The first XJ Cherokee designs came out in 1978. American Motors worked with Renault to develop several sketches of the new vehicle, while clay models were based on the SJ version.
Early Jeep Cherokee XJs had European styling cues, followed by a quadra-link suspension that was meant to limit rollovers. With the addition of a four-design, the XJ would earn the title of becoming the first small crossover SUV released in the United States.
These XJs were 1,200 pounds lighter than the previous generation. They were also 31 inches shorter, but the unibody construction allowed for almost the same interior space.
As the years have passed, the Jeep Cherokee XJ has turned into an icon. These “sports wagons” created a foundation for family adventures before the idea of SUVs or CUVs was even considered.
When you know which model year to avoid, you’ll get to maximize your investment.
The Worst Jeep Cherokee XJ Models You Should Never Buy
The Jeep Cherokee XJ is a compact SUV that first reached the marketplace in 1983. It was produced in the United States through 2001, with an additional three years to global markets. It offered room for five passengers with 2WD and 4WD configurations. The worst XJ to buy is from 1996.
XJ in the name refers to “experimental Jeep.” It was a bold design to release in the 1980s, especially since the diesel version didn’t come to the United States. The custom unibody chassis helps the vehicle perform like a car on the road without compromising its off-roading capabilities.
The 1996 model of the Jeep Cherokee XJ is typically rated as the worst one out of the bunch. That’s because it had to comply with the new OBD II evaporative emissions and exhaust regulations in the American market. That meant the entire management system got upgraded to the JTEC PCM from Jeep.
When you have the ’96 XJ, you also need to watch for your seals leaking because they’ll give out faster than you might think. The header also has a reputation for cracking, which means you should take any oil leaks you encounter seriously.
It was marketed as an opportunity to deliver more reliability to the vehicle while easing the diagnostic process, but the opposite occurred.
Not only were there significant electronics issues with many of these vehicles, but they also struggled to keep up with what the older models could achieve in terms of performance.
Once you get past the 1996 XJ, the next ones to avoid are the models produced from 1984 to 1986. Although the vehicle is okay to drive, you’re stuck with a 2.5L four-cylinder engine. There isn’t enough power there to manage off-roading activities, especially if you get the 2WD version that came in 1985.
Additional Issues to Consider When Purchasing the XJ
Although the 1980s and 1990s are often considered the golden years for Jeep, some of the XJ models that came out during that time were less than favorable.
If you have an XJ from before 1987, you’ll want to ask about the transfer case before purchasing the vehicle. Many of them didn’t hold up well, and there isn’t as much aftermarket support for the replacement parts you’ll need.
Once you reach the 1987 models, you start getting the 4L inline-six engine design. It gives the vehicle a fast and sporty profile, but the design does come with a few issues.
The primary complaint involves a gasoline odor filling the cabin, while a few drivers have noted that their engines tend to overheat during regular operations.
A higher output version of the 4L engine would get released in 1991, delivering a multi-port fuel injection design that offers 190 HP. That design change would last for almost the entire decade.
When you take care of the engines in the Jeep Cherokee XJs from the 1990s, they deliver a performance of well over 200,000 miles. It’s up to you to determine if the cost is worth the benefits that come with this performance.
◼️ What About the XJs After 1996?
Some Jeep enthusiasts will say that the last great XJ model came out in 1994. That’s because Jeep started changing the look of the vehicle with the 1997 version.
Most people bought the XJ because it offers a retro style in its early years. The later models got a new interior, which is less inviting if you’re a traditionalist.
If you can find a 2000 Jeep Cherokee XJ with the NVG 3550 transmission, you’ll have a great vehicle to drive. It’s the only five-speed manual you can get in the series after 1987, making it a rare addition to the lineup.
With the setup, you’ll get more power and performance, offsetting the potential losses that some might feel exist from the interior change.
Here are the specs from the NVG 3550 transmission to consider.
|Manufacturer’s Torque Rating:||300 foot-pounds|
|Jeep Gear Ratios:||0.78, 1.00, 1.39, 2.33, and 4.01. Reverse of 3.57.|
The 355o from New Venture Gear delivers a relatively generous torque transmission capacity, offering about the same strength as the other options throughout the series. Although there are slightly more complaints about failures, some of that data could be attributed to imperfect driving with the clutch.
