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1997 Jeep Cherokee

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

"Reduce, reuse, recycle." That familiar mantra of environmental responsibility, when transmuted by current corporate greed-speak, becomes reissue. "We made a bundle on that the first time out. Let's freshen it up and sell it again."

Examples abound, but the two current standouts are the Star Wars movies and Jeep's reincarnated Cherokee. Both have come back looking old, but that impression is tempered by a warm familiarity. Perhaps best of all, both film and sport-ute have retained the ingredients that made them so popular in the first place.

Newly dubbed the Cherokee Classic, the Grand Cherokee's older, smaller brother has been rejuvenated with over 40 improvements and upgrades, including a new interior and mild front and rear restyling.

A MARVEL IN ITS DAY

The Cherokee was a marvel when it was introduced in 1984. Fully Jeep-tough in appearance, the solidly rectangular unit body sat over CJ-style buggy springs at the rear but employed an innovative four-arm leading link system to locate a straight axle at the front.

Off-roaders scoffed, wary that the radical suspension would fight obstacles rather than roll over them, and certain that off-road pounding from the front suspension arms would damage the unitbody structure.

Car folks were equally sceptical, assuming that the seemingly crude suspension would result in a crummy ride and indifferent on-road handling.

The Cherokee proved them all wrong.

On the pavement it rode and handled as well or better than most of its competition. Out on the trails, the larger Cherokee was no YJ, (what else is?) but it proved to be both nimble, reliable and tough enough to be worthy of the Jeep name. Moreover, the same suspension has been subsequently employed with equal success on the popular Grand Cherokee.

FIRST FOUR-DOOR COMPACT SUV

But for all that, the Cherokee's big deal, a feature that started a revolution in what North Americans choose to drive, was the simple presence of a door for each of the seating stations.

Four doors eased access, making the sport-utility a practical choice for family transportation. The four-door Cherokee sold like the proverbial hotcake while every other sport-ute design team scrambled to shoehorn two more ports into the sides of their products.

Chrysler's September 1987 purchase of American Motors (Jeep's parent company at the time) was seen as a wild gamble. Later, while using the proceeds from the success of his own Magic Wagon and AMC's Cherokee to revitalize his ailing firm, then Chrysler prexy Lee Iaccoca remarked that he would have bought all of AMC

just to get those four doors.

Not surprisingly, the Cherokee has had a long sales run — 12 years without major changes. But oh my goodness it was getting tired. Except for driveline upgrades, the vehicle remained virtually unchanged from the day it was introduced. This was particularly noticeable inside where clumsy controls and chrome accents were already dated in 1984.

MANY IMPROVEMENTS

The new/old Cherokee doesn't look much different from the outside. The folded-paper shape, the nostalgic drip mouldings and the tacked-on, non-inset door handles are still with us. Some gentle rounding at the end corners is all the change you'll see.

But that's okay. The term "classic" is reserved for old stuff that still looks good. Like the Star Wars X-Wing Fighter, the Cherokee looks old but it looks great. The Millennium Falcon hasn't fared so well. Neither has Princess Leia.

The interior, Chrysler tells me, is "all-new." And, it is, sort of. All the bits are new to the Cherokee but the treatment barely sneaks into the '90s. Which is just fine by me.

The angular and symmetrical dash layout avoids the swoopily curvaceous styling excesses prevalent on many contemporary dashboards. A central panel presents all of the controls within easy reach of both driver and passenger. Switch-gear is logical and positive in operation. The driver is served with a full set of proper white-on-black analogue gauges. The front passenger is now confronted with an air bag, too.

Surprisingly, although Chrysler's design staff have a record of creating innovative and useful interior storage spaces, the Cherokee falls short with a too-small glove box and too-shallow door pockets. I was also surprised at the rudimentary two-slab rear bench seat. Jeep had a chance here to further the cause of sport-ute rear seat comfort and blew it. The Grand Cherokee's is better.

The Cherokee is a true compact, and compared to some of the larger, newer models, it feels pretty cozy inside. I, for one, like that. But if luggage capacity is important make sure that the Cherokee can accept your load.

Our tester also came with an optional full-sized spare carried in the cargo bay. Unless you're an off-roader, gain another few inches with the standard spacesaver.

Access to the freight is through a wide and high lift gate. You may have noticed Jeep ads announcing the fact that the tail gate is now "all steel," without further explanation — as if many, or any, of the general public ever knew that the previous door was fiberglass. Locked down with a positive latch system, the rigid new gate contributes to the body's structural integrity.

Old and new stuff notwithstanding, the continuing magic of the Cherokee becomes apparent when you get it out on the road. Its ride and handling, refined by over a decade of engineers' fiddling and helped by grippy new radials that ride quietly and smoothly, is the match for any sportutility out there. True, the simple rear suspension becomes flustered on occasion, but show me any SUV that doesn't have a quirk or two.

SPARKING PERFORMANCE

Performance, spurred on by the latest, higher-tech version of the venerable 4.0 litre inline six is impressive. This thing skedaddles, scampering from 0-100 km/h in under ten seconds, and romping from 90-120 in a mere six.

No other sportute can match those figures — and that 90-120 passing time would put many hot sedans to shame. For comparison, a similarly equipped Grand Cherokee takes 10.8 and 7.6 seconds.

FINDING BEST VALUE

The pricing of the Cherokee deserves some analysis.

Chrysler has been running full-page ads promoting a Cherokee "26" for just under, you guessed it, 26 grand. This special model is obviously intended as competition for the latest sport-cutes and hybrids that are all priced in the mid-'20s.

As Tony Richards, General Product Manager for Chrysler's Jeep and Truck Divisions once mentioned to me, "sport-cutes and hybrids are for companies that don't have the real thing."

With automatic, a/c, the 4.0 litre six, and much more, this Cherokee Sport is both the real thing and a true bargain.

But I would not accept the crude CommandTrac part-time 4WD system. Another $465 changes that to the excellent shift-on-the-fly SelecTrac. Just another $488 adds 4-wheel ABS.

However, caveat emptor. As I write this, there are two invoices sitting on the desk in front of me. One is for our Wheels Cherokee tester, a Country model loaded with all the bells, whistles and leather. The other is for a similarly decked-out Grand Cherokee Limited. Both are virtually identical equipped with the six, a tow package, and SelecTrac.

The Cherokee bottomlines at $37,910. The Grand Cherokee totals $37,838.

Huh?

If you are looking for a simple four-by-four, like the special promotion Cherokee, run to your nearest Jeep dealer while supplies last. If a luxo-ute is your choice, saunter on down and check out the Grand Cherokee Limited. It's a real bargain. Real thing too.

May the Force be with you.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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