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2000 Jeep XJ Cherokee - Better Cherokee The Second Time Around

Posted in Features on May 3, 2016
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Sometimes we must go through tough times before we truly enjoy the fruits of our labor. Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “If you're going through hell, keep going." That may have been what Nick LeBlanc felt like when his previous custom Cherokee was heavily damaged by fire. All the trail fun that was supposed to follow all the long nights and weekends of building his XJ never really materialized.

Getting past that, he picked himself up and began again. As a foreman at Happy Trails 4x4 in Atlantic Beach, Florida, LeBlanc spends his days building cool 4x4s. That passion and talent went into building his own trail rig, especially so this second time around.

This time he chose a ’00 2WD Cherokee XJ Limited with a blown engine for his base. His original intent was to simply mirror his previous build. However, he decided to change his final plan to build a highly capable rig in which he could load up his family and drive several states away to places he wanted to explore. It looks like this second chance build was a success.

Once you bump the treads on a Cherokee way up in size and move beyond the more standard lift kit realm, it's time to seriously address the Unitbody platform you're dealing with under an XJ. LeBlanc did just that as he had plans to fabricate his own suspension. First things first, though. He started by frame-plating the Unitbody to strengthen and stiffen the structure where he would mount his new suspension.

A hybrid rollcage was fabricated from 1.75-inch, 0.120-wall DOM steel tube configured both inside and outside the rig. The A-pillar and D-pillar are external, while the B-pillar and C-pillar are internal, but all tie into the tubing above the roof through flange plates. The rollcage is also tied into 2x6-inch box tube sliders and the frame plating that's been done front to rear. It's a very clean setup.

With a solid chassis foundation, LeBlanc proceeded to fabricate a high-clearance three-link front suspension using Ruffstuff 1 1/4-inch rod ends tied to 2-inch, 0.250-wall DOM tubing links. ORI STX struts with 14 inches of travel are used to support and dampen the frontend. A stock power steering box fit with a 1-inch drop pitman arm was tapped to plumb in hydro-assist lines that connect to a 1.75x8-inch PSC ram. A Ruffstuff 7/8-inch steering kit was used, and LeBlanc added a double-shear mount for the draglink rod end on the passenger knuckle.

In the rear, a double-triangulated four-link was fabricated. Ruffstuff 1 1/4-inch rod ends are used on 2-inch, 0.250-wall lower and 1.75-inch, 0.120-wall upper DOM tube links. A set of 16-inch-travel ORI STX struts are mounted in the rear.

Since this XJ was purchased with a blown engine, LeBlanc needed a new powerplant. In went a ’92 4.0L engine with a Mopar Stage 2 camshaft. Behind it sits an AX15 five-speed manual transmission. From there, things get a bit more interesting to slow down the drivetrain rotation. A Jeep NP231 is connected to a flipped Dana 300 with heavy-duty outputs using a Box 4 Rocks doubler kit. These sit tucked into a custom tubular crossmember.

With plans to run big tires, LeBlanc chose to put a 1-ton axle in the frontend. He picked up a Dana 60 from a ’93 Ford F-350. To that he added 5.38 gears from G2 Axle, an ARB locker, Yukon 35-spline chromoly outer axleshafts, Yukon Hardcore locking hubs, WFO truss, and Riddler differential cover. Front brakes consist of the stock Ford dual-piston calipers pressurized by a 3/4-ton Dodge master cylinder.

The rear axle is a beefy GM 14-bolt, also with 5.38 G2 gears. It's strengthened with an Artec truss, Ruffstuff pinion guard, and Riddler diff cover. Traction benefits from a Yukon Grizzly locker, and the Ruffstuff kit allow for the upgrade to Chevy 1/2-ton rear disc brakes to haul down the 40x13.5R17LT Goodyear MTRk tires mounted on Pro Comp Rock Crawler wheels with TMI weld-on beadlocks. The wheelbase now sits at a healthy 113 inches.

Body and Interior
The Cherokee body has undergone some major changes with the addition of all the steel work. Custom bumpers were integrated into the armor, and a Warn VR10 winch is tucked discretely behind the front bumper. New rear fender tubs were fabricated to accommodate the bigger tires and wheelbase stretch. LeBlanc stated that there was “tons” of floor work needed to reshape sheetmetal to clear the transfer cases and all the suspension mounts. Under the rig you'll also find a flat-belly front crossmember and substantial bracing tying the structures all together.

Occupants ride safely in the factory leather power seats wrapped in four-point harnesses, and much of the factory interior is intact. In the rear, an RCI fuel cell sits near the relocated Optima battery.

Good, Bad, and What It's For
With a second chance to build a very capable Cherokee, LeBlanc had the opportunity to rethink his build process. We don't know what all went through his brain, but the result speaks for itself. It can safely transport LeBlanc and his family to their favorite camping spot or off-road trail and then tackle some gnarly terrain when they get there.

Why I Wrote This Feature
As soon as I saw this built Cherokee I was drawn to it and had to crawl underneath to see what made it tick. I liked what I saw and had the pleasure of watching it traverse highway and trail for nearly a week. I'm always attracted to rigs that can hammer out a hard trail and still handle pavement duty as well.

Vehicle: ’00 XJ Cherokee
Engine: ’92 Jeep 4.0L, Mopar Stage 2 cam
Transmission: AX15 5-speed
Transfer Case: NP231/Dana 300 doubler using Box 4 Rocks
Suspension: Custom 3-link front, Custom 4-link rear, ORI STX struts
Axles: Front: ’93 Ford F350 Dana 60, 5.38 gears, ARB air locker, 35-spline chromoly ’shafts, Yukon Hardcore hubs. Rear: GM 14-bolt, 5.38 gears, Yukon Grizzly locker, Ruffstuff disc brake kit
Steering: Tapped stock steering box with PSC ram assist
Wheels: 17x9 Pro Comp Rock Crawler with TMI weld-on beadlock
Tires: 40x13.50R17LT Goodyear MTRk
Built For: Taking the family Jeeping

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