(first posted 1/23/2013) One of the American automobile industry’s most unlikely milestones was Renault’s alliance and eventual ownership stake in AMC, and one of its most unlikely results has itself become a milestone in American automotive history: the Jeep XJ Cherokee. It’s ironic that the French would play a key role in financing, designing, engineering and building what has become one of the all-time iconic American cars, and the gateway drug to what has become The Great American SUV Epoch. Perhaps it should have been called the Jeep Liberté.
That the existing Jeep Wagoneer/Cherokee needed replacing was a foregone conclusion by the mid-lto-late seventies. What was actually a fairly compact (110″ wheelbase) wagon in 1963 was looking decidedly piggish after the first energy crisis. Taking it upscale as the woodsy Jeep Grand Wagoneer gave it a new lease on life, but that lease certainly wasn’t considered long-term at the time. A lighter, more efficient Cherokee/Wagoneer was going to be essential to Jeep’s future, especially in light of a federal mandate that all four-wheel drives average 15 mpg by 1981. But developing one was another matter.
In 1979, Renault was tapped for $150 million—the first of a number of cash injections—to finance, among other things, the development of the XJ. And to make sure its money was going to be spent wisely, Renault sent along one Francois Castaing to head up AMC’s product development. Castaing not only shepherded the XJ, but completely revamped AMC’s product development operations into a formidable machine that soon became the envy of the industry. Castaing’s approach to vehicle development would be adopted wholesale by Chrysler after it purchased AMC in 1987.
Castaing’s platform teams went on to revolutionize Chrysler, making its product development costs the industry’s lowest, and thus Chrysler’s profit margins the highest. That’s fodder for another story, but needless to say, Francois Castaing’s brilliance is all over the Cherokee; or, more like inside it…
The exterior design is credited to another man who has certainly shown moments of brilliance (and some lacking it): AMC’s Design Chief, Dick Teague. I wasn’t there, so who exactly on Dick’s staff first penned the Cherokee is anyone’s guess. But obviously it was a team effort, and undoubtedly its clarity of line and basic dimensions were spelled out in the XJ’s brief, as well as a degree of continuity with existing Jeep design. But Teague gets the points, and it certainly was a fine way to wrap up a somewhat uneven career at AMC (he left in 1983).
Renault wanted the Cherokee to be suitable for Europe, and Castaing made sure it was: The XJ was light (weighing as little as 3,100 lbs), thanks to its unibody construction and a watchful eye on every other detail, including these lightweight, Renault-designed center-rail front seats lifted right out of the Renault 9/11 and Alliance. It was a totally different approach than Ford and GM took with their new small SUVs: They simply shortened their compact pickups, which sat on traditional frames. As a consequence, the S-10 Blazer and Bronco II generally weighed up to several hundred pounds more than the Cherokee.
Perhaps the biggest single feather in the Cherokee’s war bonnet was that it was available as a four-door, unlike its competition. Presumably the overwhelming buyer preference for the four-door version surprised AMC, as the two-door was always rather scarce. But its practical advantages were obvious, especially with the segment of the market that clamored most eagerly for the new compact SUVs.
The XJ’s lightness and lower frontal area also resulted in higher EPA mileage ratings (unadjusted) for the Cherokee, although it was hardly a true miser unless powered by the 85-hp Renault 2.1-liter turbo-diesel four. That option intrigued—at least in theory—but it was not a popular one; after 1987, it was no longer available. Are there any still out there?
The base engine was AMC’s new 2.5 “Litre” OHV four (shown is a later 1999 version), based on the existing AMC six architecture but new in most respects. Rather than calling it a cut-down 258 six, it’s more correct to say the subsequent 4.0-liter Jeep six was a 2.5 four with two more cylinders. In any case, it has the same rep as the AMC sixes for being a tough and durable unit. It started life with 105 hp and a carb; later developments had injection and various ratings, all the way to 130 hp. What’s more, it was also used in the Laredo and the Dodge Dakota.
This hard-working four worked best with a stick, and it powered a not-too overburdened Cherokee well enough, at least for those with appropriate expectations.
The optional engine was the Chevy 60-degree 2.8 V6, rated at 115 hp. Why not the AMC six? Because the Cherokee was developed right during the worst-ever run up in oil and gas prices, when it was assumed that prices would keep climbing forever. Thus, the Cherokee’s engine compartment was designed for compact, short engines only, and not the big inline six.
