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Jeep Cherokee Buyers Guide

Posted in Project Vehicles on January 1, 2010 Comment (0)
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Cherokees for Cheap A lot of people say a lot of nice things about the XJ. We often look at it as smoke being blown into unwanted places. You know the kinds of things you always hear:

"The Cherokee is an icon in the four-wheeling world."

"The Jeep Cherokee is the vehicle that started the SUV craze."

"The Jeep Cherokee was built for 17 years, proving how popular it was."

Yeah, that's great. We like this one better-"There were almost three million Cherokees made, which means they are dirt cheap today," or this one, "The Cherokee features the best of both suspensions: coils up front for flex off-road and leafs out back for stability and off-camber predictability," or even this one, "It's got a 4.0L engine, a choice of two good transmissions, a solid T-case, and decent axles- buy one and beat it."

Some love it, some hate it-the NP-242 transfer case was available up until the end of production. It brings an optional full-time 4WD to the table, but leaves stronger aftermarket parts behind. If you live somewhere it snows, this 'case could be a boon to you. However, if you rock crawl, there is no heavy-duty slip yoke eliminator, no larger chain, and the front output has been known to be weak. Find it by reading the round aluminum tag on the back of the T-case or by the "full time" indication next to the T-case shifter.

You can think whatever you want about the XJ. The fact is that today a single paycheck (and often less than that) could have you in one, and out wheeling tomorrow. There might occasionally be a screaming deal on another Jeep, but we see XJs for sale every day for under $1,000.

The XJ has a lot going for it. More interior cargo room than a Wrangler, yet it still has the bomb-proof inline-six; many of them got the decent AW4 transmission or had the AX-15 as an option, high-pinion front axles, and non-C-clipped rear axles were also fairly common. What's more, if your XJ didn't come with the better parts from the factory, there is one in a junkyard near you that did, and you can easily upgrade it if you don't mind getting dirty.

There are plusses and minuses to all the years of XJs, and if you are out XJ hunting, let us give you the ammo you'll need. We'd ignore the four-cylinder XJs, both because there were less of them, and because you'd be better off with a six.

A lot of people love the two-door XJs, which were an available option for the whole run. Sure, they look cool, but there are some two-door-specific parts (sheet metal, glass, door panels) that make them more difficult to maintain in tip-top shape. Hinges stressing out and going bad from the extra weight is common and two doors also make it harder to get to the rear seat, both for people and for access to tools or parts. So before you go on a two-door hunt, make sure the drawbacks are worth the cool-factor look.

There are four basic eras of the XJ, and they break down like this:

'84-'86
This was a dark time for Jeep, and the Cherokee in particular. These Jeeps were saddled with an unreliable V-6 that put out about as much horsepower as the four-cylinder did. Unless you are planning on completely swapping out the drivetrain, we'd suggest looking at a newer version.

'87-'90
Also known as the Renix years, as the French-sourced multiport fuel injection was called. These motors are reliable, and the fuel-injection's operating parameters are looser than what came later, allowing more power to be made without the computer freaking out. Many guys also cite better mileage numbers with these XJs than the later ones. However, if you don't have someone that knows and can work on the Renix system, repairs can quickly become costly, especially if you try to fix it by throwing parts at it. The newest one of these is 19 years old now, and will need some help. Often when they stop running, it is because a sensor went bad.

We've seen more dead '87 and '88 XJs from this one connector than any other single cause. It is called the C-101 connector, and it connects the wires from the inside of the Jeep (i.e., computer, gauges, steering column) to the stuff under the hood (i.e., sensors and engine). It might have been a good idea when new, but grease, road dirt, water, and brittle plastic all contribute to bad connections between the stuff inside and the stuff outside. If you are looking at a Jeep of these years and it's got issues, look at the C-101 first.

The downside to these years, if you are a manual transmission connoisseur, is that until mid 1989, these Jeeps were saddled with the less-than-great Peugot BA 10/5 transmission. Somewhere in 1989 the AX-15 replaced the Peugot, but the output was still only 21 splines, which means if you want to swap in a later more common transfer case with 23 splines, you'll have more work to do. Aside from the output shaft spline count, the AW4 of this era was basically the same transmission that was put in all the XJs. That is to say, for an auto, great.

'91-'96
This is where we first started seeing Chrysler having some influence in the Cherokee. The Renix system went away and the inline-six got a head that flowed better, making it the "high output" motor which might be the most powerful inline-six of the bunch. The Dana 35 or optional Dana 44 rear axle were replaced with a 27-spline corporate 8.25 axle, which was about the same as the 35, but not as good as the optional 44.

Transmission options were the AX-15 and the AW4, both with 23-spline outputs, making it very easy to swap in other transfer cases, such as the Rubicon's NVG241OR, or an Advance Adapters Atlas II.

The "skidplate" or "up-country" package is one box that didn't get checked near often enough. Depending on the year, it got you this front differential skid, a belly skidplate, and a gas tank skid plate. Not all skids were available all years, and the differential skid shown is a bolt-on to all 17 years of Cherokee. Look for them in a junkyard near you.

In 1995 the XJ got a driver's side air bag, and in 1996, OBD2 (On Board Diagnostics 2) made its debut. Many hated it at the time, and still hate in now. OBD2 monitors and controls more aspects of the engine than the previous generation did, which can make transmission swaps and blowers harder to get right. On the one hand, OBD2 will let you get away with less power adding before throwing the dreaded CEL light. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, it is easier to plug in a scan tool to retrieve the code and replace the widget that went bad. If you like having more control of your XJ, stick with a '95 and earlier model.

'97-'01
This era is typically referred to as the "Late Model" Cherokee because it is easily distinguished from the previous 13 years of the vehicle by the different look. The sharp angles were rounded off, the interior grew more ergonomic, and these generally command a higher buy-in price. Under the skin it isn't really all that much different. Essentially the same drivetrain that was dropped in the unitbody of the XJ in '87 remained, with more bells and whistles strapped to it.

Sure, these are two-wheel-drive transmissions, but you can still easily see how the AX-15 (left) looks like Hercules compared to the Tinkerbell-like Peugot BA 10/5 (right). The Peugot can be easily identified (and then avoided) by looking for the case that has a left and right half bolted together. The 2WD XJs have the same front suspension, but with beam (aka tube) in place of where the front differential should be.

These Jeeps ended up with the Dana 30 front axle with bigger 760x U-joints, and rear 8.25 axle with the bigger 29-spline axle shafts. The manual transmission-equipped units were more scarce in these years than in the earlier years and the AW4 got an extra output shaft sensor, which means earlier transmissions won't be a direct bolt-in.

There were up to three major wiring harness revisions in 1997. No matter who you talk to, everyone agrees that unless you are leaving it completely alone, you might want to avoid a '97. We've been in and out of most of these, and it's clear that it took Chrysler until late 1997 to figure out the wiring, make it neat, orderly, and uniform from one month to the next.

Once we get away from the '97s, there aren't too many pitfalls in the last four years of production; it is a matter of personal choice. The '98s were basically '97s with the wiring worked out; '99 saw the introduction of the equal-length intake in an effort to keep power numbers up after a head redesign; '00 was the first year for the coil-on-plug style ignition and the NV3550 became an option (a very rare option, at that), and by '01 the high-pinion front axle bowed out in favor of the low-pinion TJ front axle. Some people will tell you to stay away from the '99s because the heads crack, some will tell you stay away from the coil-on-plug ignitions because of misfire codes. Really, these last four years are good years and while there might be problems, they are associated with specific vehicles, not specific years.

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