The Jeep Cherokee is leaving production after 2023, after Stellantis reduced the vehicle’s trim levels to two before idling the Belvidere assembly plant in Illinois. The current-gen Cherokee has been on the market for about a decade, so it makes sense for it to finally bow out, especially as Stellantis focuses on electrification. Sad news, some say; our friends over at The Drive wrote the headline “ ” and Road & Track’s headline states” Jeep Cherokee Axed After Nearly 50 Years.” It all sounds so tragic until you realize that actually, the Jeep Cherokee isn’t just now dying after half a century — it’s been dead since 2001.
I’m not going to get all sentimental like our friends at The Drive did with its lede:
The Jeep Cherokee has been discontinued after 49 years in production, a Jeep official confirmed to The Drive. It brings to an end an SUV that not only made Jeep what it is today but also changed automobiles forever…
The article then goes into the Cherokee’s history, mentioning that it started off as a body-on-frame machine on the Wagoneer’s “SJ” platform (which was developed in the early 1960s), then for the 1984 model year became the unibody “XJ” that everyone knows and loves before morphing into a “KJ” with independent front suspension, then the boxy KK, then the current Fiat-based “KL” with fully independent suspension.
All of it’s true and well-written, but let’s all be honest with ourselves: Nobody is mourning the death of the Jeep Cherokee in 2023. Nobody.
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Some people mourned the Cherokee when it went unibody in 1984, but I’d say the majority of those folks eventually came around to the “downsized” Cherokee, especially after the mighty 4.0-liter AMC inline-six entered the fray in 1987.
The Cherokee XJ improved in almost every way over its predecessor (my 1979 Jeep Cherokee is shown in the Instagram clip above), without really sacrificing much. The smaller, boxier Jeep didn’t look as cool in some people’s eyes, but it was more powerful, quicker, more efficient, more capable off-road, quieter, better-riding, better handling, and on and on. The XJ made its SJ predecessor look downright prehistoric, and if you still don’t believe me, read my article “It’s Incredible How Big Of A Quantum Leap The Cherokee Cherokee XJ Was Over Its SJ Predecessor“:
In my story, I quote Patrick Foster, author of Jeep: The History of America’s Greatest Vehicle, who wrote about the Cherokee:
“Everything about [XJs] was new, and they introduced more new technology to the SUV market than any vehicle before or since,” he goes on. The new XJ Jeep (which came in “Wagoneer” trim) was 1,200 pounds lighter, 21 inches shorter, six inches narrower and four inches lower than the Cherokee SJ it replaced, and yet—thanks to unibody construction—the XJ kept 90 percent of its predecessor’s interior volume.
The XJ was an absolute masterpiece.
When it left, it was replaced by a vehicle that wasn’t nearly as compelling overall, which is why, if we’re being honest with ourselves, it was 2001 when everyone capable of mourning the Jeep Cherokee shed their tears. This was the final model year of the XJ, and the beginning of KJ Liberty production (The Liberty continued the Cherokee name in other markets).
The new Cherokee (called Liberty in the U.S.) did improve upon the XJ’s ride, on-road handling, NVH, and interior volume, but whereas its predecessor was revolutionary and stood out among its peers, the new Cherokee didn’t bring that much more to the table, and blended in with its competitive set. Here’s what Patrick Foster writes about the KJ Liberty in his book:
“At least one valid complaint could be made about the Liberty. Unlike the Cherokee, Grand Cherokee, or the original Wagoneer, Liberty didn’t introduce any new innovations to the market, and its style, while pleasant enough, didn’t set any standard either.”
The biggest controversy about the KJ when it debuted was its styling; it looks happy and dorky, not chiseled and tough like its forebear. While I personally have come around to the KJ’s looks — particularly in the rear since I love rear-mounted tire carriers — the biggest issues I have with the KJ are mechanical. Its powertrain, drivetrain, and suspension are vastly inferior to that of the XJ.
Forget the four-cylinders, because XJ and KJ owners didn’t buy them; let’s compare the volume-engines: The Jeep XJ’s 4.0-liter straight six and the Jeep Liberty’s 3.7-liter V6. They both produce the same amount of torque, while the Liberty’s V6 cranks out about 20 more horsepower at 210:
But the Liberty KJ weighed about 300-400 pounds more than a similarly-equipped XJ, and though power was up, that power delta really only shows itself towards the top of the rev range. Down low — where the engine spends most of its time — the 4.0 made as much torque (and thus power) as the 3.7. Zero to 60 mph acceleration tests by major automotive publications indicate that the Liberty KJ was actually slower than its XJ predecessor.
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And in general, when you ask Jeep Liberty, Grand Cherokee, and Commander (the WK-generation Grand Cherokee and the XK Commander shared this base engine) owners what they think about that 3.7-liter V6, most will say “it’s okay.” It’s not known to be unreliable, but it’s also not a torquey, silky-smooth stalwart like the AMC inline-six. The V6 is know for being a bit louder, requiring a bit more maintenance, and a bit harder to work on. It’s an unremarkable internal combustion engine that never had a chance to be loved, because it had to go on stage after the 4.0-liter spent 15 years winning hearts.