The Chevy V6 had a wee bit more grunt, and it certainly ran smoother than the somewhat rough 2.5 four. But the early 2.8s were inconsistent quality-wise, prone to rear main seal oil leaks and a few other issues. The one in our 1985 Cherokee survived 15 years and 170K miles with no seal issues, but its expensive, electronically-controlled carb was problematic and needed replacement. The ideal Cherokee for my use would be a four with the five-speed stick, which is the only non-diesel combination that can readily break the 20 mpg barrier, but my leanings toward minimalism are known here. Also, the fours have been well known to run up an impressive number of miles.
By the the time the Cherokee saw the light of day in late 1983, oil prices had begun their long retreat, and performance was soon a sought-after commodity once again. So what else to do but get out the Sawzall, sledge hammers and crowbars, and make the big six fit? It took a bit of doing, including modifying the whole front radiator support structure and such. It wasn’t the old 258 AMC six, though, but a heavily worked-over one, now with 4.0 liters (244 CID), fuel injection (the advanced Renault-designed RENIX system), and…173 hp(!). And the next year, power was up to 177. And in 1991, the HO version raised that to 190, through the end of production.
Seriously, that was very hot stuff in 1987, and the 4.0-liter Cherokee was instantly a veritable hot-rod, and not just only among feeble contemporary SUVs. In 1987, the Cherokee 4.0 was also faster than the majority of new cars (the top-dog Mustang 5.0 HO engine made all of 225 hp that year). The 4.0 Cherokee could easily click off sub-ten second 0-60 times, and totally overshadowed the rest of its field. As if the hot-selling Cherokee needed it.
Given that every other compact SUV had independent front suspension, the XJ’s solid front axle might have seemed a throwback. But there was plenty of rationale. Where to start? Ground clearance never varies under a solid axle; that’s probably the biggest reason. There’s also an intrinsic simplicity that goes so well with the rest of the Cherokee. And given that the front axle was located by four primary links and one horizontal Watts-type bar, and sprung with coils, the typical shortcomings of old-school solid axles were largely moot.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Cherokee rode and handled better on pavement than any of its competitors; no doubt its relatively low center of gravity and stiff unibody helped. And off-road, the Cherokee was every bit as much a genuine Jeep as a Wrangler. I don’t know if there was ever any question about the XJ’s front axle, but for what it’s worth, the two top-dog European SUVs, the Range Rover and Mercedes G-Class, both used similar front suspensions. The Cherokee was the closest thing to a Range Rover, and very affordable in comparison.
I’m not going to delve much in the Cherokee’s almost unlimited off-road potential. Needless to say, it soon became by far the most popular SUV for off-roading, and it still has a massive following. I suspect it will be a while before we’ve seen the last jacked-up, mud-splattered Cherokee driven by a young enthusiast.
Somewhat ironically, the Cherokee was also available as a RWD-only version, with a solid tube front axle, beginning in 1987. Other variants sprouted as well, including the ritzy Limited and the most-popular Laredo. AMC was raking in massive profits with the Cherokee, especially the high-trim versions.
Those profits were really kicking in by 1987 when AMC was sold to Chrysler. That’s a story in itself: The sale was precipitated by the November 1986 assassination of Renault Chairman Georges Besse by a radical group. Renault had invested heavily in AMC, building a new, state-of-the-art factory at Bramalea (Brampton, Ontario), and their 1988 line-up was looking rather promising. But the new management at Renault wanted to retrench, and exiting the North American market was a key step.
And of course, Lee Iacocca was waiting at the door with a big check ($1.5 billion), salivating at the chance to scoop up, at a big discount the most profitable SUV lineup, the Bramalea Plant, and also Francois Castaing, who took over as Chrysler’s Development Chief and worked miracles at a time when Chrysler was struggling to dig out of the accumulated messes of prior decades.
The Cherokee certainly paid a hefty dividend on Lido’s investment, turning into an evergreen. Although AMC was already at work on its successor, the Grand Cherokee, it was decided, wisely, to keep both lines in production. With the benefit of numerous refinements, the Cherokee stayed in production 18 years, right through the 2001 model year. Lifetime production was just shy of 3,000,000 units, with almost 300,000 sold in 1996 alone.
Those numbers don’t include sales in China, where the Cherokee was the first American car to be built there, and was still available at the time of this article’s original posting, in a joint venture. Local assembly was also undertaken in Argentina and Venezuela.
The Cherokee story is a long one indeed, and this article hardly does it justice. There were police versions, RHD versions for mail carriers and, of course, the XJ-spawned Jeep Comanche pickup…and also the Wagoneer version in the early years…so let’s celebrate one of the most mot successful and innovative vehicles of the times. And raise a toast to Renault’s Francois Castaing.
Postscript: I’m not actually sure this is a 1984 Cherokee; It might be an ’85 or ’86, but these early ones are getting pretty rare and usually have some impressive mileage on them.
In any case, it’s a genuine pioneer.