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1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ - Weak Links, Strong Fixes

Posted in Features on June 1, 2006 Comment (0)
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1984-2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ - Weak Links, Strong Fixes
Photographers: The Manufacturers

When American Motors Corporation (AMC) debuted the compact, solid axle-equipped Jeep Cherokee XJ in 1983 as an '84 model, it hit the consumer 4x4 SUV world right between the eyes. For other SUV manufacturers, it was like Jeep had walked into their house and given them a wedgie.

For better or worse, the XJ boasted the first uniframe architecture in a 4x4 domestic truck in a world dominated by body-on-frame design. It was also the first compact sport-utility to offer two- and four-door models. It was radically smaller in size than previous Jeep SUVs. It was lauded for its lack of exterior bloat and wise use of interior space, among other things. The reality was that these attributes combined to help produce a vehicle that offered better fuel mileage and improved maneuverability than its predecessor, both on- and off-highway. The new XJ was an instant hit.

During its 17-year production run, the XJ received very few major modifications. The first and last semi-big change came in 1997 when the XJ got a new interior, exterior enhancements, and dual airbags. The XJ Cherokee has been out of production for five years, but that insignificant little fact hasn't quelled its popularity or demand.

As groundbreaking and popular as these SUVs were, they were by no means perfect. As a matter of fact, some had quirks that were downright aggravating. In this installment of "Weak Links, Strong Fixes," we examine items that could be an issue. And as we do with all of the installments in this ongoing series, we've consulted with the experts and combined their knowledge and experience with ours to offer suggestions on how to fix 'em.

Fractured Mounts
Weak link: Lower front control-arm mounts
Models affected: All
What happens: From the factory, the lower control-arm mounts are only welded to the Dana 30 front axlehousing on the outsides of the mounts. Further, the welds don't always continue to the edge of the mount, which allows cracks to start. The stresses of extreme 'wheeling can cause the mounts to separate from the axlehousing.
Strong fix: North America XJ Association (NAXJA) member Richard Gauthier notes that a quick do-it-yourself fix is to weld the insides of the brackets and ensure that the weld continues all the way to the edges. Burnsville Off Road in Burnsville, Minnesota, recommends welding a 3/16-inch plate across the front of the mounts to add even more strength.
Contact: Burnsville Off Road, 952/890-3990, www.burnsvilleoffroad.com

Limbo Bar
Weak link: Tie rod location
Models affected: All
What happens: The tie rod on the Dana 30 front axle is mounted to the bottom of the steering knuckles. Naturally, this makes the tie rod susceptible to trail damage because of its low position.
Strong fix: An inexpensive fix is to mount the tie rod on top of the knuckles using the Tie Rod Flip Insert Kit from Goferit Offroad. To install, you simply drill out the tapered portion of the knuckle 0.75 inch, tap in the new insert and weld the lip. The new bushing has the correct taper to accept stock tie-rod ends, and the kit includes a new special spiral-lock flanged nut for the tie-rod bolts.
Contact: Goferit Offroad, 336/317-7130, www.goferitoffroad.com

Cracking Up
Weak link: 4.0L head
Models affected: Mid '99-'01
What happens: NAXJA member Travis McVey points out that weaker head castings on these 4.0L engines can cause them to crack. He notes that the cracking usually occurs between the third and fourth exhaust ports.
Strong fix: McVey notes that the hot ticket is to install a head from a '96-'98 4.0L engine. Not only are these heads stronger, but the ports are better matched and will flow better, resulting in more power.
Contact: Yourlocal salvage yard

Failing 4WD
Weak link: Dana 30 vacuum actuator
Models affected: Some '84-'91
What happens: Yanking the transfer-case lever into four-wheel drive activates a front axle-mounted vacuum actuator. This unit is designed to move a collar laterally and engage the front axleshaft. More often than not, this evil component often fails for one reason or another. When this happens, the transfer case engages but the front axle doesn't. The result is no four-wheel drive.
Strong fix: There are actually two fixes for this, and the same company makes them both. One is the 4x4 Posi-Lok, which replaces the vacuum system with a cable-actuated actuator (say that 10 times fast). The other is the Perm-Lok (shown), which also replaces the vacuum actuator, but is not selectable because it permanently engages the front axle.
Contact: 4x4 Posi-Lok, 517/279-7177, www.4x4posi-lok.com

