In 1996, my wife and I each drove a YJ Wrangler. We realized that we needed a vehicle with more room and four doors, so my wife traded in her Wrangler Rio Grande for a new 1996 Cherokee Sport. It was not heavily optioned - with steel wheels, manual windows, manual cloth seats, and a basic interior, it would be considered pretty spartan by today's standards. But it had the right equipment where it counted: the legendary Jeep 4.0L straight six cylinder engine, automatic AW4 transmission, NP-231 Command-Trac transfer-case, Dana 30 front axle (without the problematic vacuum disconnect), and Chrysler 8.25" rear axle. It was powerful, capable, fun to drive, and as we'd find out over the next 15 years, utterly reliable.
It's no wonder the Cherokee was a runaway sales success from its introduction as a 1984 model through its final year in 2001. It had many endearing qualities. It had room for 5 adults. It had decent cargo capacity, especially with the rear seat folded down. The unibody design, while a departure from the body-on-frame Jeeps that came before it, was lightweight and reasonably stiff. The solid axles front and rear imparted durability off the pavement. The performance of the coil spring front suspension was groundbreaking at the time, and the traditional leaf sprung rear suspension offered respectable towing numbers.
The XJ Cherokee was a paragon of automotive simplicity, employing proven technology in an effective, good-looking package that excelled in many roles. Ultimately, the main drivetrain components would be shared with the YJ and TJ Wranglers and the ZJ Grand Cherokee, keeping production costs low and making the Cherokee an affordable option. We grew to love our Flame Red Sport, and to this day we fondly remember it as one of our favorite Jeeps.
The Cherokee's primary role was daily driving, but it wasn't long until it was pressed into service for camping, vacations, exploration, and organized trail rides. At one point, we purchased a 25' Coleman ultra-light travel trailer, and the Cherokee acted as the primary tow vehicle until a full-size pickup was given that responsibility some time later. It flat-towed my TJ Wrangler from Ohio to the 2001 Camp Jeep event in Virginia. Until the pickup was purchased, it hauled mulch, landscape blocks, and large purchases home from the store.
When work relocated us from Ohio to Omaha, Nebraska, the Cherokee made the trip with us. It took us to the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands of South Dakota. Years later, after moving back to Ohio, we drove it on a two-week vacation to Colorado, where we explored on and off-road from Denver down through Leadville and on to Ouray in southwest Colorado. For a full week, we 'wheeled the XJ on the famous trails of the Alpine Loop, including Black Bear Pass and even got caught in a thunderstorm at night on Engineer Pass. Then we packed all of our gear and souvenirs and crossed half the country back to Ohio.
The first few years of ownership, the Cherokee remained mostly stock except for a set of 30x9.5" BFGoodrich All-Terrains and a brushguard with fog lights. Soon after, I added fuel tank and transfer-case skidplates for extra protection, and a 2" budget boost to the suspension for a little more tire clearance, along with new extended length shocks.
Later, the brushguard was removed to make way for an ARB Bull Bar front bumper with an electric winch. This combination added a lot of weight to the front end, causing it to sag, so I used a combination of heavier-rate 2" coil springs and coil spacers up front for a total of 3" of lift. In the rear I installed an add-a-leaf kit to achieve the necessary lift. New lower control arms, twin-tube shocks, swaybar disconnects, heavy-duty track bar, and a new set of 31x10.5" BFGoodrich All-Terrains finished out the suspension modifications.
In the performance arena, I added a cat-back exhaust, high-flow catalytic converter, a K&N air filter, a throttle body spacer, and an aftermarket speedometer gear to correct the speedometer signal. After experiencing the inevitable exhaust manifold cracks, I installed a stainless steel replacement header.
Around 200,000 miles, I decided to add some comfort to the XJ in the form of a new stereo system, speakers, a sub-woofer, amplifier, new front seats, and some additional sound deadening. After pulling the carpet, I was shocked to find rampant rust of the body within several sections of unibody rail. It was not visible from the underside of the Jeep, so I was completely unaware. The rust belt strikes again. I completely stripped the interior and cut out all of the rusted sections, then replaced the sheet metal and sealed the body with adhesive sealant. This was a major undertaking, but once completed, I installed sheets of sound deadening material in key locations, reinstalled the carpet and interior pieces and the XJ was back in service.
· 900 CCA Optima Red-Top heavy-duty battery
· K&N air filter
· ARB Bull Bar front bumper with D-rings
· T-Max electric vehicle recovery winch with wired remote
· Hella 55w Fog Pattern Driving Lights with illuminated switch
· Front Rancho shocks and rear Full Traction shocks
· Heavy-duty steering stabilizer
· 31x10.5x15” BF Goodrich All-Terrain T/A KO tires
· Draw-Tight Class III trailer hitch with a 4-plug wiring harness
· Custom 3” front lift-kit (1” front coil spacers and 2” Rusty’s Off-Road coil springs)
· Custom 2.5” rear lift-kit (Rusty’s Off-Road 2.5” add-a-leaf kit and Teraflex lift shackles)
· Skid Row Automotive heavy-duty gas tank skidplate
· Front sway-bar Quicker Disconnects by Teraflex
· Front heavy-duty adjustable track bar (Panhard Rod) by 4WD Hardware
· Gibson Aluminized Cat-Back Performance Exhaust
· Random Technology Aluminum high-flow catalytic converter
· Gibson Performance Stainless Steel Header
· Tomken transfer-case lowering kit
· FloKooler high flow water pump and Robertshaw 180 degree variable thermostat
· PowerAid Throttle Body Spacer by Airaid
· Rooftop Cargo Carrier for the spare tire
· Sony Xplode CD head unit, Sony Xplode replacement speakers, Alpine amplifier, and Polk Audio 8” sub-woofer
What observations did I come away with after 15 years and 260k miles?
The 4.0L was one of the best engines Jeep ever produced. I replaced the normal wear items - starter, alternator, water pump, belts and pulleys - as needed, but at 260k miles it had all its original internal parts. It still ran strong and didn't burn any oil. Likewise, the transmission was all original and never gave us any problems. Some owners complained that the AW4 tended to hunt excessively between 3rd and 4th gears. We never had an issue, simply shifting out of overdrive with heavy loads, when towing, or when driving through the mountains. And the NP-231 transfer-case was a model of strength and efficiency, requiring nothing beyond normal fluid changes. I can still feel the reassuring 'thunk' of the manual shift lever as it slipped into 4WD.
The axles were similarly trouble-free. For the 31" tires we ran, they provided more than adequate strength, getting us through difficult trails and over rocks and ledges year after year. We never installed a limited-slip or locker, as we never found it necessary. I was constantly amazed at the amount of traction I could coax out of its open differentials, both on-road and off. It was particularly surefooted in the snow.
The size of the XJ Cherokee was just about perfect. It could easily maneuver through tight trails, following Wranglers between trees, ruts, and rocks. And it made a great vehicle for camping, providing plenty of room for gear and a couple of dogs.
Over the span of 15 years, I performed nearly all of the repair and maintenance work myself. Spending that much time on fluid changes, tire rotations, and routine repairs causes you to develop a bond with your vehicle. And this particular Cherokee became a trusted member of the family.