Owning and Driving a 1998 Jeep Cherokee XJ

The author recalls his experience of the Jeep Cherokee XJ, an impulse and irrational purchase that turned out rather well.

Not ours, but identical, 1998 Jeep Cherokee Sport (c) rnrautoblog.com

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.

1998 Jeep Cherokee Sport Interior (c) motortrend.com

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).

1998 Jeep Cherokee Sport Rear (c) gtcarlot.com

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.

 

 

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

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

18 thoughts on “Owning and Driving a 1998 Jeep Cherokee XJ”

  1. Good morning, Daniel. Thank you for sharing your experience with the Cherokee. Alas, I’ve never driven one a Discovery or Cherokee. It’s safe to say I never cared for the Discovery, mainly for its tall build which makes it look unattractive to these eyes. Practicality over style, I guess.

    The Cherokee XJ was my favourite SUV of the time: Relatively small, big straight six and it looks attractive as well. One of my former colleagues had one and he liked it a lot.

    The spilt paint reminded me of a family friend who had an X5. His son spilt a bottle of fish oil in the boot. It was traded in soon after.

    1. Good morning Freerk. My only other in-car spillage was a pint of milk (in a glass bottle) which I had stupidly placed on the back seat of my company Austin Montego for the short drive home. Someone pulled out from a side turning, forcing me to brake sharply, and the bottle rolled forward and fell into the footwell. The foil top popped and most of the milk spilt out.

      It was raining heavily when I got home, so I mopped up the mess as best I could. I had no need to use the car for the following couple of days, so forgot about the spillage…until I next opened the car door. The stench was absolutely revolting! Hours were spent trying to rinse out the rancid milk from the carpeting, but I never fully expunged the smell and was more than happy to hand the car back (and ‘play dumb’ about the ‘funny smell’ when I did so!)

  2. Dear Daniel

    Thank you very much for these very sympathetic contributions.

    Despite its comparatively simple design, the Cherokee XJ is still one of Jeep’s most convincing and successful products. Well-preserved examples are still very sought after, especially in the USA, and fetch correspondingly high prices.

    From my modest point of view, Chrysler has not yet succeeded in creating a direct successor with a similarly successful formula (we’re not talking about the Grand Cherokee, which plays in a different league and seems quite exciting in its recently updated version).

    Incidentally, in 1999 I was also faced with the choice between a Jeep Cherokee and a Land Rover Discovery. However, I decided on the latter, which, to top it all off, was equipped with the 4.0-liter V8 engine. Admittedly, the fuel bills were (as expected) very high. But I always enjoyed driving it immensely. And was thereby also rewarded with perfect reliability, which did not correspond at all to the image of the vehicle.

    1. Good morning Mark. Nice to hear of another positive experience with a Discovery. I was sufficiently impressed with mine that I arranged for one of my major clients to buy it from the leasing company, breaking the rule about never buying or selling second-hand cars with friends. He liked the Discovery very much, but his wife couldn’t get on with it, so it was traded in…for an XJ Cherokee!

  3. Dear Daniel

    Thank you very much for your comment.

    I still regret today that I sold my Land Rover Discovery after three years. But at the time it looked as if I would be given a huge upgrade with the successor. Because the choice fell on a BMW X5 4.8is.

    And yes, from a purely technical point of view, it was in a league of its own. Which initially made me very excited in many ways. In principle, this was a passenger car developed to the highest technical level with amazing sportiness and at the same time with a high seating position.

    No one would guess that I would ever actually looked back on the Land Rover Discovery with a certain wistfulness. But that’s exactly what happened again and again after a while.

    Already in the first winter I had to learn the difference between a real off-road vehicle and an SUV (where BMW at that time always spoke of SAV – Sports Activity Vehicle). That access road to the small mountain hut in the Swiss Alps, which in previous years I had been able to easily manage with the Discovery even in heavy snowfall, suddenly became an insurmountable obstacle.

    Okay, you might say, that’s the domain of the Land Rover. But the BMW shows its superiority on the road. And that was certainly the case. Especially whenever I had the opportunity to drive on German autobahns pushing into speed ranges one would never dream of with a Land Rover.

    However, this attraction quickly wore off for me. I was and am simply not the type who finds great pleasure in this type of driving. At least not over longer distances. Especially since the Discovery could certainly be moved quite swiftly, but in a way that was much more relaxed for me. Which, by the way, was also thanks to the then quite innovative roll stabilization on the rear axle, which gave you an amazingly trusting driving feeling in briskly driven long curves.

    And then there was the matter of reliability: In contrast to the Land Rover, the BMW was repeatedly in the workshop outside of schedule and once even had to be towed away by the roadside assistance service.

    In this respect, it should be quite obvious which brand I opted for after the BMW and still drive with consistency to this day.

  4. The exact colour! With a yellow line around the car, it is like a public telecommunication company vehicle of the 1990s. Thank you Daniel! Great times, then!

