Without question, one of the most versatile and popular SUVs to ever come out of the seven-slot stable is the ’07-current Jeep Wrangler Unlimited JK. With four doors, solid front and rear axles, and a host of interior comforts, it has cemented itself as one of the top go-to 4x4s for hardcore and recreational enthusiasts. While we consider the Unlimited JK a great builder platform, for some, the price simply keeps them out of reach. Fortunately, there is a more budget-friendly alternative for those looking to build a capable four-door SUV.
When it comes to aftermarket support, mass availability, and overall simplicity, it’s hard to beat the ’84-to-’01 Jeep Cherokee XJ. The Jeep Cherokee has earned an enthusiast following unlike any other SUV. No matter if you are a desert racer, rockcrawler, or weekend warrior, the Jeep Cherokee XJ can be easily adapted to your ’wheeling needs. With basic attributes, like its solid front and rear axles, multilink front and leaf-sprung rear suspension, and beefy drivetrain, it’s no surprise why they still fill the trails today.
Although, the Cherokee’s Unitbody construction isn’t as durable as a body-on-frame design, welding to the sheetmetal structure is possible, and there are options and kits available to strengthen the unified chassis. With high production numbers and an 18-year run, the XJ’s market price has dropped dramatically over the past decade. So cheap in fact, many Cherokee builders often look at them as a disposable vehicle. This means after the Cherokee’s body has been pulverized through years of ’wheeling, you can simply peel off all of the sturdy aftermarket parts and move them over to another Jeep Cherokee XJ.
As one of the last SUV’s sold in North America with a solid front axle, the Jeep Cherokee XJ was a monumental vehicle that left a lasting impact on our hobby and industry. As is the case with many vehicles, the Cherokee has some years that are considered to be better than others. Gathered here is what you need to know before searching out your new Jeep Cherokee XJ project.
The first year for the much-loved 4.0L inline-six engine was 1987. The closed-loop cooling system on the first-run 4.0L is known to be problematic, but can easily be upgraded to the later-model open-style system. The ’91 Cherokee saw huge gains with the High-Output version of the 4.0L, which came equipped with a multi-port fuel-injection system said to produce 190hp. While there were a few tuning upgrades (an equal-length intake in 1999, and a switch to spark packs in 2000), the classic inline remained basically the same throughout its last decade of production. The most common issues are a leaky rear main seal and a cracked header. Despite those slight negatives, the 4.0L is known to chug on well past 200,000 miles. We would most definitely avoid the early Cherokees (’84-to-’86). These models were equipped with either a 2.5L four-cylinder engine 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 the early years.
You’re most likely to find the XJ fitted with an automatic transmission. Post 1987, all automatics were Aisin-Warner-built four-speed automatics. The AW-4 is generally trouble free, so long as basic care and maintenance was followed. For those of you who love the freedom of the gearshift, you’ll want to look for 1989-and-newer XJs equipped with the AX-15 five-speed manual. In 2000, the highly desirable NV3550 five-speed manual made an appearance, but it’s less than likely you’ll find one floating around for cheap. Behind the early-model four-cylinder engines was an AX-4 and AX-5 manual. Both stick boxes are weak and should be avoided if possible. For ’87-to-’89 XJ models, a Peugeot BA-10 manual transmission was placed behind the six-cylinder engine. Unlike the AX-5, which is simply weak, the BA-10’s poorly built gearbox is a ticking time bomb.
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. Available with an NP207, NP228, or NP229 (full-time case), the early model transfer-case options are not necessarily weaker, but don’t have the same aftermarket support and attention that the NP231 and NP242 found in post ’87 XJs. Both the NP231 and NP242 came with a 2.72:1 low range and have aftermarket goodies like 4:1 gear-reduction kits, slip-yoke eliminators, and wide-chain upgrades. The NP242 was even offered with a part-time option for drivers who frequently drive on snowy roads.
From 1984 to 1991, most of the XJ’s high-pinion Dana 30 front axles came equipped with a vacuum-disconnect. These old-style disconnect systems can be problematic, especially as time wears on. There are a few upgrades and options to improve or bypass the system, such as swapping in a one-piece-style passenger axleshaft or converting to a cable-actuated system, such as the one offered from 4x4 Posi-Lok. The last two years of the Cherokee’s production offered a weaker low-pinion Dana 30 front axle. Looking back, we now know the low-pinion front axle borrowed from the TJ parts line was a red flag signaling the end was near for the XJ.
The Dana 35 rear axle is never an exciting sight for an off-road enthusiast. Both C-clip and non-C-clip versions of the 35 were placed under the back of the Cherokee throughout its long run. Also, from 1989 forward, ABS was an option on all Cherokees. If you can find one without the brake nanny, we suggest doing so. The early ABS system didn’t work great off-road, and if you are planning an axle swap, you may end up dealing with a light on the dash. Some of the ’87-to-’89 Cherokees with the towing package received a Dana 44 rear axle, but that is another rare find. We would look for a mid-’90s and later model XJ equipped with the 29-spline Chrysler 8.25-inch rear axle. It’s not a huge upgrade over the Dana 35, but tends to survive with a locker and 33-inch-tall tires with no fuss.
How upscale of an interior you like can be largely a personal preference, and the Cherokees have plenty of leather- and cloth-filled versions to pick from. The XJ’s cab offers plenty of room and comfort, but the ’97-to-’01 XJ’s interior (shown here) is slightly more refined. Not to say the ’84-to-’96 Cherokee interior looks bad, but when you compare both side by side, the older style looks very dated. Both setups are very functional and comfy.
It’s not uncommon to see the hatch of older Cherokees cracked around the window and edges. From 1984 to 1996, the Cherokee’s rear hatch was comprised of fiberglass. In 1997, Jeep switched over to using steel. A cracked fiberglass gate wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for us, but it should get you some dollars off on the asking price.