The Jeep Cherokee is a case study in how long a solid design can remain viable, even when some of its elements have become dated.
When it was introduced back in 1984, the four-door Cherokee was tres chic, scooping up all kinds of "of-the-year" awards and helping to launch America on its amazing romance with sport-utility vehicles. Cherokees began sprouting in suburban driveways like mushrooms, and for awhile the Cherokee Limited--black with gold pin-striping--was the height of automotive fashion.
But today the Cherokee seems a little old and blocky, an impression that's mitigated by a modest interior update for 1997.
For all that, we're still inclined to think of the Cherokee as one of the better SUV buys going, particularly with the 190-horsepower six-cylinder engine. It's brisk on the street--with a five-speed manual transmission, it's one of the very few sport-utilities capable of reaching 60 mph in less than eight seconds--and it's thoroughly capable when the pavement ends.
No surprise there. It is, after all, a Jeep. However, a look at the window sticker for our tester, a '97 Cherokee Sport four-door, made us realize that the value factor erodes quickly if you're not cautious when you start checking the option boxes.
Our Cherokee Sport tester weighed in at $27,000-plus, which is a little more than we had in mind.
This is certainly a familiar shape, and, for that matter, a familiar face. The Jeep designers made very modest tweaks to the front end, but it's difficult to see the distinctions unless the '96 and '97 are standing side by side.
Aside from the revised grille, this is very much the same Cherokee hundreds of thousands of buyers have come to know and respect in the U.S. and in international markets, as well. Square, tough and durable.
The Cherokee was the first unitbody sport-utility vehicle, as distinct from the traditional body-on-frame approach. The advantages are much higher rigidity and much lower weight, which both contribute to the Cherokee's hot rod performance and good handling.
Although the basic Cherokee is available with rear-drive only, it wouldn't really be a Jeep without four-wheel drive, and our Sport edition was so equipped. There are two levels of 4WD available for the Cherokee--a basic part-time system, and Jeep's more sophisticated Command-Trac system.
Although the '97 Cherokee is much more attractive within, this is still an area where the age of the design shows, and as a result, the vehicle comes up a little short in the comfort department, particularly for the driver.
When this vehicle was introduced, shortly after Chevy's S-10 Blazer, it was something new--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 they weren't.
But the Cherokee has never had a major redesign, and in the intervening years newer entries have come along, as well as a couple successive updates of the Blazer and GMC Jimmy.
Compared to its contemporaries, the Cherokee measures up as pretty snug, particularly in the rear seat.
Even though the wheel doesn't seem to extend as far from the dashboard as it did in the original version, a design that always made us expect to emerge with wheel hub abrasions on our sternums, the Cherokee's limited front seat travel still left us sitting a little closer than we wanted to be.
There's also no place for the driver to rest his or her left foot, a small convenience that you miss when it's not there.
On the plus side, Jeep did a very nice job of refurbishing the Cherokee's dated dashboard. Although the design is still rectilinear and blocky, the dashboard has lost the cheap appearance of earlier Cherokees, and if the primary instruments are a bit small, the secondary array is a little more comprehensive than average, including an ammeter and oil pressure gauge.
Our tester's interior was also loaded with just about every comfort and convenience feature in the Cherokee inventory--which for 27 grand you'd expect--including a very 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, of course, 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 as too short.
Thanks to interior comfort issues and freeway ride quality, the Cherokee doesn't feel like the right rig for long cruises. In fact, we suspect some people would dismiss the Cherokee as choppy on this score, and mark it down to a relatively short wheelbase.
And that would be true--as far as it goes. However, this isn't an Explorer, a sport-utility vehicle designed for people who see this breed as trendy station wagons. It's a Jeep, which means an implicit promise of off-road superiority versus competing vehicles.
This particular Cherokee was equipped with the stiffer Up-Country suspension package and four-wheel drive, making it even firmer than two-wheel drive versions.
So yes, the Cherokee will pogo a little bit on uneven pavement--certain stretches of I-80 in Pennsylvania, for example, stretches that cause big rig drivers to cruise in the left lane for slightly smoother going.
But on rutty dirt roads in the Pennsylvanis outback, the Cherokee showed its true colors. The combination of good ground clearance, short wheelbase and favorable power-to-weight ratio make this boxy little veteran a tiger in the woods, and the four-wheel drive system--Jeep's middle 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 also something of an athlete among its peers.
Even though its on-center steering feel leaves a little to be desired, 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.
As always, we'd prefer a manual transmission, but the 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.
Power notwithstanding, the Cherokee's optional six feels a little primitive compared to most of the V6 engines offered by Jeep's competitors.
An inline six is supposed to be an ideal design for smooth operation, but Jeep's version generates nominal vibration through most of its operating range. On the other hand, it's a far better choice than the Cherokee's basic 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which is distinctly short on power.
The bottom line: Even with its interior update, the '97 Jeep Cherokee continues to fall behind its competitors in terms of comfort and convenience.
And it's clear that lack of caution in the option shopping process can escalate its price beyond reason. Regardless of the amenities, $27,000 is too much for this vehicle.
But if you value sporty performance, the Cherokee still delivers. It's agile, and with the six-cylinder engine, it's also surprisingly quick.
For a max of about $22,000, you should be able to drive home in a reasonably well-equipped six-cylinder Cherokee with four-wheel drive. And at that price, even with its limitations, it still stacks up as a very good buy.
Build and price your dream Jeep Cherokee in just a few easy steps.
|Build & Price|
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee$29,900 | 28,831 mi
2014 JEEP CHEROKEE$33,120 | 2,951 mi
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee$35,990 | 29,136 mi
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee$37,942 | 21,366 mi
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee$27,490 | 35,346 mi
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee$29,845 | 15,000 mi
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee$34,750 | 17,911 mi
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee$34,986 | 15,850 mi
2012 Jeep Grand Cherokee$35,999 | 27,733 mi
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee$21,988 | 49,372 mi
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee$24,016 | 40,759 mi
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee$28,986 | 11,489 mi
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee$28,995 | 45,122 mi
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee$33,991 | 50,070 mi
2011 Jeep Grand Cherokee$34,988 | 30,377 mi
2010 Jeep Grand Cherokee$24,987 | 61,040 mi
2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee$17,588 | 73,685 mi
2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee$35,922 | 29,305 mi
2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee$15,995 | 108,964 mi
2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee$10,999 | 106,333 mi
2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee$11,987 | 89,400 mi
2005 Jeep Grand Cherokee$12,988 | 106,542 mi
2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee$7,995 | 140,890 mi
2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee$5,999 | 139,306 mi
2001 Jeep Cherokee$4,999 | 220,260 mi
1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee$3,988 | 155,945 mi
1999 Jeep Grand Cherokee$7,990 | 126,623 mi
1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee$2,999 | 136,546 mi