The History of the Jeep Cherokee

A sign of things to come, the new Cherokee allows Jeep to participate competitively in the expansive compact crossover segment. Although compact crossovers are not completely new to Jeep as the Compass and Patriot have been produced for seven years, the Cherokee is still an enormous departure from more traditional Jeep designs. Never before has such sculptured bodywork been used on a Jeep. Despite some small details, such as the usual arched wheel openings and a Wrangler-inspired abrupt downward bend in the side glass, the seven slot grill looks out-of-place on the creased hood of the Cherokee. Underpinning the new Cherokee, is a variation of Fiat’s Compact U.S. wide platform shared with the rather pedestrian Dodge Dart. A 2.4 liter four-cylinder or 3.2 liter Pentastar V6 drives either the front or all four wheels. Only the Trailhawk trim level boasts true off-road credentials with low range gearing and 8.8 inches of ground clearance, along with improved approach, break over, and departure angles among other features. Although it alleviates the gripes and complaints summoned by those who use a more traditional Jeep for daily use, many Jeep enthusiasts look upon the softened fifth generation Cherokee in disgust, seeing it as nothing more than  another crossover unworthy of the Jeep, and more specifically the Cherokee nameplate. Through this article, past Jeep Cherokees will be discussed in an effort to show the evolution of the Cherokee, and the significant changes over its forty-year production.

1974-1983 Jeep Cherokee (SJ)

In 1974, Jeep introduced the first generation Cherokee to replace the Jeep Commando. Created to fill a niche of sporty, full-sized SUVs, the Cherokee was essentially a two-door variation of the Wagoneer. It featured large side windows behind the front doors and a grill derived from Jeep’s line of pickups. AMC’s 258 cubic inch inline-six came standard while a 360 cubic inch V8 with two or four-barrel carburetors was optional. A 401 cubic inch V8 was also available. A three-speed manual came with inline-six equipped Cherokees while a four-speed automatic was attached to the V8s. The Quadra-Trac full-time four-wheel drive system was available on Cherokees equipped with the 360 V8, and could be optioned with low range gearing. The standard four-wheel drive system was a two-speed, part-time unit. Trim levels included the base model and the S. Available graphics packages helped set the Cherokee apart from the Wagoneer. In 1975, a variation of the Cherokee that featured a wider track and fender flares was introduced for the 1976 model year. The frame was made wider for more widely spaced springs, and featured increased rigidity due to strengthened crossmembers. In 1977, a four-door model was made available. By this time the Wagoneer had moved significantly upmarket and the Cherokee was advertised as a cheaper, less luxurious alternative. By 1983, the last year of the full-size Cherokee, the Jeep featured a plastic grill and a plastic spoiler below the bumper in an effort to increase fuel economy. A four barrel carburetor was no longer offered on the 360 cubic inch V8 and the 401 cubic inch V8 was dropped altogether. Trim packages included the base model, Pioneer, Chief, and Laredo.

1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee (XJ)

Jeep, along with its parent company AMC, had suffered greatly due to the increased demand for better fuel economy in vehicles. Struggling to meet Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, Jeep even started offering GM’s 150 cubic inch Iron Duke four cylinders in the CJ series of Jeeps by the early eighties. The current Cherokee was enormous, heavy, and inefficient. To address this issue, the completely new 1984 Jeep Cherokee debuted. The now iconic XJ series of Cherokees abandoned the body-on-frame construction of its predecessor in favor of unibody construction, refered to by Jeep as UniFrame. The Cherokee was 21 inches shorter, and six inches narrower than the previous model. At 3,100 pounds, the Cherokee was significantly lighter as well. A solid front axle was used however the suspension was of a coil sprung, multilink design. The solid rear axle was suspended by leaf springs. Powering the new Cherokees was a standard 2.5 liter four-cylinder with a one barrel carburetor, and an optional 2.8 liter V6 sourced from GM  with a two barrel carberator. Fuel economy was increased greatly as Cherokees optioned with the four-cylinder could achieve 24 mpg in city driving, and 33 mpg on the highway. The Selec-Trac full-time four-wheel drive system was available, as was the Command-Trac part-time system. The Chevrolet Blazer and Ford Bronco II, both competitors of the Cherokee, were only offered in two-door body styles. The Cherokee had a significant advantage in that it was offered in both two-door, and four door body styles. The highly recognizable styling featured arched wheel-wells, and bold fender flares in usual Jeep fashion along with horizontally creased front ten-slot grill. Rectangular headlamps and turn signals give the front of the Cherokee a distinctive look. Thin window pillars and an expansive glass area provided ample visibility. The new Cherokee was very well received and won awards from Four Wheeler, Off-Road, and 4 Wheel & Off Road magazines. 1985 brought an optional 2.1 liter diesel four-cylinder designed by Renault and the option of two-wheel drive. By 1987, a fuel-injected 4.0 liter inline-six became available in the Cherokee. Based off of AMC’s 258 cubic inch inline-six, the 4.0 liter featured a larger bore but a smaller stroke and was able to achieve power figures of 177 horsepower and 220 pounds-feet of torque. This allowed the Cherokee to have best in class acceleration. Known for their rugged construction, it is not uncommon for Jeeps with this engine to surpass 200,000 miles. In 1988, the Cherokee received the now-familiar seven-slot grill instead of the previous ten-slot unit. In 1990, a high-output version of the 4.0 debuted. Due to the new Bendix fuel-injection system, the engine now produced 190 horsepower. Few major changes were made to the Cherokee from 1991 to 1997 aside from the addition of fuel injection on the 2.5 liter in 1991, the addition of a drivers-side airbag in 1995, and an upgraded 4.0 liter inline-six tuned for better NVH (noise, vibration, and harshness) in 1996. In 1997, the antiquated Cherokee received significant updates. A new, rounder front fascia, tail lights, body-side cladding, bumpers, and a stamped steel tailgate bought the Cherokee a few more years of production. The use of sound deadening materials was increased and most of the interior was redesigned for increased comfort and ergonomics. A new center stack positioned the radio and HVAC controls well within the drivers reach and a passenger side airbag was also added. The inline-six was updated for cleaner emissions in 1999, and in 2000, the base SE trim, and the four-cylinder were dropped. By 2001, the XJ Cherokee was discontinued, however production in China remained until 2005.

