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Cherokee Nation - Small Wagon Buyer's Guide

Posted in Features on May 1, 2013
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The XJ Cherokee was introduced in late summer/early fall of 1983 as an ’84 model and ran 17 years until the mad dash to buy the last ones in late spring/early summer of 2001 when Jeep unexpectedly announced it was killing the platform. In that time it saw the K-car save Chrysler, the rise in popularity of Japanese compact cars, the death of the fullsize American sedan and station wagon, import tuners, two Gulf wars, and the coming and going of heavy metal.

As you might imagine with a platform that has such a storied history, there are lots of changes in the Cherokee over the years. The Cherokee was available with four different engines and eight different transmissions in your choice or two- or four-doors. If that weren’t enough, there were four different T-case options over the years (six if we include the MJ), three different rear axle options, numerous front axle changes, and 2WD options as well. And those are just the major changes over the years. Each major component had changes made to it while it was in service as well.

In addition to all the factory drivetrain options, the Cherokee was Jeep’s first Unitbody Jeep. In other words, it had no traditional body-on-frame construction, but rather the frame was part of the body. While the “frame” was part of the body and made out of sheetmetal, it was of a thicker gauge than most of the body panels and multi-layered steel laminate in critical places.

The suspension was also revolutionary for Jeep in 1983 in that it featured a front five-link coil suspension which offered a better ride and handling than any other Jeep at the time. This front suspension was so revolutionary it was still in use 20 years later in the TJ Wrangler. Out back, the Cherokee had the tried-and-true leaf springs. The springs were wide, long, and soft for a good ride. Today that means if you find a Cherokee with stock springs, the rear is going to be sagged out.

Many people refer to “early” and “late” Cherokees, but there are so many changes over the years that an argument could be made for three or four separate generations. We are going to break it up into three for our discussion here, however. Be sure and check the quick picks at the end for our top choices.

Early (’84-’86)
The early XJ came in near the end of AMC’s existence and poor engine choices and poor quality control made these years unreliable even when new. Today we would suggest them only if you were using them for the shell and throwing out most of the wiring and drivetrain. We are talking low- to mid-three figure buy-in prices or walk away.

Are more headlights better?

That said, engine options were a four-cylinder, six-cylinder V-6, and a four-cylinder turbo diesel. The ’84-’85 2.5L four-cylinders were carbureted with TBI showing up for ’86 models. It was backed by either a T-4 (1984), or AX4 four-speed manual, or AX5 five-speed, or a TF904 automatic transmission. The optional 2.8L GM-sourced 60-degree V-6 managed only 115hp and was backed by a T-5 or AX5 manual or TF904 automatic transmission. The 2.1L diesel engine was exceedingly rare in the U.S., but was actually offered through 1987. All engines had the NP207 T-case in 4WD models. To further complicate things, a 2WD option was offered in 1985, deleting the T-case and front Dana 30. The rear axle was a Dana 35.

An upper-level Wagoneer-badged Jeep was also rolled out during this time, with the major difference being an NP229 Select-Trac full time 4WD system. Other clues that you are dealing with a Wagoneer are quad headlights and fake wood grain on the side of the vehicle. Plaid cloth seats, optional leather seats, and an optional diagnostic system were all available in the Wagoneer. If you ever wondered why the SJ was called a Grand Wagoneer during this time period, here ya go.

Mid (’87-’96)
This section could almost be split into three separate sub-categories, but things are complicated enough without doing so. These years saw three different fuel-injection systems in a body and chassis that didn’t change much at all.

Here’s a super-rare on-board diagnostic/systems check display called a System Sentry. Now you know what that space to the right of the steering wheel was designed for.

The Cherokees of this era were definitely more reliable than their Wrangler counterparts with the addition of a Renix-injected 4.0L inline-six. However, the XJ chassis wasn’t originally designed to take such a long engine, and lots of changes were made. The firewall was notched, the heater box redesigned, the radiator, and radiator mount redesigned. The factory-notched firewall can lend itself to rear-distributor V-8 engine swaps better than the earlier XJs.

Engine choices included a TBI-injected inline four-cylinder or multiport-injected inline-six cylinder engines. The four-cylinder was backed by the AX5 five-speed manual or TF904 automatic, while the six got the Pukegoat (editor’s note: Peugeot) BA10/5 until sometime in 1989 when Jeep started putting the AX15 in these things. T-case options were either a part-time NP231 or an NP242 which featured a full-time 4WD position. Front axles were a combination of high-pinion Dana 30s either with or without CAD (and some with CV axleshafts—avoid these), while rear axles were either Dana 35s or the rarer optional Dana 44 often found with a towing package.