  5. Hi Daniel, sounds like nice memories… I have no experience driving a Cherokee but it always looked more car-like than other offroaders, due to the monocoque of course. Interesting to read it actually drove that way, too. Maybe it owes something to its erstwhile stablemate, the AMC Eagle?

    As AMC stated it: “a vehicle with the comfort of an automobile, but the ride height and foul-weather capabilities of a four-wheel-drive utility vehicle.” Sounds like the Cherokee delivered, albeit with a more rugged appearance. And of course the Eagle is a predecessor to all the Volvo and Audi station wagons hiking up their skirts and donning mountaineering shoes. The Cherokee is a more attractive option to me.

    1. That’s an interesting observation, Tom. I grew up in a small village in the Netherlands. There was a car dealership that sold a combination of vehicles that was quite possibly unique: Honda, Lada, Zastava (Yugo) and AMC. At one point the owner had a brown AMC sedan with faux wood on the sides. I think it was an Eagle or maybe a Concord?

      There were few American cars around in the area back then and to my younger eyes the AMC was something special, even though at the time I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why. It’s been ages since I last saw one.

    2. Good morning Tom. Thats a very striking photograph of the AMC Eagle. It’s a ‘crossover-coupé in present day jargon, just half a century before its time.

    3. Hi Freerk and Daniel, that must be a unique combination of brands (ik kom ook uit Nederland, trouwens / I’m also from the Netherlands). AMC offered their complete range of Concord and Spirit models as Eagles, including the two-door liftback:

      the sedan:

      and the two-door sedan:

      https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/ae/AMCEagle-front.jpg.

      Even though we’ve become accustomed to these kinds of “Allroad” models, there’s a degree of cognitive dissonance when you look at these, for me at least. There was even a variant based on the much maligned Gremlin:

  6. Thanks for sharing your experiences with this model of Jeep Daniel; one of those pleasing vehicles that doesn’t appeal particularly to me personally but the appeal of which I can understand completely. There was an immaculate example near to my old place in the Dutch city of Haarlem.

    1. There’s a garage in Muiden that’s specialized in XJ’s, not too far from Haarlem. The XJ’s are a rare sight now.

    2. I had no idea… now I live not that far from a place that seems to specialise in those monstrous American pick-up trucks. Not exactly an improvement.

  7. Hi Daniel, thanks for your impressions on your XJ Cherokee. I agree that the brakes were not the best part of the car. I managed to melt the front caliper piston on our Cherokee after a drive back from a mountain town. I thought I didn’t abuse the brakes and tried to use engine braking as much as possible, but after reaching normal, flat roads, the car pulled to one side when driving and when coasting and actually felt sluggish because the stuck piston didn’t fully retract and kept the brake pads on the disk. That’s when I figured I had to stop to let the brakes cool.

    As for the restyling, I’ve always considered it one of the best as it kept the original essence of the car while improving some of its few flaws, such as the slightly baroque dash and how the original front end always seemed to me as kind of sad-looking.

    1. Hi Cesar. Yes, the restyling was very clever in that it was cheap and highly effective, with no metalwork changes other than a new tailgate. At the rear, the (slimmer and) taller rear light clusters now provided a ‘full stop’ for the bodyside crease, which no longer needed to continue across the tailgate. This gave the Cherokee a much smoother look from the rear. Compare the photo below of the pre-facelift car with the post-facelift example above:

      The changes to the front were similarly minor, comprising a new fibreglass nose-cone and fittings, which smoothed out the front end to match the rear. Clever stuff!

  8. Hi Daniel,

    This brings back memories. My wife leased a post-facelift Cherokee Sport in 1997, and to this day she regrets not buying out the lease after the four year term. By far her favourite car. It was black, with the 4.0 litre and the rather rare 5-speed manual, which limited it to the unsophisticated part-time 4WD system. Thus, it was mostly driven in RWD and I can speak from personal experience that the tail could certainly snap out with liberal application of throttle from that torquey engine. In Canada, there was actually a true base model of XJ Cherokee below the Sport, and ours came with many of the mod cons, but none of these really masked the fact that it was a pretty crude vehicle in terms of dynamics and fit and finish. That said, it was actually a hoot to drive, and its handy size made it a great urban SUV – it’s actually smaller than a current Honda CRV! You see the occasional XJ on the road these days, and it’s a reminder of how timeless its Tonka Truck styling is. There’s even a Virginia-based company, Davis AutoSports (davisautosports.com) which does lunatic restomod rebuilds of the XJs, although my dream would be to restore one to showroom condition, as it was just right as a design.

    1. Good morning Peter. Great to hear your account of the Cherokee, which aligns closely with our experience. It was an honest and endearing vehicle, which made it easy to overlook its minor shortcomings.

      The XJ is now pretty rare in the UK, but here’s a lovely ‘timewarp’ example:

      https://www.carandclassic.co.uk/car/C1373334

      Asking price…£35k!

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