It’s not just the AMC 4.0-liter straight-six that makes the boxy Cherokee more desirable from a mechanical standpoint, it’s also the fact that the mill was bolted to an unkillable Aisin-Warner AW4 four-speed auto; the KJ’s boring and slightly-less-reliable 3.7-liter V6 got hooked to an also-slightly-less-reliable Chrysler four-speed automatic (actually, the 45RFE and 545RFE were among the better of the typically-plagued Chrysler automatics; still, it was no AW4). And then there was the suspension.
The Jeep Cherokee XJ featured a solid front axle (shown in the bottom photo of the two above), which one could lift for $20 and a few hours worth of wrenching. The rear solid axle could be jacked up using junkyard leaf springs; this entire lift kit you see below cost me $120, and look at how beautifully it articulates:
The Jeep Liberty (shown in the top of that pair of pics) is not straightforward to lift, limiting its aftermarket potential. What’s more, it’s just not as robust:
There’s a reason why KJs never caught on in the aftermarket like XJs have, and why you rarely see them at off-road parks. Both XJs and KJs initially sold to suburbanites, and were driven around concrete jungles, taking kids to school, picking up groceries, and commuting to work. But when XJs got old and lost their value, they became the ultimate off-road platforms; when KJs started getting old, they became on-road beaters (with, of course, some exceptions; some folks do modify their KJs and take them off-road).
Anyway, I’ll admit that the later Jeep Liberty Renegades, particularly when equipped with the JK Wrangler’s NSG-370 six-speed manual, were pretty cool. And I like the idea of the diesels, too, even if I would never wat to maintain one.
I would absolutely pay $7,050 for this 100,000 mile example that sold on Bring a Trailer three years ago:
Still, the KJ Liberty/Cherokee wasn’t nearly as cool as the XJ, and you can see that when you look at message boards online; the community surrounding the KJ is tiny compared to that surrounding the XJ. Even smaller than both is the KK community:
The KK is the KJ’s replacement. It came out just as Chrysler entered bankruptcy around 2008. It was not a good car. Even 17 year-old-me at the Kansas City Auto Show knew that:
Just read this Car and Driver comparison of 2008 SUVs, and see how the Liberty KK ends up in dead last — ninth place!
The KK kept the same 210 horsepower 3.7-liter V6 as the KJ Liberty — a vehicle that was already underpowered compared to the XJ — and added more heft. In fact, a well-equipped 4×4 KK Liberty weighed over 4,400 pounds! It was inefficient, featured a poor-quality interior endemic to Daimler-era Chrysler products, had footwells that were oddly too small, and just generally underperformed compared to its competitive set.
Despite that, I actually think that, like the KJ from Bring a Trailer, a KK with a moderate lift like this one below owned by an Autopian reader could make for a decent budget daily-driven Jeep for moderate off-road use:
Despite my appreciation for the KK, it suffered from all the same issues as the KJ, but added weight and worse interior quality. On the plus side, when it debuted Jeep was offering a Lifetime Powertrain Warranty! (This actually became rather controversial):
Anyway, moving on, let’s look at the final iteration of the Jeep Cherokee, the KL:
The photo just above shows me 10 years ago at age 21 doing some off-road thermal testing on a Jeep Cherokee KL prototype. The vehicle did a solid job off-road thank to its decent approach and departure angles, but more importantly, thanks to its locking rear axle (developed by American Axle):
The problem with the Cherokee KL is that it’s hideous. Just downright hideous (it later received a refresh, though this did not get rid of its giant nose that jutted out ahead of the front axle):
What’s more, as decent as the Trailhawk trim was in Moab (non-Trailhawks are unimpressive off-road), it still couldn’t hold a candle to the original XJ when I put the two head-to-head at a Michigan off-road park:
And because the KL was the first Cherokee with fully independent suspension, lifting it even a little bit is borderline impossible.
The KL is more comfortable on-road than its predecessors, and it’s safer, but it’s basically a car on stilts with an okay 4×4 system, okay underbody protection, and short enough overhangs to be fairly decent off-road in stock form when in Trailhawk guise. It has very little aftermarket potential for modifications, and is far, far more complex than its predecessors, making for a questionable long-term ownership experience. In stock form, the Trailhawk is fairly fun off-road, but overall, the KL will go down in history as being unremarkable.
The KJ, KK, and KL all pale in comparison to the XJ, which revolutionized the off-road world, bringing unibody construction and true off-road capability to the masses (none of its successors could do what you see in the video below as smoothly and with as few/cheap modifications). It was beautiful, capable, easily modifiable, reliable, easy to work on, and at the time of its release, surprisingly comfortable. When it bowed out in 2001, the car world shed tears. Now it’s 2022, and the Jeep KL Cherokee is bowing out of the market, and — relative to that departure 22 years ago — nobody really cares.
(Some notes: In some ways, you could argue that the Grand Cherokee is the more authentic successor to the original Cherokee, and to the XJ. In fact, the first-gen Grand Cherokee “ZJ” was meant to replace the XJ. Also, it’s worth mentioning that Cherokee XJ production continued beyond 2001 in China. I’ll also mention that I think the Wrangler Unlimited is the true spiritual successor to the XJ. -DT).
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