The ’87 and ’88 models had a problematic C101 connector under the hood that featured sporadic connection issues; this resulted in all kinds of issues from lights not working to the engine not running. For the ’89 model year the C101 connector was gone, but all years used the Renix injection and some of the sensors are getting harder to find new in parts stores. But that said, these things can often be bought cheaper than dirt, and there are still thousands of them in junkyards across the country…so these Jeeps can still be inexpensive runners for years to come.

This section can almost be split in two as well, but we’ll keep it simple. The ’91 model year saw the introduction of the Bendix fuel injection which most people know simply as the 4.0L HO and came along with a higher-flowing cylinder head. The new fuel injection adhered to OBDI requirements and used standardized testing for diagnostics. To wit, either jump the pins, or plug in a scanner. Beyond that from ’91-’94 there were minimal changes. The 2.5L four-cylinder soldiered on but became increasingly rare with the vast majority of XJs of this era being produced with the 4.0L inline-six. Transmission choices carry on as before, as do T-cases and front axles. The ’95 models’ Dana 30 front axle got bigger axleshaft U-joints. Out back, the Dana 35 only showed up primarily in conjunction with the ABS which is downright dangerous off-road. The most common rear axle was the new Chrysler 8.25 with 27-spline shafts. It wasn’t the best axle, but way better than the Turdy-five.

’84-’94 interior

The ’95 model year saw a driver-side airbag show up in the steering wheel, and ’96 trumped that with OBDII diagnostics. The bodies for both years were the same as earlier XJs despite the wiring and electronic differences.

Late Model (’97-’01)
The late-model Cherokees are almost a completely different vehicle. Most of the metal body stampings were changed, the interior was completely redesigned, and the fiberglass liftgate was replaced with steel. Still, even a blind man could see that these last five years are clearly XJs and in fact the internal designation never changed. All of them run OBDII diagnostics, have dual airbags, and one-piece front roll-down windows. No wing vent windows. Even though many of the sheetmetal stampings changed, most of the late-model parts interchange with the early model parts. Doors, fenders, hoods, and so forth all swap back and forth. The lift gate, not so much. The taillights on these are narrower and taller than the early XJ lights were and they don’t swap back and forth either. Also, the front fenders are shorter in front of the tire and don’t go behind the bumper.

’97-’98 interior

Like the later midyear XJs, four-cylinders were available but they are very rare dogs. You are almost as likely to find a right-hand-drive late model XJ as you are to find a four-cylinder-powered one. Transmission, T-case, and axle choices remained the same until the ’00 model year when the NV3550 was mated to the inline-six. Both manual transmission and two-door late models are rare with most of the ’97-up XJs rolling off the line with four doors and a slushbox. Out back, while the 8.25 returned, it did so with larger 29-spline axleshafts giving it near Dana 44-like strength.

Inside, the base-model seats leave much to be desired. Fortunately, leather, power, and heated seats were options, but rarely selected ones. As the XJ got nearer to the end more of the options boxes were checked so it is more likely to find this stuff in an ’01 than a ’97.

Speaking of ’97s, like its Wrangler brethren, the wiring in these things went through a learning curve. While we aren’t sure just how many significantly different wiring harnesses there were, be wary if you end up with a ’97, as it is likely that whatever wiring diagram you are reading at the time is wrong.

Late-model tail lights and lift gate.

Sometime in 1999 the engine block was switched to an NVH block, the distributor went bye-bye late in the ’99 model year to be replaced by coil packs, and the engine got a swoopy high-flow intake manifold. That higher flowing intake manifold meant that the entire drivetrain shifted to the passenger side ever so slightly so that the manifold would clear the driver-side coil spring tower. The early versions of these engines got reputations for head cracking and misfire code-driven check engine lights.

If you are trying to ID one of the late-model XJs, beyond the intake manifold, a quick check is interior colors. For 1997 and 1998, the grey was a two-tone dark grey over light grey. For 1999, all the grey plastics in the interior were the same color, a darker “charcoal” grey.

2WD vs. 4WD
We get questions about buying a 2WD XJ all the time our answer lies in one unalienable truth. Some of you might not like it, but the fact is that if you wheel an XJ hard for a long time, it will develop stress cracks at key points. When buying one, look around the steering box, the leaf spring mounts, the front coil spring mounts, and inside the doors and liftgate where the sheetmetal is spot welded together. A 4WD XJ is much more likely to already have cracks forming in these locations than a 2WD one is just because it is more likely to have seen off-road use. The parts to convert them aren’t all that expensive out of junkyards, and it takes about a weekend to pull off with no welding required. For that reason, we won’t run away from a 2WD XJ. Besides, if it’s already got cracks, just walk away.

Our Choices
In order of choice, for parts availability, power, reliability, and many other reasons, here are our favorite Cherokees.

  • ’98-’99½
  • ’00 and ’01 with a manual
  • ’91-’94
  • ’87-’90
  • ’95-’96

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