Curbside Classic: 1999 Jeep Cherokee – Remains of the Old Millennium

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but thanks to the magic of the Internet it seems like our timeline is compressing upon itself. Well, pop-culturally at least. And by what I have seen from listings on television, streaming services, and music (Did you know that Jan Hammer has just released an album?) it seems like we will be riding this weird hybrid of the 70’s-90’s for a little while longer yet. Mind you, this trend doesn’t seem to be repeating on the automotive industry.

Of course, there is a point of practicality in all of this. Unless it is the only offering, it’s unlikely that people will want to spend more on the 4-door hardtop sedan, especially with buyers eschewing the sedan altogether. Very large convertibles just mean that the roof will be very large and complex. Also, we’ve advanced enough as a society that the size of your car no longer matches your status in life (Thank you Stuttgart and Seville).

Retro styling seems to be slowly falling out of style as well. The Ford Mustang has gradually evolved from its “See, just like the 1964” model into something rather new and quite beautiful; and the VW New New Beetle has been axed for 2019 as sales have waned and there are very important meetings in Wolfsburg to follow their new strategy towards electrification amidst European Commission concerns. Not that it has gone away completely, as the Dodge Challenger and the non-CUV Minis can attest, but it certainly has cooled off since everyone from America to Japan wanted another slice of glory-days styling.

And now we get to today’s subject, the 2-door SUV, a victim to changing consumer tastes and lifestyles. When off-road vehicles were mostly bought for off-road pursuits, the short wheelbase and better breakover angles provided by it were welcome. But those same things made it bouncy on the freeway, and very uncomfortable for the young families which quickly became the bulk of their buyers. Strapping a kid into their child seat on the back of their SUV is already complex enough without the added fun of also doing a contortionist routine through the front seat to make sure he’s strapped properly.

1997 brought along the most comprehensive refresh that the Cherokee received on its 17-year history (pre-facelift model show). Most distinguishable from the older models by its new “aero” front end, the changes included a revised interior, a stiffer body and various other improved goodies. The old guard of AMC engines (2.5-liter four and the 4.0-liter six) were there for a final run.

That revised interior was probably the most noticeable and welcome change for new buyers.

For comparison, here’s the old one. Apparently not very different, and yet those backlit gauges and slightly higher-quality plastics make it look so much more agreeable for someone like me, who feels the old one was 80s for all the wrong reasons.

I spotted this one I was going through a very great (and rather needed) tour of DC a while ago, sitting alone somewhere between the Washington Monument and the White House. A couple of rows forward and out of shot there were several Wranglers, all 4-doors, most with those silly front grille mods that make the headlights look angry. The one exception for the rule was a nice YJ Sahara which fit in about as well as someone with a regency-era suit at a black-tie event. Seeing it and that Cherokee made me wonder about the death of the two-door SUV’s and try to pinpoint when the options became reduced to “Wrangler”.

Turns out that, out of the Big Three, the Cherokee was the first one to give up the ghost. As right around this time Mr. Wolfgang Bernhard’s Chrysler had developed a successor for it in the Jeep Liberty. Both 2 and 4-door version said goodbye to our sinful earth in 2001.

After it, it was the turn of Ford, which had offered their Explorer as a 2-door since it was launched. In 2001 it was sold under the “Explorer Sport” brand alongside the curious Sport Trac pickup. Low sales ended that one in 2003. The Explorer name continues to this day of course, taking the mantle of the Taurus as the volume seller of the brand.

In the end, GM was the last one to kill their offering. The Blazer 2-door kept its 4-door brother company until they both retired in 2005; ending a nameplate dating back to 1969. Not to worry though, as 2019 will bring us a resurrected version of that name in, what else, a mid-size crossover. That market’s so hot right now. And GM can now attack it on multiple fronts with the Equinox, the Traverse and the Acadia all tackling roughly the same segment.

The 2-door SUV is still alive on selected markets through 2-door Monteros and Prados, the Suzuki Jimny is also there. And I guess the Range Rover Evoque and SV coupe is also there if you want a tall, expensive model. Still rather useless for putting a baby seat in the back, but this hardly seems to be of concern for the average Evoque convertible owner. Just imagine, in 1988 she would probably be driving around in a 500SL instead.