The Jeep Cherokee (XJ) was one of the great successes and milestone cars of the U.S. automobile industry, a pioneer in the sport utility vehicle segment of the market and widely acclaimed as one of the great automobile designs of all time. Many Americans may not know that the Cherokee also is one of the greatest worldwide hits of the U.S. automobile industry, possibly the most widely distributed American car since the Ford Model T and Model A. Overseas Cherokee production has occurred in South America (Argentina, Venezuela), North Africa (Egypt), and Asia (China), and the Cherokee was an export success in Europe and Australia. Unusual among post-World War II American cars, the Cherokee is a mainstream vehicle in countries on every continent.
The worldwide success of the Cherokee may be appropriate in light of the international parentage of its design. It was the product of a joint project between American Motors and Renault during their brief alliance, with Renault providing the funding and engineering design team and AMC providing the styling team headed by Dick Teague (An earlier CC described the design process of the Cherokee in greater detail). The result was a compact SUV that was intentionally sized for Europe, light in weight thanks to its unibody structure, rode and handled well on pavement while still excelling off road, and was well proportioned and stylish despite its boxy shape.
Export sales began soon after the introduction of the Cherokee in the U.S. Exports to Europe began in 1985, and the Cherokee soon became a popular vehicle in Europe and a familiar sight on the streets. Many may have noticed that in the movie Ronin, directed by car enthusiast John Frankenheimer and featuring numerous carefully selected cars and noteworthy car chases, one of the prominently featured automobiles was a Cherokee (seen above). The introduction of a right hand drive version in 1993 opened up sales to the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia and other right hand drive markets.
Overseas production began even earlier than exports from the U.S. and led to the conquest of further markets. In 1984, Chrysler established a joint venture in China that made the Cherokee the first American vehicle to be produced there. Cherokee production in China continued even longer than in the United States, until 2005, and a knockoff called the Knight S12 continues to be produced there. In Egypt, a Chrysler/Egyptian joint venture named Arab American Vehicles, which began under AMC as a producer of military Jeeps, produced the Cherokee from 1992 to 2001. Chrysler of Argentina also produced the Cherokee from 1997 through 2001.
The worldwide success of the Cherokee is especially evident in Sweden, a country where sport utility vehicles are popular and where American cars have some cachet. The Cherokee is present in large numbers in Sweden, so much so that there is nothing unusual about seeing a Cherokee parked on every block over long stretches of street in Stockholm. They even seem to outnumber Volvos at times, which is an accomplishment in Sweden.
Relevance to everyday driving needs is clearly part of the secret to the Cherokee’s success. The design’s compact size made it similar to a normal sized car in Europe, and its light weight and available diesel engine made it an economically viable proposition in countries with high fuel prices. Outside of the U.S., the Cherokee was available with a turbodiesel from 1985 to 2001, first with a 2.1 liter Renault/Douvrin unit producing 85 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque from 1985 to 1994 (available in North America only in 1985-87), then with more powerful a 2.5 liter VM Motori diesel producing 114 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque from 1994 to 2001. One sees Escalades and Hummer H2s and H3s in small numbers in Sweden, but these bloated heavyweights are unlikely ever to achieve the mainstream acceptance of the Cherokee.
With rare American cars a common sight in Sweden, it is unsurprising to see the more unusual Cherokee variants appear on the streets. The Wagoneer Limited with its Di-Noc “wood” panels was not a very popular model and lasted only from 1984 to 1990, but this one is still a daily driver in Stockholm. If fake wood sided early XJ Cherokees ever become coveted classics in Sweden, then this one should become a prime collectible.
Few automobile designs have survived in production fundamentally unchanged for at least 18 years in a competitive and rapidly changing automobile market, and even fewer have sustained worldwide popularity for that long. The XJ Cherokee is one of those automobiles. Its successor, the Jeep Liberty, wore the Cherokee nameplate outside of North America but did not have the same qualities that made the XJ Cherokee a success, lasting from only 2002 to 2012 despite a complete redesign in 2008. The Liberty’s replacement for 2014 will again receive the Cherokee name, but it will be a completely different and far more technologically advanced design. By then, the earliest XJ Cherokees will be 30 years old, but with approximately 3 million produced from 1984 to 2001, XJ Cherokees will be a common sight on streets and off-road trails around the world for many years to come.