Upon return from my honeymoon, I was faced with a dilemma: What to do with a balky, unreliable Ford Taurus that didn’t owe me anything. At this point it had somewhere around 150K on the odometer, the engine was constantly overheating, the transmission was slipping, and I was pretty much done with it. Even if I’d wanted to repair it and keep driving it, I wasn’t in love with it. I kind of hated it, actually.
In a strange bit of coincidence, a neighbor up the street had parked a Jeep Cherokee on the street with a For Sale sign in the window. I passed it a few times and then actually noticed it, which got the gears in my head whirring. I called up and found that the price was exceptionally good for a Jeep in its condition, and made some calls to my mechanic friends. What they said confirmed what I thought: Cherokees are reliable vehicles, and the 4 litre 6-cylinder AMC engine was pretty much bulletproof. The seller was an ex-Marine logistics officer with a sheaf of paperwork that accompanied the car, so I knew it had been well maintained.
I loved Cherokees from the first year they were produced, and having driven many an XJ through the repo lot, I knew what I was considering. A no-frills 4WD platform, I always liked the look of their square styling and oversized wheels.
What he was selling was a 1998 (second-generation) XJ in 2-door Sport configuration, which meant that it had cloth bucket seats, stamped steel wheels, electric windows, and A/C. It was black over gray, which was perfectly fine with me, and the body was in decent shape. Some of the bumper plastics were deformed, but that wasn’t a deal breaker. There was no rust to be found, the 4-wheel drive system worked as advertised, and overall it was in fair shape inside and out. The seller had the good sense to peel the purple(!!) “SPORT” stickers off the doors, which I appreciated. We quickly struck a deal, and it was mine.
At this point, my Scout was completely out of commission, and the idea of a vehicle that could haul supplies from Home Depot back to the house was enticing. It even had an aftermarket medium-duty trailer hitch, which meant I could tow heavy equipment from the rental center (this was handy when I had to pay to drop an elm tree in the backyard and pulled a splitter home for two weeks to deal with the wood). Over the next couple of years I hauled bags of mulch, cement, and dirt in the back, threw plywood, sheetrock, and piping on the rack I installed on the roof, and stuffed it full of debris for dump runs. It did everything I asked of it and more.
It had its oddities, as all cars do. I remember disliking the cheap 80’s feel of the first-generation cabin layout, but this one was post-redesign so it looked and felt much better. The Chrysler radio was a weak, poorly designed lump that heat-soaked itself and died on hot days. Certain radio transmission towers would overwhelm it and render it silent, the only time I’ve ever experienced this in any car I’ve ever driven. I called Crutchfield and bought a Kenwood deck with a replacement DIN plate for the radio slot: problem solved. The driving position was perfect, one of the best greenhouses of any car I’ve ever owned, and the seats were pretty comfortable for Chrysler, although the footwells were somewhat cramped on long-distance trips. Interior panels squeaked and rubbed. The exterior panel fit was average for Chrysler (which is to say, mediocre) and it had been tapped at some point in the driver’s corner hard enough to make the hood release difficult and the driver’s door squeal when it opened.
The rear area was only a step above my Scout in terms of finish and amenities: it had the same style bench seat (fold and tumble), two armrests, and shoulder belts. There was carpet on the floor but that was it. The spare took up a generous amount of space on the driver’s side.
The engine was great for what it was. It provided plenty of torque and got the Jeep up and out of the way, at the cost of mileage. I was used to an average of about 12 MPG in the Scout with the top down, and shockingly I found the Jeep only got about 4MPG better with two fewer cylinders and the luxury of fuel injection. Working on the engine was reasonably easy; Chrysler actually included a lamp mounted to the underside of the hood. It was a bitch to reach the last two spark plugs but otherwise pretty easy to maintain, and I had few problems with it mechanically during my ownership.
