearbox, transfer case and axle options that have been offered over the years, the 2.8 V6 from GM being only one of various strange choices. There was for a short time a Peugeot manual gearbox which was not up to the task (because not specified for the torque requirements). And the VM Motori 2.5l is not particularly reliable neither. The 4.0l, on the other hand, while not very economic, is virtually indestructible, as is the auto box, at least as long as it doesn’t overheat. There were also different specs for authorities – for instance bigger rear drum brakes!

  6. Hi everybody. Just back from a two-week summer break along Spain’s Rioja wine country, northern coast and Galicia. Lovely post about a car that is quite significant to me. In 1992 my family had a Venezuelan-built Jeep Cherokee Limited, which had a similar leather-clad interior as the Wagoneer, but thankfully without the wood panelling on the sides, which really only works on the original Wagoneer. Being a 1992 model, our Cherokee had the upgraded 4.0 six with Chrysler fuel injection and electronics, which pushed the power to over 190hp (non-catalytic converter version). I remember that engine being the best feature of that car. It was a beast and made a magnificent roar when you stepped on it, making the Cherokee nose point to the sky while you were pushed hard into the seat. Another good thing about that Cherokee was the nimble handling and deceptively small size. It looked bigger than it actually was.

    Downsides included a hopelessly numb steering, rather weak a/c, some interior rattles, and a suspension that while reasonably soft, was very harsh on sharp potholes. The most surprising thing about those Venezuelan-built Cherokees was that they came standard with locally-made 255/60R15 Eagle GT sport tires, which definitely helped the handling and gave the car an awesome stance. I later learned that those were the exact model and size tires used on the early eighties C3 Corvette. I have no idea why Jeep Venezuela chose to put them on the Cherokee Limited and when they tweaked the range again in the mid-90s, they went back to more reasonable tyre sizes.

    1. Hi Cesar and welcome back. Hope you had a enjoyable (and indulgent!) holiday. I won’t scoop the piece on my own experience with the Cherokee (due Friday) except to say that I do remember the engine note well and would agree!

  7. Thanks for a great article Daniel and one close to my heart as my father was an early adopter of these, swapping a TVR for an LHD SJ, then the full wood grained Wagoneer and finally a more subtle 4.0 Limited for family transport duties. I remember at school the excitement generated by movable seat controls, which was novel in those days. Looking forward to your reminiscences!

  8. My boss had one in the mid ‘90s and I drove it occasionally. Compared with the Astra F I was driving, the Jeep felt very high up and bouncy. The Astra felt like a sports car by comparison. That said, when I first drove the Astra, it seemed very squashy, after a MK 2 Polo, and the Polo seemed compliant after a Chevette, so everything’s relative.

    I recall the Jeep’s engine roar, too. I prefer the SJs, though and have very happy memories of those.

  9. Hi Daniel, thanks for this. This Cherokee has always been a favourite of mine, exactly because of its unibody construction which made it a lot less bulky than traditional off roaders. I thought (and think) the design well resolved, too. I didn’t know that it was in some ways a remnant of that desastrous Renault episode, glad some good came of that. Look forward to your experiences with both the Jeep and the Land Rover, since both are well liked but not known for their reliability.

    For the sake of completeness, here is the BAW Qishi mentioned in the article, in facelifted form. It seems they tried to reference the face of the Grand Cherokee. It looks a bit clumsy, though, with something of a lack of design nuance.

    1. Good morning Tom. Yes, you’re right about the Qushi: that front end really is a bit heavy-handed. The 1997 Jeep facelift version was very neat and much more size-appropriate to the rest of the vehicle.

  10. Good morning Daniel. This car in known here in Greece as the cheroke only, the characterization jeep is used to describe the original jeep cars, old and new. It first appeared in the early 1990s, at the beginning of the “wealthy years”. It disappeared at the end of the wealthy years. Now, you do not see it on the roads. It is interesting to comment that if first appeared as a company and government vehicle.

    1. Good morning gpant. Yes, it’s strange how the ‘Jeep’ name is used differently in different countries. In some, it is used generically to describe any sort of SUV type vehicle, but in Greece it is used very specifically to refer to the successors of the original design.

  11. I remember it clearly as it appears in the photos 1 and 2 of the article. Long and short versions as they called them here. It gained a reputation of a serious, professional grade, off road vehicle. The police used it, white with blue lines, the fire corps, vivid red, the telecommunications organization, ote, light blue and yellow line, the electirc power corporation, dei, orange and yellow line, you could see them anywhere in the 1990s, in mountains and villages. I think that the defence forces were not using it, I do not remember. Please note that the electricity and the telecommunication companies are considered the harshest off road users here, because they have to maintain their networks high up the mountains, where roads are simply non-existent.

  12. Its private owners and users were people who visited the countryside, had a trailer to tow along, or liked hunting (poor birdies and forest creatures). The style conscious preferred the original style jeep.

