For Jeep enthusiasts, the Cherokee is an institution. It is a name as important as the Wrangler. Even outside of the Jeep community the 1984–2001 Cherokee is revered and respected for its stout, straight-six engine, timeless boxy construction, and dependable reliability.
The XJ-generation Cherokee was introduced in 1984 and went on to thrive during the heyday of the sport utility vehicle. As the Cherokee entered the 2000s, buyers wanted better fuel economy and had less of a need for 4x4 capability. The crossover was flourishing, and Cherokee was replaced by two generations of the Liberty, neither of which truly captured the essence of the Cherokee.
But for 2014 the Cherokee is back, and is a very different kind of Jeep. So which one would you choose? Old, rugged, and a little rough around the edges? Or shiny new and made to take on the massive crossover market? We compared Cherokees to showcase the numerous differences but fascinating similarities.
The new Cherokee Limited we tested looks very different and is more than a foot longer than its forebear. It is also 3.8 inches wider, 2.2 inches taller, and the wheelbase is 4.6 inches longer. The last year of the XJ-generation Cherokee was 2001, and it weighed in at 3,357 pounds. Depending on which 2014 model you choose, the new Cherokee is 454 to 744 pounds heavier.
That difference in weight is made up for by modern engines that deliver power and efficiency. The 2014 Cherokee comes standard with a 184 horsepower I4 and a new 3.2-liter version of Chrysler’s award-winning Pentastar V6. This V6 makes 271 horsepower, and is enough to deliver stout acceleration on and off the trail.
In both the old and new Jeeps, the base 4-cylinder engine is barely enough to motivate the Cherokee in most situations. The 6-cylinder engines are the ideal choice and both the 2001 4-liter and this new Pentastar V6 have stellar reputations.
When it comes to the 2014 styling, you either you love it or hate it. Jeep CEO Mike Manly described the new styling as “meant to be relevant in 2020, as well as 2014.” Time will certainly tell, but the boxy stoicism of the classic XJ Cherokee has certainly stood the test of time.
The vehicle used for our comparison is this writer’s 2001 Cherokee 4.0L Sport, and it’s not quite stock. It has a 3-inch lift, 33-inch mud-terrain tires, and the piece de resistance: a homemade front bumper welded from a piece of quarter-inch steel, built with my brother in college.
You didn’t need to option up in the XJ to get Trail Rated capability. Now only the Trailhawk version of the 2014 Cherokee can hang with my rig on the trail. The 2014 Cherokee Limited test vehicle is not Trail Rated. The all-wheel-drive Limited and the Trailhawk both start at around $29,000, but the Limited cannot go into the same terrain as the ’01 or the Trailhawk. It is unfortunate that one needs to pony up extra coin for the venerable Trail Rated badge. Save for the base 4X2 models, the old Cherokees were ready to trail out-of-the-box.
The tradeoff for all of our aftermarket off-road gear is on-road ride quality. Pulling away from a stop sign in the lifted ’01 feels like firing up an M1 Abrams battle tank. Once rolling, it has a lot of body roll, and stopping abruptly will test the nerves.
Regardless of modification, all ’01-and-earlier Cherokees have the same Spartan interior, which is sometimes welcome. Many new vehicle dashes have become unnecessarily complicated, with elaborate setups for climate and audio controls. A simple three knob climate control layout will do just fine—like what is found in the entire Subaru lineup and in the ’14 Cherokee. The interior is also fitted with a laptop holster in the glove box and a wealth of storage solutions throughout the cabin.
Where the contemporary Cherokee shines is where 99 percent of buyers will use it—on the paved road. The original Cherokee was meant to be an upscale, enclosed Wrangler, but the 2014 model is geared towards the crossover set. The modern Cherokee is actually based on the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, which also underpins the new Dodge Dart and 2015 Chrysler 200. Every car based on this platform has been visually fetching, and has the road manners to match.
The 2001 Cherokee and 2014 Cherokee are very different vehicles, but they were both the ideal vehicles of their time. The 1990s and early 2000s were defined by mid-size SUVs like the Ford Explorer and Cherokee. The SUV replaced the minivan, and station wagon before that, as the de facto family vehicle. That baton was passed to the crossover through the 2000s.
Both vehicles embody the sensibilities of their time, and both execute their intended formulas extremely well. Both vehicles have lackluster base engines, but both have optional 6-cylinder engines that have been universally praised and are immensely capable. For the 2014, Cherokee, however, you have to option up to the Trailhawk trim to get trail-rated capability. On the XJ, it merely meant opting for four-wheel-drive.
Gone are the days when 4x4 capability was expected from a daily-drivable utility vehicle. That robust drivetrain setup penalizes fuel economy, and in the 1.5-million-vehicle-large crossover market, you need every advantage you can take. For Jeep, that means cashing in on the crossover, and reinvesting the profits from the new Cherokee to help develop more specialized vehicles, like the next-generation Wrangler. With that in mind, any off-road shortcomings of the Cherokee Limited are excused, and if you are an XJ faithful looking for a new vehicle to replace it, Jeep has a four-door Wrangler that does the job just fine.George Kennedy is a freelance auto writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GKenns101.