The author recalls his experience of the Jeep Cherokee XJ, an impulse and irrational purchase that turned out rather well.
My partner and I had the use of a Land-Rover Discovery as my perk company car for three years until 1999. It was a thoroughly useful device and we missed it after it went back, especially as our other vehicle was a 1997 Mercedes-Benz SLK 230K convertible, by no means the most practical (or reliable) of cars.
We decided to look for a second-hand SUV but, fearing the Discovery’s reputation for unreliability(1), we chose to look instead for a Mitsubishi Shogun or Isuzu Trooper.(2) Unfortunately, for our relatively modest budget of around £10k to £12k, the Shogun and Trooper examples we saw were mainly Japanese grey imports in lairy two-tone colour schemes with an overload of chrome, while some were even displaying early signs of corrosion on the bodywork.(3)
We visited a 4×4 specialist in deepest Berkshire in our search. None of the obvious contenders impressed us much, but our eyes fell instead upon a lovely Jeep Cherokee XJ. It was one of the post-facelift models, a 1998 4.0 litre Sport with automatic transmission. It was a year-old vehicle in a smart metallic blue, in as-new condition with 9k miles on the clock, for sale at roughly 60% of its new list price, such was the unpopularity of big petrol engines in small(ish) SUVs.
We took it for a test drive and I was immediately impressed by the pulling power of the unsophisticated but strong 4.0 litre straight-six. The interior was definitely not luxurious, but perfectly practical and it felt well put together. We both really liked the car’s cheeky Tonka Toy looks. Sport was Jeep shorthand for base model and the car lacked the leather upholstery, alloy wheels and air conditioning of the more upmarket versions.
To my eyes, the steel wheels and black wheel arch extensions and bumpers looked more suited to its character than the slightly ersatz alloy wheels and colour-keyed exterior fittings of the Limited and Orvis versions. Only the lack of air conditioning was a significant omission.
The limited interior space compared with the Discovery was a bit of a surprise. The spare wheel stood upright on the right-hand side of the boot, covered by carpeting but robbing valuable width. Otherwise, however, the Cherokee proved a very amiable companion over three years and 50k miles. Driving it was a hoot. In 2WD mode, you could easily power-slide around roundabouts (only in theory, officer, I promise I never actually did so!)
The only serious criticism concerned the brakes and all-terrain tyres: it was all too easy to lock up on a greasy road surface unladen in 2WD mode, as I found out to my cost when I nudged the tail of a dithering ancient Ford Escort attempting to turn right in front of me, then deciding otherwise. My fault, (almost) entirely, I have to admit.
Contrary to its reputation, the Cherokee was totally reliable. Regarding fuel economy, I was always afraid to measure it accurately, but the on-board computer used to register low-20 miles per US gallon, for our mainly rural open-road driving. That equates to around 26mpg (10.9L/100km).
The Cherokee became a true beast of burden when we began the renovation of a formerly grand but very dilapidated Regency country house in deepest Norfolk in early 2000. The rear seats were almost permanently folded down and all manner of building materials were carried without fuss. One memorable mishap, however, was when a five-litre tin of oil-based paint fell over in the boot, spilling much of its contents into the plastic boot-liner. Thankfully, the upstand of the latter was sufficient to contain the spilled paint, other than what had splashed elsewhere, but cleaning up the mess was a hideous job and I don’t think we ever fully expunged the smell of white spirit.
The Cherokee received regular servicing, but little love otherwise. By the time we came to trade it in, for a new Ford Ranger pick-up truck in 2002, it still looked pretty presentable, apart from the steel wheels, which were rather rusty. Our Cherokee lived on in other hands until June 2013 and 110k miles, when it received its final annual MOT certificate. Despite a first-time pass with only a couple of advisories, it was presumably scrapped or otherwise written off during the following year.
Comparing the Cherokee with the Discovery that preceded it is instructive. In terms of sheer practicality, the Discovery has to win hands-down as it was much more commodious, thanks mainly to its tall build. The price paid for all that interior space was the Discovery’s rather ponderous handling and initially rather alarming roll angles through bends and (especially) roundabouts.
The Cherokee was much more fun and car-like to drive. In fairness to the Discovery, pitching its 2.5-litre turbo-diesel engine against the Cherokee’s 4.0-litre petrol was only ever going to produce one winner in terms of performance. Neither was ever seriously tested for its 4×4 off-road abilities. Both were equally reliable, and equally appealing, albeit in quite different ways, so very much horses for courses.
If I had to choose, which one would I have again? That’s easy: the Cherokee, simply for the fun of driving it.
(1) Our Discovery, belying the model’s reputation, had been totally reliable, but expecting a second to be equally good seemed to be pushing our luck somewhat!
(2) Or the Trooper’s UK badge-engineered equivalent, the rather chintzy Vauxhall Monterey.
(3) JDM vehicles were reputed to have poorer anti-corrosion protection than export models.