It was an excellent snow vehicle, and the 4 wheel drive kept us on the road and moving with no drama during several heavy storms. Being used to locking hubs on the Scout, I enjoyed on-demand 4WD and not having to get out to engage the system when the weather called for more grip.
this is the biggest photo I’ve got of the replacement kit.
Somewhere around our third year, the driver’s window dropped down into the door and refused to come back up. We were in the parking lot of the St. Mary’s County Oyster Festival, ready to go inside, and I had no tools with me to get it back up and lock the truck. I bummed a screwdriver from someone, pulled the door apart, and propped it up with a wooden stick topped with a sock until I could diagnose the problem. The issue was with the plastic worm screw that was attached to the electric motor: a section of the plastic had snapped off, leaving it useless. As life does, it got in the way, and the stick stayed in the door for months after that while I tried to source a replacement.
Because 2-door Cherokees are somewhat rare on the ground (there are no production breakdowns that I can find online, but some forums claim only 5,000 2-doors were made per year during the second generation), it was hard to find one in our local junkyard. The doors are shorter on the 4-door version, so I couldn’t just use a replacement from one of those–I tried–and I didn’t want to pay a dealer top dollar for an OEM part. What saved me was some dedicated internet sleuthing when an inexpensive repair kit popped up on my radar. A week later it arrived in the mail, and I had it installed in about a half an hour.
I also had to replace the gas struts that held up the rear hatch, as they began to sag slowly and then very quickly over a month’s time. Luckily the rear hatches are interchangable so here I was able to find five XJs and had my pick of the best struts in the yard for about $4. There were always Cherokees to pick over at that time; I think this was before they really started getting snapped up for budget off-roading. These days I don’t see many of them at all.
In early March of 2006, a drunk driver misjudged the corner across the street from our house and slammed directly into the left rear bumper of the Jeep, parked innocently at the curb. It pushed the bumper up and into the back of the tailgate, mangling the plastic endcap, but otherwise not doing major damage. They left, however, a trail of coolant and plastic that I followed for several blocks before it dried up and the track went cold. If the tailgate still opened, I would have considered sourcing a new endcap myself and leaving it, but it was stuck shut. Calls were made, the insurance industry lurched into gear, and we had the Jeep back in a couple of weeks, good as new. The shiny replacement endcap made the other three look old and gray in comparison.
We were only a couple when I bought it, so we overlooked the obvious annoyance of having two doors up until my daughter was born. I inherited a Saturn SC1 when I married my wife. Say what you will about Saturn, my experience with that car was nothing but positive. But being a coupe meant it was impractical for baby duty (it was the model year before they added the third door) and the ergonomics of getting to the back seat were terrible.
The Jeep was, in fact, the vehicle I drove to and from the hospital. With our tiny human bundled in the carrier, I cinched the rear-facing base down tight across the bench in back and made do with the gymnastics of getting her in and out for as long as we could, but the writing was on the wall for the Jeep. As my daughter got bigger and heavier, we were going to need a 4-door vehicle to make life easier.
At this point, my Scout was gone and the Saturn was paid off, running well, and more economical, so in 2010 started looking at CarMax for something above beater grade. We had three requirements: four doors, air conditioning, and a stick (this last request was my wife’s). This limited our selection, but after a month’s wait, a low-mileage CR-V with a stick popped up nearby, and we practically ran to the showroom.
When the new car made it home, I had the Jeep washed and waxed and put it up for sale on Craigslist. I had a few people come to look at it, and finally sold it to a father who was looking for cheap college transportation for his daughter. He hemmed and hawed over the price, trying to talk me down over the condition of the tires (they were, admittedly, going bald) and the battery, but I’d been honest in the ad and told him I wasn’t going to budge on the already equitable price. Why do people feel that they have to haggle over $25? I was getting annoyed with him and was very close to walking away when he relented. The deal done, I counted out my cash and signed over the title. His daughter drove it out of sight and I was left with a bittersweet feeling: it was an excellent vehicle with lots of life left, but it just didn’t fit our lifestyle anymore.