The '84-'01 Jeep Cherokee, also known as the XJ, is one of the most affordable and competent off-road vehicles ever produced. Few other 4-bys offer the room, off-road prowess, and aftermarket attention that the Cherokee does. From the introduction of the square-bodied SUV in 1984 to the end of its production run in 2001, the XJ has created an enthusiast following unlike any other SUV.
No matter if you are a desert racer, a rockcrawler, or a weekend trail cruiser, the XJ can be easily adapted to your wheeling needs. While the Cherokee platform, like many other OEM vehicles, has its better years, the XJ's basic attributes-its solid front and rear axles, multilink front and leaf-sprung rear suspension, and beefy drivetrain-make it an excellent builder's platform. Though its Unitbody construction isn't as durable as a body-on-frame design, welding to the sheetmetal structure is possible, and there are a many simple ways to strengthen the unified chassis.
With high production numbers and an 18-year run, the XJ's used sale prices have dropped dramatically over the past decade. In fact, they're so cheap that many Cherokee builders often look at them as a disposable vehicle. This means that after the Cherokee's body has been pulverized through years of wheeling the owner can simply peel off all his sturdy aftermarket parts and move them over to another XJ for under a grand. While they are not all $300 Jeeps, we regularly find older models for under 1,500 bucks on places like Craigslist.org and have even found late-models for less than 3K.
As one of the last SUV's sold in North America with a solid front axle, the XJ was a monumental vehicle that left a lasting impact on our hobby and industry. If you are in the market for a new daily driver, a weekend wheeler, or a Cheap Truck Challenge competitor, maybe a new-to-you Jeep Cherokee is just the 4x you've been looking for. Here is a little build advice and technical information that we've gathered over the years.
Things to Avoid
The early Cherokees ('84-'86) were equipped with either 2.5L 4-popper or a 2.8L GM V-6. Both engines are less than worthy of the XJ platform and unless you are thinking about doing a complete powertrain swap we'd say pass on these years.
Things to Look For
The first model year for the 4.0L inline-six was '87, but it used a closed-loop cooling system. That system can be problematic but is easily upgraded to the open style.
The '91 Cherokee saw huge gains with the new High Output 4.0L, which was equipped with a multiport fuel injection system said to put out 190 hp.
While there were a few tuning upgrades, an equal-length intake in the '99, and a switch to spark packs in the '00, the powerful and reliable inline-six remained basically the same throughout its last decade of production. And although rear main seal leaks are common, the engines are known to chug on well past 200,000 miles.
Things to Avoid
While we've pretty much established that pre-'87 Cherokees are not the golden years, we will continue this point by examining the early models' transfer case options. With an NP207, an NP228, or an NP229 (fulltime case), the transfer cases offered are not necessarily weaker units, but they don't offer the sort of aftermarket support and attention as the NP231 and NP242.
Things to look For
The NP231 and NP242 are both great cases available in the '87-'01 XJ. Both cases received a 2.72:1 low range and have aftermarket goodies available like 4:1 kits, slip-yoke eliminators, and wide chain upgrades. The NP242 was even offered with a fulltime option for those who frequently drive on snowy roads.