Alternating Current
Weak link: Instrument cluster
Models affected: '97 and later
What happens: The stock connector for the instrument cluster is susceptible to minor oxidation, which could cause sporadic or no operation of the airbag warning light, tachometer, or speedometer.
Strong fix: You could simply clean the connector terminals, but this is a temporary fix. Your best bet is to contact your local Jeep dealer and order the parts to fix it right. Our friends at Bryden Motors in Beloit, Wisconsin (the folks who service our long-term Liberty CRD), tell us that per Technical Service Bulletin 08-15-99 it can be repaired using part numbers 05016261 (cluster connector patch harness), 04856975 (electric contact cleaner), and 04778570 (heat-shrink tubing). Installation of the revised instrument cluster connector will require removal of the gauge cluster along with contact cleaning and soldering.
Contact: Bryden Motors (Jeep dealer), 800/727-9336, www.brydenmotors.com, or your local Jeep dealer

Scrawny Stoppers
Weak link: Rear drum brakes
Models affected: All
What happens: XJs came equipped from the factory with front disc and rear drum brakes. Their performance was adequate if the vehicle remained stock, but larger tires and the addition of weighty bolt-ons caused their abilities to deteriorate in a big way.
Strong fix: Swap to rear disc brakes. One option is to install one of the kits offered by TeraFlex. They're available for XJs equipped with the Dana 35, Dana 44, or Corporate 8 1/2-inch axles. The bolt-on kits provide everything you'll need including brake lines, rotors, backing plates, calipers, pads, and hardware. They also utilize a drum-style parking brake that is said to provide outstanding holding power when compared to other disc-brake conversions. Another option is comparatively low-buck. Burnsville Off Road notes that for its customers whose rigs roll on Dana 35 or 44 rear axles, the company routinely replaces the drum brakes with rear disc brakes from a '95-'98 Grand Cherokee. These discs can also be found on some '94 Grand Cherokees as well.
Contact: Burnsville Off Road; TeraFlex, 801/288-2585, www.teraflex.biz

Small Joints
Weak link: Front axleshaft U-joints
Models affected: '84-'96
What happens: These axles use weak Spicer 260-X U-joints, which often fail-especially on vehicles fitted with larger tires. That they fail is bad enough, but even worse, they often trash the axleshaft yoke when they break.
Strong fix: Upgrade the axleshafts. Among the manufacturers offering upgrade kits for these axles is Superior Axle & Gear. Superior's axleshafts have the same spline count and overall diameter as the stock units but use a larger 297-X U-joint.
Contact: Superior Axle & Gear, 888/522-2953, www.superioraxle.com

Manifold Failure
Weak link: 4.0L exhaust manifold
Models affected: '87-'01
What happens: Sad but true, these manifolds have a penchant for cracking. For whatever reason, Jeep never resolved the problem, and it continued throughout the XJ's life. NAXJA member Andrew Fecko notes that the cracks are always above the O2 sensor, which can cause the sensor to read a lean condition, thereby causing the ECU to increase the fuel mixture, which can affect mileage.
Strong fix: Don't bother trying to fix the stock manifold, because it will just crack again. It's no surprise that almost every aftermarket exhaust manufacturer offers a header for these engines. We've installed a number of them over the years, and one we really liked was the Borla unit. It fit perfectly, is constructed of T-304 stainless, and includes a new gasket and all associated hardware.
Contact: Borla Performance Industries, 877/462-6752, www.borla.com

Box Stress
Weak link: Frame around steering box
Models affected: '84-'01
What happens: Tough trails and bigger tires put stress on the steering box, which often results in cracks in the quasi-frame around the box. For obvious reasons, frame cracking of any kind is unacceptable.
Strong fix: A quick and easy fix is to brace the steering box using a brace like this one from T and J Performance. One end clamps on the steering box, while the other end attaches at the sway-bar mounting point. Installation requires drilling one hole. The kit also includes a spacer for the other sway-bar mount.
Contact: T and J Performance, 714/633-0991, www.tandjperformance.com