2002-2007 Jeep Liberty/Cherokee (KJ)

Replacing the XJ Cherokee was a much different vehicle, however it still occupied the growing compact SUV segment. The KJ series Jeeps were released in 2001 as 2002 models and were known as the Liberty in North America, and the Cherokee overseas. They featured striking styling due to their rounded, tall profile, round headlamps and tail lights, and spare tire located on the tailgate. Large, rounded fender flares and the extensive use of black plastic on Sport models made the KJ seem wide and athletic while running boards, and body colored plastics made the Limited Edition appear more upscale. Underneath, the KJ retained unibody construction, however it used an independent front suspension unlike its predecessors. The new suspension design made it not only more difficult, but more expensive to install modifications, however eight inches of suspension travel allowed for respectable off-road capability. A coil sprung, muliti-link suspension and solid axle were employed in the rear. Stabilizer bars in the front and rear and rack and pinion steering improved handling. Under the hood, a new 3.7 liter V6 was utilized, replacing the venerable inline-six. The 3.7 liter engine produced 210 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque and featured a cast-iron block, two valves-per-cylinder, chain driven cam shafts, aluminum pistons, and a single balance shaft. Liberties could also be optioned with a 150 horsepower 2.4 liter four-cylinder also found in the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Dodge Neon. Overseas, Jeep Cherokees came with a direct-injected 2.5 liter turbocharged diesel, or the 3.7 liter V6. The KJ was available with a five speed manual, or four-speed automatic, and the Selec-Trac or Command-Trac four-wheel drive systems. The interior of the KJ reflected the rounded appearance of the exterior. The instrument cluster was housed in an elliptical pod instead of the rectangular shroud found in the XJ Cherokees, and new circular air vents were used. Even the radio, and HVAC controls had rounded corners. The KJ was initially only available in two trim levels, the more luxurious Limited, and the more budget friendly Sport. Midway through the 2002 model year, the Renegade model was introduced and featured exposed bolts on the fender flares, roof mounted fog lamps along with conventional fog lamps, unique rims, and running boards. By 2005, the KJ received minor updates. The rounded hood and headlights remained, however the redesigned front bumper was devoid of turn signals as they had been moved to the front fenders. Renegade models received a unique grill and hood. A six-speed manual replaced the five-speed unit. Liberties sold in North America gained the option of a 2.8 liter four-cylinder common rail diesel producing 160 horsepower and 295 pounds-feet of torque. This engine improved fuel economy greatly as the Liberties equipped with this engine could achieve 21 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway. This engine was no longer offered in the Liberty in 2006 due to more stringent emissions regulations. 2007 was the last year for the KJ series Jeeps.

2008-2012 Jeep Liberty/Cherokee (KK)

Replacing the KJ series Jeeps, the KK series Liberties and Cherokees were introduced in 2007 for the 2008 model year. UniFrame construction, an independent front suspension, and the coil sprung solid axle remained, albeit with updates. The 3.7 liter V6 was carried over from the previous generation however the 2.4 liter four-cylinder was no longer offered. In Cherokees, only a 2.8 liter common-rail diesel that produced 174 horsepower and 339 pound-feet of torque was offered. Both the Command-Trac and Selec-Trac II part-time and full-time four-wheel drive systems were available. The rounded look of the previous generation KJ was abandoned in favor of much more angular styling. The fender flares were more rectangular than before, and the circular headlights and hood bulges were abandoned for rectangular headlights and a much flatter hood. The tail lights no longer featured round bulges and the spare tire was removed from the tailgate which now featured a more conventional hatch design instead of the side-hinged arrangement on the KJ. A few styling cues remained from the KJ including the tall profile, and pronounced front fenders that helped give the front end of the KK and KJ a look similar to the Wrangler. An interesting option for the KK series Jeeps was the Skyslider canvas sunroof. Running from the front all the way to the back of the vehicle, the retractable canvas roof allowed for an almost convertible-like driving experience. The KK series Jeeps met with mixed reactions, with most criticism directed to its poor interior quality and packaging, poor fuel economy, and weak V6. Through its four-year production run, few changes were made other than the reintroduction of the Renegade model in 2010, and changes to trim levels and options.


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