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Inside the '84-'01 Jeep Cherokee

Posted in How To on March 1, 2010
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Photographers: Pete Trasborg

The '84-'01 Jeep Cherokee, also known as the XJ, is one of the most affordable and competent off-road vehicles ever produced. Few other 4-bys offer the room, off-road prowess, and aftermarket attention that the Cherokee does. From the introduction of the square-bodied SUV in 1984 to the end of its production run in 2001, the XJ has created an enthusiast following unlike any other SUV.

No matter if you are a desert racer, a rockcrawler, or a weekend trail cruiser, the XJ can be easily adapted to your wheeling needs. While the Cherokee platform, like many other OEM vehicles, has its better years, the XJ's basic attributes-its solid front and rear axles, multilink front and leaf-sprung rear suspension, and beefy drivetrain-make it an excellent builder's platform. Though its Unitbody construction isn't as durable as a body-on-frame design, welding to the sheetmetal structure is possible, and there are a many simple ways to strengthen the unified chassis.

With high production numbers and an 18-year run, the XJ's used sale prices have dropped dramatically over the past decade. In fact, they're so cheap that many Cherokee builders often look at them as a disposable vehicle. This means that after the Cherokee's body has been pulverized through years of wheeling the owner can simply peel off all his sturdy aftermarket parts and move them over to another XJ for under a grand. While they are not all $300 Jeeps, we regularly find older models for under 1,500 bucks on places like and have even found late-models for less than 3K.

As one of the last SUV's sold in North America with a solid front axle, the XJ was a monumental vehicle that left a lasting impact on our hobby and industry. If you are in the market for a new daily driver, a weekend wheeler, or a Cheap Truck Challenge competitor, maybe a new-to-you Jeep Cherokee is just the 4x you've been looking for. Here is a little build advice and technical information that we've gathered over the years.

Things to Avoid
The early Cherokees ('84-'86) were equipped with either 2.5L 4-popper 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 these years.

Things to Look For
The first model year for the 4.0L inline-six was '87, but it used a closed-loop cooling system. That system can be problematic but is easily upgraded to the open style.

The '91 Cherokee saw huge gains with the new High Output 4.0L, which was equipped with a multiport fuel injection system said to put out 190 hp.

While there were a few tuning upgrades, an equal-length intake in the '99, and a switch to spark packs in the '00, the powerful and reliable inline-six remained basically the same throughout its last decade of production. And although rear main seal leaks are common, the engines are known to chug on well past 200,000 miles.

Transfer case
Things to Avoid
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. With an NP207, an NP228, or an NP229 (fulltime case), the transfer cases offered are not necessarily weaker units, but they don't offer the sort of aftermarket support and attention as the NP231 and NP242.

Things to look For
The NP231 and NP242 are both great cases available in the '87-'01 XJ. Both cases received a 2.72:1 low range and have aftermarket goodies available like 4:1 kits, slip-yoke eliminators, and wide chain upgrades. The NP242 was even offered with a fulltime option for those who frequently drive on snowy roads.

Things to Avoid
Behind the early four-cylinders was an AX-4 then AX-5 manual. Both stick boxes are weak and should be avoided if possible. In the '87-'89 models a Peugeot BA-10 manual transmission was placed behind the six-cylinder. Unlike the AX-5, which is simply weak, the BA-10 is a poorly built gearbox that brings more headaches than it's worth.

Things to Look For
The AW-4 automatic transmission came on the scene in the '87 model and remained behind the powerful inline-six until the '01. The Aisin-Warner units are beefy autos and usually trouble-free as long as basic care and maintenance have been followed. Those of you who love the freedom of the gearshift will want to look for '89 and newer XJs equipped with the AX-15. While the highly desirable NV3550 manual made an appearance in the '00 model, you aren't likely to find many floating around.

Things to Avoid
Most of the '84-'91 XJ's high-pinion Dana 30 front axles came equipped with a vacuum disconnect system. These old-style disconnect systems can be problematic, especially as time wears on. There are a few upgrades and options to improve or bypass this system, such as swapping in a one-piece passenger axleshaft along with a new seal, but you are still left with the cast disconnect housing on the axle.

From the '89 model forward, ABS was an option on all Cherokees. If you can find one without the brake nanny, you're in luck, as the ABS systems don't work stellar off road. Also, if you are planning an axle swap, you may end up dealing with a ABS light on the dash.

The Dana 35 rear axle is never an exciting sight for an off-road enthusiast and was placed under that back of the Cherokee throughout its long run. The last two years of the Cherokees production offered a weaker low-pinion Dana 30 front axle. Looking back, we now know that the low-pinion front axle borrowed from the TJ parts line signaled the end for the XJ.

Things to look For
Some of the '87-'89 Cherokees with the towing package received a Dana 44 rear axle, which is always a bonus, but is pretty rare. The more common and strong rear axle to look for is the 29-spline Chrysler 8.25, which appeared in the mid to late '90s. Look for the 8.25-inch rear axle to be more squared off than the rounder Dana 35.

Up front the stronger 297 front axle U-joints made their first appearance in '89 Cherokees equipped with ABS and became standard in '97 and newer Dana 30 front axles. The '91-'99 high-pinion Dana 30 front is a great axle, as the stronger U-joints, reverse-rotation gearset, and high-clearance front shaft make it great for a builder who wants to stay on a 35-inch or smaller tire.

While interior can be a personal preference, we are big fans of how much cleaner the '97-'01 dash looks. That's not to say the '84-'96 interior looks bad, but when you compare both side by side, the older style really looks dated. Both setups are very functional and comfy, offering plenty of room for four people and gear. Though in 1997 the body style was made a bit rounder, the overall layout and visibility of the platform remained the same.

The Hatch
It's not uncommon to see the hatch of older Cherokees cracked around the window and edges. Until the '97 model all XJ rear hatches were made of fiberglass. They were switched to steel for the remainder of the platform's life.

PhotosView Slideshow

The Build Plan
So now that you're on the path to crafting your own new-to-you XJ, how should you build it? Well, that's up to you, but we do have a few words of advice before you dive too deep in on the project.

The most important step is determining whether this is a primary or secondary vehicle. XJs can make for a great daily driver and a weekend wheeler, but be prepared to spend a little extra dough on the purchase of a model that's been well kept.

For us, we think the Cherokee is a great secondary vehicle for the simple fact that they are cheap. We'd look for a '91-'96, toss on a small lift, a set of 33s, and maybe a lunch box locker or two, and then wheel the doors off-literally. For under 4K you could have a completely capable and modified XJ that can provide years of wheeling fun for the entire family.

•'91-'96 XJ, auto, non-ABS $800-$1,500
•Lock-Right front and rear lockers, $710
•Rough Country 4 1/2-inch lift, $460
•32- to 33-inch mud terrains on black steel wheels $1,000
•Kevin's Off Road rock sliders, $260
Total $3,230-$3,930

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