Weak Axles
Weak link: Dana 35 axles
Models affected: Many '84-'01
What happens: The Dana 35 non-C-clip rear axle was used on some '84-'89 XJs, and the Dana 35 C-clip rear axle was used on some '90-'01 XJs. They had several things in common, including 27-spline, 1.18-inch axleshafts; a 7.58-inch ring gear, 2.62-inch-diameter axletubes, and the urge to break frequently.
Strong fix: Obviously, ditching these axles is the accepted formula. Many 'wheelers install a Dana 44 or a Ford 8.8 axle, and either will hold up well on rigs fitted with up to 35-inch tires. Another good choice is a late-model Chrysler 8 1/4-inch axle because it has 29-spline, 1.21-inch axleshafts and larger 3-inch-diameter axletubes. This axle can be found under some '97-'01 XJs. If you just can't bear to part with your Dana 35 axle, one of the companies offering upgrades to make 'em last is Randy's Ring & Pinion. Randy's offers the Ultimate 35 kit that includes two Yukon heavy-duty alloy 30-spline axleshafts, carrier bearings, studs, axle bearings, and shims. Further, you can choose kits that include a Detroit, Ox, or ARB locker.
Contact: Randy's Ring & Pinion, 866/245-2316, www.ringpinion.com

Breaking Brackets
Weak link: Motor-mount block brackets
Models affected: All 4.0L
What happens: XJ owners who use their 4.0L-powered rigs hard are reporting that the block bracket-the piece that bolts to the engine and serves as the connection point for the motor mount-can break off. When this happens, the block itself can be damaged. Sometimes the bolts will loosen and break; other times, the bolts will simply shear off.
Strong fix: The folks at Mountain Off Road Enterprises have addressed this nasty problem with their brand-new Bombproof Block Brackets. The secret to their strength is that they more than double the number of mounting bolts by utilizing seven to eight threaded, unused holes in the 4.0L's block per mount. This is a huge improvement over the stock three-hole mounting system per mount. Currently they offer mounts for the '91-'96 4.0L engine, with other applications coming soon.
Contact: Mountain Off Road Enterprises, 970/625-0500, www.mountainoffroad.com

Seat Failure
Weak link: Front seats
Models affected: All
What happens: XJ front seats use a stamped metal framework that is spot-welded together. Occasionally these spot welds will break. The result is that the seat will often lean rearward and crooked.
Strong fix: One option is to hit the salvage yard and procure a pair of seats from a comparable XJ. Dan McKeag at Burnsville Off Road says that a better option is to install a pair of seats from a '99-'04 Grand Cherokee. These seats are way more comfortable because they are contoured and of better quality overall. They will bolt directly to the XJ seat tracks.
Contact: Burnsville Off Road

Broken Housings
Weak link: Stock taillights
Models affected: All
What happens: The mounting location and plastic construction of the taillights make them vulnerable to off-highway damage.
Strong fix: Rusty's Off-Road Products makes a professional-grade solution in the form of a beefy steel taillight kit. Available in two styles covering the '84-'96 and the '97-'01 models, they were developed using computer-aided design, and they're laser-cut and computer formed. Two holes are pre-cut into the housings, allowing fitment of 4-inch rubber flush-mounted lights. The top hole is for the brake/taillight, and the lower hole is for the backup light. Kits are available as housings only or with lights and/or wiring harness.
Contact: Rusty's Off-Road Products, 256/442-0607, www.rustysoffroad.com

