Here we go again. After that remark we made last year, the one about Jeep selling Cherokees until we are old and gray, it now appears that the Cherokee's life span will continue for awhile longer. Due to overwhelming customer demand, the Jeep people now tell us, Cherokee production is extended past the original November 2000 close. We've heard this before. The Grand Cherokee was supposed to replace the Cherokee, but due to the demand for this solid, inexpensive SUV, they kept making them. Now, they're coming out with another, smaller SUV that is supposed to replace the Cherokee. But people keep buying them.
So there is going to be a 2001 model, but after that, who knows? Jeep is eager to introduce newer, more modern, more aerodynamic products, such as the upcoming Liberty. You might want to wait and see what develops. Or you might want to buy a classic while you still can.
The four-cylinder Cherokee is already gone, which partially explains this year's significantly higher base price. All 2001 Cherokees will be powered by a 4.0-liter, overhead-valve inline-6. This is the same engine that was re-designed last year for 50-state LEV (low-emissions vehicle) certification.
Cherokee is a case study in how long a solid design can remain viable. Introduced in 1984, Cherokee helped launch America into its amazing romance with sport-utility vehicles. Cherokees sprouted in suburban driveways like mushrooms. And its popularity continues. Jeep sold more than 140,000 Cherokees last year. And why not? Cherokee is still tough as nails, reasonably inexpensive and, in four-wheel-drive guise, thoroughly capable when the pavement ends.
More than that, its flat-planed, square-edged styling resonates with all the richness of Jeep history.
4-Door 4WD: Sport ($21,915); Limited ($23,385)
4-Door 2WD: Sport ($20,405); Limited ($21,870)
2-Door 4WD: Sport ($20,880)
2-Door 2WD: Sport ($19,370)
With its classic Jeep styling, the Cherokee is a familiar face, and you'll have no trouble recognizing it despite the bright work added to the front end last year. This is still very much the same Cherokee that hundreds of thousands of buyers have come to know and respect in the U.S.: Square, tough and durable.
The Cherokee was the first unit-body sport-utility vehicle, as distinct from the traditional body-on-frame approach. The advantages are much higher rigidity and much lower weight, which contribute to the Cherokee's hot-rod performance and good handling.
Although the Cherokee is available in a rear-drive version, it wouldn't really be a Jeep without four-wheel drive. Cherokee offers two levels of 4WD: part-time Command-Trac and full-time Selec-Trac. Both include a 2.72:1 low range, but Selec-Trac has a center planetary differential with a 48/52 torque split for free running on dry pavement.
Cherokee's interior shows its age and comes up a little short in the comfort department. When the Cherokee was introduced, it was hailed as an SUV that combined mid-size handiness with the convenience of four doors. It was hard to perceive its interior as cramped or awkward, because by the standards of the day it wasn't. Times have changed, however. SUVs have become luxurious station wagons. Without a major redesign, the Cherokee hasn't kept up with that trend. Newer entries place a high priority on comfort. Compared to them, the Cherokee measures up as pretty snug, particularly in the rear seat.
It's also uncomfortable for the driver. Adjust as we might, we were never quite able to achieve an ideal driving position. Cherokee's limited front seat travel left us sitting closer than we wanted to be, and reaching up for the wheel rim. There's also no place for the driver to rest his or her left foot, a small convenience that you miss when it isn't there.
Though still rectilinear and blocky, the dashboard has shed the cheap appearance of earlier examples. The primary instruments are a bit small, but the secondary array is a little more comprehensive than average, including an ammeter and oil pressure gauge.
It's possible to load the Cherokee with comfort and convenience features, including a good sound system with cassette and CD players, air conditioning, power driver's seat, an overhead digital info center and two digital clocks. All of this stuff makes the going more pleasant, but we'd trade most of it for better seats. Our Cherokee's sport buckets felt snug, with better-than-average side support, but after a couple of hours snug gives way to confined, and the length of the bottom cushion measures up short.
With its tight interior and stiff freeway ride, Cherokee might not be everyone's choice for a long cruise. In fact, we suspect some people would dismiss the Cherokee as choppy on this score, and that would be true. This is not an Explorer, a sport-utility vehicle designed for people who see this breed as trendy station wagons. This is a Jeep, which means an implicit promise of off-road superiority.
Our Cherokee was equipped with the stiffer Up-Country suspension package and Selec-Trac four-wheel drive, making it even firmer than two-wheel drive versions.
Cherokee pogos a bit on uneven pavement -- certain stretches of I-80 in Pennsylvania, for example, the sections that inspire big-rig drivers to cruise in the left lane for slightly smoother going.
But on rutted dirt roads in the Pennsylvania outback, the Cherokee showed its true colors. Its combination of good ground clearance, short wheelbase and a favorable power-to-weight ratio make this boxy little veteran a tiger in the woods. The Selec-Trac four-wheel drive system, which can be used full-time, came in handy during a mini-blizzard that choked part of central Pennsylvania during this particular excursion.
Thanks to its relatively low curb weight, the Cherokee is something of an athlete among its peers. The Cherokee will smoke almost any other compact sport-utility on a slalom course, and it's handier than most when it's time to dodge traffic and potholes. Its on-center steering feel leaves much to be desired, however.
Cherokee's optional four-speed automatic is a smooth operator, and there's enough torque in the venerable inline six-cylinder engine to generate excellent stoplight getaway, automatic or not. As always, we'd prefer a manual transmission.
Power notwithstanding, the Cherokee's inline-6 feels a little primitive compared to most of the V6 engines offered by Jeep's competitors. An inline-6 is supposed to be an ideal design for smooth operation, but Jeep's version generates noticeable vibration through most of its operating range.
Jeep Cherokee continues to fall behind its competitors in terms of comfort and convenience. But if you value acceleration performance, the Cherokee still delivers. It's agile, and surprisingly quick.
Lack of caution in the option-shopping process can escalate its price beyond reason. The $25,570 we paid for ours doesn't seem too bad, but that's with manufacturer-to-dealer discounts on the mandatory Limited Value Group. You should be able to drive home in a reasonably well-equipped four-door Cherokee with four-wheel drive for around $23,000. And at that price, even with its limitations, the Jeep Cherokee still stacks up as a good buy.