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In their original incarnation, SUVs were chiefly owned by folks who valued "utility" above "sport." A four-wheel-drive, station wagon-like vehicle was just the thing to transport five (or more) adults to remote areas, handle bad-weather driving or pull heavy trailers.
Trouble was, they required the skill of a limo driver to park in the city and a gas card with a generous limit to keep them moving. Consumers who wanted something more reasonable in terms of size and fuel usage were out of luck.
That changed with the 1984 arrival of the Jeep Cherokee. Though there was a trim level of the '70s-era full-size Wagoneer called Cherokee, this new model was completely different. Its compact dimensions, unibody (as opposed to heavier body-on-frame) architecture and classic styling made this junior Jeep an immediate success.
The Cherokee was discontinued when Jeep introduced the Liberty, but even on the used market, it remains one of Jeep's most popular products. With minimal changes, it had a nearly 20-year production run, and plenty of Cherokees are still on the road today. Many have been modified with the usual off-roading upgrades, such as bigger tires, brush guards and lifted suspensions.
Although the Jeep Cherokee's relatively tidy dimensions make it great for negotiating a tight trail, dicing with rush-hour traffic and parallel-parking, there are some sacrifices made for this nimble nature. Getting in and out is tricky due to the high step-up and small doors, and the rear seat is cramped. Nor is this Jeep particularly refined. Shoppers interested in a late '90s or early 2000s small SUV for mostly urban runabout duty might be happier with car-based competitors (Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4) of similar vintage.
Most recent Jeep Cherokee
It would probably take the most devout Jeep enthusiast to tell a second-generation (1997-2001) Cherokee from the first. Exterior changes were subtle -- essentially a smoothing of the nose and corners and new taillights. A revised cabin sported a new dashboard with dual airbags, though ergonomics were still hit or miss and storage space was minimal. Trim levels initially stood pat at base SE, midgrade Sport and upscale Country. By the end of this generation's run, the Country was dropped, with the Classic and Limited slotting above the Sport.
Powertrain choices included a 2.5-liter inline-4 (125 hp) and a 190-hp, 4.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine. For the four-cylinder, Jeep offered either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic. The larger engine could be paired with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. One could have rear- or four-wheel drive, and there were two 4WD systems to choose from: part-time "Command-Trac" or full-time "Selec-Trac."
In our road test of a '97 Cherokee, we found the Jeep unequalled off-road while still providing respectable performance on the blacktop in terms of acceleration and handling. We liked the firm, sporty ride, although some people may find it too stiff, judging by our consumer feedback.
Owner comments indicate that a more recent Jeep Cherokee should be a reliable workhorse as powertrains are sturdy, though brake rotors are known to warp and need replacement. We recommend a thorough inspection by a trusted mechanic before considering a purchase.
Past Jeep Cherokee models
The first-generation Cherokee ran from 1984-'96. Two- and four-door versions were available. As both were built on a short 101.4-inch wheelbase and weighed approximately 3,100 pounds, the Cherokee was lithe compared to the Ford Broncos and Chevy Suburbans of the day.
It was a good thing the Cherokee was relatively light, as the initial power choices consisted of a 2.5-liter inline-4 with just 105 hp or a 2.8-liter V6 (which was sourced from Chevrolet) that made only 115 hp. There was also a turbodiesel available, though it proved unpopular. Transmission choices included a three-speed automatic and four- and five-speed manuals. Trim levels included base, well-equipped Pioneer and sporty Chief. Two- and four-wheel-drive versions were offered, the latter available in either part-time Command-Trac or full-time Selec-Trac configuration.
For 1987, power increased substantially, as the Jeep Cherokee received a new 4.0-liter inline-6 that made 177 hp while the inline-4 was boosted to 121 hp. On six-cylinder versions, a four-speed automatic replaced the outdated three-speed unit. By this time the trims were shuffled and now included the midlevel Laredo and plush Limited, the latter sporting gold mesh wheels and pinstripes. Power increased again in 1991, with the four making 130 hp and the much more popular six pumping out 190 hp. By the time this generation ended in 1996, engine refinements made for smoother, quieter operation.
For more information on the Jeep Cherokee, go to our Jeep Cherokee History page.
If you are looking for newer years, visit our new Jeep Cherokee page.
For more on past Jeep Cherokee models, view our Jeep Cherokee history page.