  13. Exactly Daniel. The specific designations YJ, TJ, JK, JL are known only to the off road specialists. All the other people call it jeep.

  14. It was in the summer of 1987 or 1988, I can’t remember exactly, we were in California filming and our boss at the time bought a Cherokee in dark green with gold stripes. That must have been a Limited. Anyway, he thought the gold stripes were a bit too ostentatious and asked me if they could be removed without damaging the paintwork. Of course, what goes on, comes off. So I stood in the driveway of the Chateau armed with a hairdryer, limited the Cherokee some more and gave the hotel staff another reason to shake their heads at the crazy Germans.
    I don’t remember much about driving the Cherokee, only that it seemed quite compact in LA traffic and was very easy to drive – at least easier than the ’57 Ford Fairlane Convertible I rented at the time to drive my now wife in style to sunset in Santa Monica…

    1. Good morning Fred. Your comment raises an interesting question in my mind: apart from a discreet pinstripe (ideally painted, not stuck-on), have stripes and decals EVER enhanced the look of a motor vehicle? Possibly this, and a few other cars with sporting pretentions:

      But these are just horrible, IMHO:

    2. Daniel, I think your question can be answered with a definite “Probably never”.

      The LandRover is really scary. One can’t even imagine who the target group for it should be.

    3. I think the Twingo more or less works:

      although the pinstripe arguably works better:

      As does the Up GTI (there’s an exclamation mark in there somewhere):

      The very modest striping on the 205 Rallye works nicely as well, I think, if you count that as striping:

      Otherwise, muscle cars, since they’re meant to be ostentatious:

      And of course, racing liveries:

    4. Good morning Tom. Certainly, decals and stripes work better on cars with sporting pretentions, and the racing liveries are iconic.

      The only one of the cars you feature that I really dislike is the Twingo with the pinstripe. This is possibly because it reminds me of those rolls of stick-on pinstripe you could buy in motor accessory shops back in the 1970’s. Many were applied without any proper planning or due care and wandered along the flanks of the poor car like a drunk attempting to make its way home from the pub!

      I think that these stripes work much better on the Twingo:

    5. Hi Daniel, funny that: I quite liked the pinstripe. At least in the lighting from that photo as it emphasizes that quirky character line (is that what you call it?) of the Twingo. For the same reason I quite like the Gulf livery, although these trompe l’oeil effects probably only work well in certain light conditions (certainly the Twingo one). This lovely Datsun livery (and car) works well regardless, I think:

    6. Whoops, forgot to say: I quite like the Twingo stripes from your example. It really suits the car.

  15. Can decals improve the look of a car?
    Mostly not, but sometimes YES!

    exhibit 1:
    The pixelated black fade decal on ph1 GT turbos – on my old GTE, the decal was removed, so the first thing i did was source some reproductions and stick them on.

    Exhibit 2:
    i just love the orange/yellow/brown striping on old landcruisers.

    80s japanese stereo graphics!

    1. Hi, bjarnetv. I’d score those, in order:

      1. Yes, definitely!
      2. No
      3. No
      4. Maybe.

      Other opinions are, of course, most welcome! 😁

    2. Maybe its just because i grew up in the 80-90s, and therefore have bad taste, but this thing is also pretty cool looking:

    3. Hi bjarnetv. I’ve embedded the image directly in your comment so everyone can admire(!) it. 😁

      Joking aside, I think I understand the appeal of decals on the Land Cruiser, especially with the chromed wheels. It’s not meant to be taken too seriously.

  16. I would like to add that the Cheroke is considered one of the best 4by4 off-road vehicles. This club has a small number of members. The Land Rover Defender, Wrangler, Cheroke, Lada Niva. This is the opinion of a friend, who is a member of an off road enthusiasts society. They also like the Suzuki Jimny, they say that it is well suited to the terrain of this particular country.

  17. A friend was very abusive of his XJ, the body-frame developed a crack in one of the rails that is welded to the floorpan. It was repaired by welding a piece of steel plate over the crack. I just googled “xj cherokee cracks in body frame” and discovered that the issue was not unique.

    Otherwise the XJ is a very capable and well developed for off-roading. Of particular note is that the wheelbase of the 2 door is within one inch of the Wrangler’s and that the XJ’s overall height is particularly low, extending the potential limits of its rock-crawling and steep grade climbing ability, also benefiting its handling and stability on the road. A downside is that the interior isn’t nearly as capacious as other off roaders such as Discovery, Land Cruiser or Pajero, and taller drivers/passengers might find the headroom insufficient for serious off-roading. Mechanically, the owner was very satisfied with its refinement, robustness, and reliablity, I did not observe any evidence of untoward groans, squeaks, rattles, or mechanical frailties of any sort, which is notable considering what did fail.

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