Transmission Trouble
Weak link: AW4 automatic transmission
Models affected: '87-'01
What happens: Actually, this light- to medium-duty Aisin-Warner transmission isn't a bad unit overall, though XJ owners report varying experiences. Our research has found that it does harbor two peculiarities. First, it generates an excessive amount of heat, which as we all know is the number one killer of transmissions. Second, the Transmission Control Unit (TCU) won't allow you to lock the transmission in First or Second gear, which is very aggravating off-highway.
Strong fix: To bring the temperature down, install a transmission cooler like the SuperCooler from B&M Racing and Performance Products. The SuperCooler is constructed of 100 percent aluminum and uses embossed plates sandwiched together to create one of the most efficient oil cooling devices available. One of the things we like about the SuperCooler is that it's designed with a unique bypass feature that allows a controlled amount of ATF to bypass the stacked plate core when the fluid is cold. For those in cold climates, this guards against lube system failure. Solving the shifting issue is a bit more complicated. Fortunately, NAXJA member Dion Fotinakes has devised a way to override the TCU on '87-'96 AW4s, which allows for full manual control. The instructions are too lengthy to print here, so we've printed his instructions in their entirety on fourwheeler.com.
Contact: B&M Racing & Performance Products, 818/882-6422, www.bmracing.com (cooler); www.fourwheeler.com (solenoid modification instructions)

Not Good in the 'Hood
Weak link: Hood latches
Models affected: All
What happens: XJs used a hood latch on each side of the hood. Often, one or both of the bell cranks in the hood latch mechanisms will wear. When this happens, the hood may only release on one side, leaving you locked out of your engine compartment. This is a bad thing, because if you have a 4.0L engine, you'll probably need to get in there to fix the cracked exhaust manifold.
Strong fix: Dan McKeag of Burnsville Off Road says that this is a common problem that can be avoided by keeping the hood latches and associated components well lubricated. McKeag also notes that it's not a bad idea to visually inspect the latches from time to time in an effort to identify a failing latch before it's too late. If the latch does break, it's not uncommon to have to destroy the hood or disassemble the front end to get to the bad latch. Latches are available from your local salvage yard or Jeep dealer.
Contact:Burnsville Off Road

UniFrame Failure
Weak link: Uniframe
Models affected: All
What happens: See Uniframe Failure II
Strong fix: T and J Performance offers a unique solution to the problem of UniFrame cracking with its Interior Chassis Stiffener. Available in either Rock Crawler- (shown) or Racer-style designs, each is created from 0.120-wall, 1.75-inch tubing (DOM optional). The Rock Crawler is an eight-point design, while the Racer Style is a six-point design. Each stiffener welds/bolts into the vehicle. The bonus to this style of stiffener is that you stiffen the chassis and get a rollcage too.
Contact: T and J Performance, 714/633-0991, www.tandjperformance.com

Tailgate Latch Failure
Weak link: Tailgate latch
Models affected: All
What happens: Due to poor design of the tailgate latch, it doesn't keep out the elements.The result can be a latch that won't release.
Strong fix: Once again, Dan McKeag says regular cleaning and lubing is the hot ticket. If the latch does fail, he notes that unlike the hood, you generally won't have to destroy the tailgate to get it open. He says you can simply remove the rear bumper to access the striker bolt and pop the rear tailgate. New latches are available from the salvage yard or your local Jeep dealer.
Contact: Contact: Burnsville Off Road

UniFrame Failure II
Weak link: Uniframe
Models affected: All
What happens: There are similarities between the XJ's uniframe and the 4.0L engine's exhaust manifold-they can both crack. When cracking occurs in the uniframe, the XJ's body can flex, which can result in big problems. NAXJA Midwest Chapter president Sean Rafferty notes that one of the results of this flexing can be such unwelcome things as a leaking windshield. We've also heard of door fitment problems as well as general groaning and creaking.
Strong fix: Stiffen the frame. One of the ways to do that is to install a pair of Unibody Stiffeners like the ones from T&T Customs. Each kit includes a left and right stiffener. Welding is required for installation and each kit ships bare metal. As a bonus, the T&T Customs Unibody Stiffener Kit is designed to work in conjunction with the company's Y-Link Long Arm Kit and Heavy Duty Sliders.
Contact: T&T Customs, 307/775-9565, www.tntcustoms.com

Speaking Cherokee
When it comes to XJs, one of the leading sources for information is the North American XJ Association (NAXJA). Not only do they know their XJ tech, they also have trail rides and such to unite XJ owners. Their Web site, www.naxja.org, is a clearinghouse of information of all things XJ. Special thanks goes out to Sean Rafferty, NAXJA Midwest Chapter president, for his help with this story.

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