Should I Consider Purchasing a Wagoneer?
One of the more popular vehicles you’ll see when you attend car auctions is the Jeep Cherokee XJ SE. Starting in 1992, the automaker included an AHB police package for fleet vehicles in law enforcement.
You can purchase a compact XJ from this generation with the Wagoneer or Wagoneer Limited trim levels. Both were a little different in 1983-85 with a different grille and a smaller automaker badge on the driver’s side.
After the 1985 model year, they changed to vertically stacked headlights, fondly called “spider eyes,” with a front turn signal moved behind the grille.
The benefit of choosing the Wagoneer Limited is that you received vinyl wood trim on the sides of the vehicle and embossed leather seats.
If you want a touch of luxury when driving a Jeep, these models deliver the power and performance you want for a day on the road or following a trail.
◼️ What About the SE Models in the XJ Lineup?
When you attend car auctions, one of the more popular vehicles you’ll see is the Jeep Cherokee XJ SE. Starting in 1992, the automaker included an AHB police package for fleet vehicles in law enforcement.
In 1996, the SE was formalized as an official fleet and police-use vehicle. It features no interior rear door handles.
It also came with a 4L Power-Tech in-line six cylinder, offering about 13 more HP than the older version found in other XJs.
Jeep also made a few XJs with a right-hand driving format to serve the U.S. Postal Service. This design would eventually let the automaker enter foreign markets where opposite-side driving exists.
Although some were sent to Japan, the country’s inspection laws caused most of the models sold in that market to return to the United States.
If you can get your hands on an SE model, it’s worth the investment. Although the driving experience is a little finnicky at times, you’ll get the extra power you want for steep inclines or tough trails.
◼️ Cherokee XJ Production Ceased in 2001
Although the Jeep Cherokee XJ is a beloved SUV design, Wolfgang Bernhard wasn’t sold on the idea of continuing its production. He was brought in from Mercedes-Benz to help turn the financial situation around for Chrysler.
One of the first moves Bernard made was to stop the Jeep Cherokee lineup. It was referred to as a bland and aging SUV. It would get replaced by the Jeep Liberty KJ, which offered less off-roading capabilities and rounder edges.
The XJ remains one of the most popular vehicles around for drivers who love to do some off-road exploring. Popular Mechanics once named the vehicle as one of the best “boxy cars” of all time.
If you want to buy the best XJs, you’ll want to shop for models made in 1998 or 1999. For most drivers, the production line from 1996 is the one to avoid the most.
Final Thoughts on the Worst Jeep Cherokee XJ Models You Should Never Buy
When you want to drive a Cherokee XJ model, you’ll find that Jeep produced a few options that are better than others. The 1998 and 1999 versions deliver the most reliability, but anything that runs consistently and meets your needs is worth the money. The primary models to avoid are from 1995 and 1996.
I’d still rank the Jeep Cherokee XJ models from 1987 to 1990 as being better than the ones that came out in 1995 and 1996.
The issue is the transition from OBD to OBD II when you have electronic or electrical issues to diagnose. Some of that problem goes into 1997, although those models are technically part of the TJ series.
The 1996 version has haphazard wiring for OBD II, a PCM strategy that doesn’t seem to make sense, and a lot of inconsistencies that make it not much fun to drive.
I’d rather deal with the cooling system bottle issue for the XJ models from the late 1980s instead of the electronics issues.
Some people might bring up the lack of low-end torque with the 1980s models, especially with the 4L six that came during that time. Although it has a decent horsepower rating, the overdrive does feel a little sluggish at times.
If you choose a Jeep Cherokee XJ, you’ll want to stay on top of any potential maintenance issues. Since these vehicles are approaching 40 years old with the earliest models, you’ll find that more TLC is needed to keep them humming along.
The Cherokee XJ has done plenty of work to prove itself. Even though the platform is best described as being utilitarian, it kept the same basic configuration from 1984 to 2001 (with some interior updates) because it was such a popular option.
It uses the right combination of parts, powertrain layout, and a link-and-coil front to change how off-road vehicles were thought of for their ride quality.