Photo: My 99 Sport in Gunmetal Pearl

These XJs are some of the most highly regarded used vehicles out there, an illustrious legend carried on in the hushed, reverent whispers of its indestructibility, its mighty 4.0 that takes all comers. The Cherokee has earned its reputation, but there’s nothing like owning one to clear up some of the rosy-eyed awe of this heralded machine. Lets meet our hero.

Getting in

The Cherokee is the antithesis of the Tardis, in that it looks big on the outside but is hysterically small on the inside. It’s a practice in gymnastics to bend and grunt your way in, to fold your body into the flat, unsupportive seats, shoving your legs under a steering wheel that’s sits way too close, putting the latest airbag technology of this past century inches from your gut.

You sit legs out, knees slightly bent, arm on the armrest and other arm resting on the door. Once you’re in, its ideal for someone short, like the car is shrink-wrapped around you. It’s not horribly uncomfortable, it has air conditioning after all, but you’ll have to get used to climbing in and out of its cramped confines. I can’t exactly explain why, maybe its familiarity, but I have come to love the Cherokee’s less than ergonomic driving position.

How does it drive?

One thing I have noticed about XJs, a thought repeated on the more realistic threads, is that the manual is slower than the auto, and it truly is. The secret lies in the rear end, the 3.07 of the manual seems to dampen some of the potency of that 4.0; the auto uses a 3.55.

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2nd gear and reverse can be difficult, a common quirk of the AX15 manual, as is notchy shifting on winter days and an occasional reluctance for first. Nevertheless I feel like I should placate these observations in saying this is the first and only manual I have ever driven.

The 4.0 is a very chatty engine, and in coming from a relatively modern car to the Jeep, I had to grow used to its unusual and scary sounding ticks and clatter. Its very noisy from inside with a particularly loud resonance between 2500 and 3000 rpm and, while cold, the clutch fan emits a robust roar. It’s a classic and satisfying sound, from the whistling cooling fan to the deep burble of the exhaust.

At cruising speed, its actually decently quiet aside from the humming engine; the wind and engine noise do become loud enough for me to need to turn up the radio at any speed above 55, but this is a 20 year old jeep were talking about.

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It rides like a cart, and any fantasies about carelessly careening over bumps in your invincible old Jeep come to end at the first road imperfection. The solid front axle slams into pavement changes with the violence of hitting a curb into a normal car, the rear axle hops and clunks over a hill, and the jeep thrashes from side to side if you turn off a steeply angle inclines; hold your coffee.

In terms of handling something this small and lithe has physics on its side, though this awkward box on wheels corners flatter and more composed than it has any right to. The steering is the heaviest of any car I have driven and is completely absent of any road feel whatsoever. It does, however, weight up nicely in corners giving you a gauge of when to back off. It’s direct and actually pretty quick when your tossing the Jeep into a turn, but retains that on-center play characteristic of these Cherokees, a thing I like to affectionately call Jeep-slop.

Its kind of a pain in the city, the Cherokee is best experienced on rural roads and it seems to like it better there anyway. The crashy suspension and slowness in downtown traffic becomes as tiresome to me as does the heat to that very warm-blooded straight six.

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How does it off-road?

Its 2wd with an open diff, slick roads on rainy days are enough of a challenge. It’s too pretty for mud anyway.

How practical is it?

Not as bad as you might think. XJs in general are thirsty creatures, but “rowing your own” provides some financial relief as I get about 18 in mixed driving, expect 14-16 with an auto. It can seat five people on paper but realistically two adults in front and one tolerant child in the rear bench. The rear seat folds completely flat, impressive for a mid-eighties design, and it has a wide and tall hatch opening. The moveable roof racks are useful for wet things, such as kayaks, but if you’re on the shorter side getting stuff up there makes them more aesthetic in their purpose. My Jeep has a decent trailer hitch, but people don’t recommend pulling much with an XJ and, as such diminutive SUV I can see why. To make it short and sweet, a fully functioning XJ gets you and your crap where you need to go dry, non-sweaty and not entirely broke.

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Is it reliable?

This is not simply a matter of yes and no, “Is it reliable” carries the baggage of whether you are reliable. Be prepared to get under the hood, be angry and heartbroken, unconcerned with unusual and/or expensive sounding noises. You will get your hands dirty and cut, your eyes will be salted in the mystery flecks that rain from underneath you Jeep as you neighbors look on to you, a yelling, violent and profane spawn of jeep ownership.

Humor aside, expect minor electrical issues such as with the power windows, front speakers, and power locks, the occasional bad engine sensor, and maybe some leaky door seals and disintegrating interior components.

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Fortunately, parts are the cheapest of almost any car out there and replacing them, though arduous for those of us not mechanically inclined, is easier than in most other cars. There are many jeeps at junkyards and so many how-to videos and forum posts your being lazy if you don’t at least try. In this age of the Internet, there’s hardly any reason not to know something, a notion especially applicable to these XJs.

Theres no service oddities for these Jeeps either; for the most part its just changing the oil every 3 to 5k, perhaps with some zinc-additive to keep the cam shaft happy. Nothing on the Jeep requires any specialty tools, just time and a socket set.

I love my Cherokee, in spite of, and for all its faults. I have always wanted a Cherokee and driving mine this past year has been a dream come true, a priceless experience of getting to intimately know this singularly unique vehicle. There’s nothing quite like an XJ, and, if you’re willing to take its idiosyncrasies in stride, to take care of it, embrace its rough nature, I highly recommend one.

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Here’s some more pictures for your time....