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Jeep Cherokee: XJ to KL and Mediocrity In Between

George Kennedy

So, the Jeep Cherokee is back, and that’s got us excited! We’re testing the new Cherokee as we speak, and should have a review coming soon. But in the meantime, it’s worth a look at how we got here, and the origins of one of Jeep’s most popular vehicles ever.

The 1984 to 2001 XJ-generation Cherokee was originally conceived as part of AMC’s partnership with Renault. The goal was to create an American version of a Land Rover, and early developmental sketches were based on the older SJ Cherokee. When it debuted in 1984, it was branded as the “First Compact SUV in the US.”

Early models were available with an AMC-soured inline-four (Note: those engines should be avoided at all costs.) Jeep also offered the 4.0-liter inline-six and is one of the most popular engines to ever reside behind a seven-slatted grille. The heavy crankshaft meant added rotating mass, which was perfect for off-roading. If MOPAR fans have their slant-six, then Jeep enthusiasts have their four liter.

RELATED: See Photos of the 1981 Jeep Cherokee (SJ)

01-Jeep Cherokee

The Cherokee became widely popular among motorists looking for a vehicle with the rugged drivetrain and suspension of a Jeep, but with amenities and protection from the elements. Off-roaders loved the Cherokee’s advanced four-wheel drive setups and simplicity. One could easily maintain and modify a Cherokee, and as an owner, I can say mine looks quite fetching with a custom bumper, 3-inch lift and mud terrain tires added to the formula.

RELATED: See Photos of the 1985 Jeep Cherokee (XJ)

04-Jeep Cherokee

But Jeep was forced to adapt with the times. In 1993, the XJ was slated to be replaced by what eventually became the ZJ Grand Cherokee, but instead, those two vehicles sold alongside each other until 2001, making the XJ one of the longest unmodified automotive platforms in history.

But the dark side of adhering so strongly to tradition with the Wrangler is that other vehicles have to get softer to make sales targets. When a replacement came, in the form of the Liberty compact crossover, it was everything that the Cherokee was not.

Jeep needed a vehicle that would have better road manners than the Wrangler, and be fitted with creature comforts. As a result, the Liberty began a trend at Jeep of watering down their offerings. (This practice was only made worse by the Dodge Caliber-based Jeep Compass and Patriot.) The equipment trickery required to earn those vehicles a “Trail Rated” badge was a disservice to Jeep fans everywhere. But they were road friendly, and the common motorist enjoyed them.

00-Jeep Liberty

A second-generation Liberty arrived in 2007 (as a 2008 model). It grew in size and offered innovative new features, like the massive Webasto-style retractable roof (seen here). Interestingly enough, the first generation is considered by Jeep enthusiasts to be more off-road friendly, with its smaller curb weight and nimble dimensions. The big lumbering Liberty had grown too large to play the way that the Cherokee did. And with the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, there was a venerable family-friendly off-roader. It seemed like the dream was done for the Cherokee.

02-Jeep Liberty

But alas, the Cherokee has returned for 2014. It’s now making the rounds, being tested by various journalists, and time will tell if it has what it takes to live up to the original.

The first Cherokee may have been essentially a four-door, closed cabin Wrangler– which the current version certainly is not. As long as it can take and take care of the Rubicon Trail with the same ease that it does a daily commute it will live up to the spirit of the most Cherokee of years past.

2014 Jeep Cherokee

RELATED: See Photos of the 2014 Jeep Cherokee