It seems that every time I go on a long road trip in a sub-$1,000 car, I wind up stranded on the side of the road, covered in oil, wrenching on some part that shouldn’t have failed but did for whatever reason (the Jeep gods want to spite me, I’m convinced). But I recently returned from a 1,500 mile road trip to D.C., Virginia, and North Carolina in my $500 “low mileage” Jeep Cherokee, and things were different. A lot different.
Two weeks ago, I hopped into my $500 Jeep Cherokee and headed southeast towards D.C. to track down a fun, upcoming story (more on that later). If you’re unsure which $500 Jeep I’m referencing (an absurd clause, but sadly, necessary), it’s the 2000 model that a former Chrysler designer sold me back in July. This one:
I knew $500 for a Jeep with under 110,000 miles on it (the unkillable inline-six has even fewer miles, as it was replaced at around 25,000 due to a cooling jacket rust issue) was a smoking hot deal when the seller, Frank, first offered it to me. In fact, I initially declined because I knew it was was worth more than I was willing to pay.
But Frank insisted that, because of the SUV’s faults (and presumably because he liked the idea of selling the car to a fellow Jeep nut and former Chrysler employee), he’d let it go for just 500. Those faults, by the way, included a spongey brake pedal, a leaky exhaust, a rear wiper problem, dry rotted tires, bad paint, a torn seat whose heater doesn’t work, and quite a few more.
I haven’t touched any of them.
All I did was change out the engine oil/filter, transmission fluid, transfer case fluid, and air filter. Plus, I tossed on some nice, used winter tires and threw in some rubber floor mats. Otherwise, the Jeep sits as it did when I first bought it. So naturally, when I embarked on my trip, I expected some kind of problem.
I wasn’t concerned about the brakes (the pedal is spongey, and I’ll be bleeding the system soon, but it’s not too bad), but what worried me were potential sudden-failures like a crankshaft position sensor (a common failure on XJ Cherokees), or maybe a cooling system fault. It could have been anything, really, because I knew very little about this $500 machine, as I’d barely driven it.
I was so convinced that something would go awry that I even shot a video, anticipating that there’d be a vlog to come from the wrenching I was about to do somewhere between Detroit and D.C.:
But the Jeep was great. Thanks to the old AMC-derived inline-six, with its propensity to turn fuel into heat, my cabin was always warm, even though my driver’s side seat heater didn’t work.
The giant crack in the windshield didn’t bother me even slightly, though I have to admit that the broken rear wiper was a pain in the ass. The Cherokee, with its small overhang and upright rear profile, shoots salt and grime all over the rear glass; visibility is pretty much zero while driving on a road covered with even a slight amount of moisture or dirt. I could get the wiper to work if I jiggled it just right, but it took probably three minutes of trying to get a single wipe out of it.
The other rather obvious problem is the shocks, particularly the rears. Even small cracks in the road cause the XJ’s back end to jump up like a Bronco, emitting the classic blown-shock “clunk.”
The drive to D.C. was 8.5 hours. I think I left around 10 A.M. and arrived around 7 P.M., so I made great time, and was able to eat dinner with friends in Capitol Hill’s Eastern Market area.
The following day resulted in The Great Mini Cooper Fiasco Of 2020—something about which I don’t want to talk any more (unless it’s to a professional) due to the deep psychological scars it left on my psyche. Instead, I’ll show a picture of the finished Mini with my $500 XJ behind it.
Knowing that I’d be fixing this Mini upon my arrival in D.C., I had to bring quite a few tools with me, including a floor jack, my full socket set, and my bag of miscellaneous wrenches, sockets, screwdrivers, hammers, and cheater pipes (used to increase a wrench’s moment arm to help remove bolts). The XJ swallowed those tools with alacrity:
After struggling with that Mini and working from my friend’s apartment in D.C., on Tuesday, I drove south to Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia, where my brother works as a researcher. In addition to eating the excellent food in town and gandering at my old stomping grounds (actually, I spent very little of my college years outside of the Chemistry building basement—the quietest place on campus, and thus the ultimate study arena), I attempted to diagnose a noise that my brother said he was hearing from his 2010 Mazda3. But in typical fashion, the sound eluded us; I bet it started back up as soon as I left town.
Following a few days hanging out and blogging from Charlottesville, and after a visit to some old UVa car-club buddies in Richmond, I drove south.
On the way, a police officer pulled me over, and told me that he’d clocked me doing 51 in a 35 mph zone. The penalty for such an infraction is over $160, which is more than I’ve paid for engines and entire suspension systems. This isn’t optimal, but typical from the state of Virginia (as we’ve covered thoroughly on this website).
It was around four hours in total from Charlottesville to Chapel Hill, and as I’d started the journey after work on Friday, I arrived at my coworker Jason Torchinsky’s house at 10 P.M. on Valentine’s day. Things got real romantic, real quick thanks to a heart-box full of chocolates and the romantic comedy The Love Bug.
The following day, Torch and I installed the vent window that I’d purchased from Hong Kong after braving an enormous Huntsman Spider hiding in the door pocket of an abandoned Nissan Pao. Jason will get into what that job was like, but the short of it is that nothing went as planned, we had to cut parts to make them fit, and the whole thing was much harder than it should have been. Which is pretty typical of any job I get myself involved in, it seems.
Other highlights of the trip to Jason’s include a visit to a Citroen collector in town. The gentleman was kind enough to show us his collection of weird French machines, and my god was it impressive, especially the SM:
I also had a chance to brainwash Jason’s son, Otto, into loving Jeep Cherokee XJs. I tried buttering him up with the functional passenger’s-side heated seat, and I think it worked!:
Sadly, Jason and I didn’t have time to repair his long-neglected Reliant Scimitar, and as I had a soccer game at 9:30 P.M. on Sunday, I had to leave for Michigan no later than 11 A.M. So Jason, Otto, a reader named Luke, and I had breakfast in Durham, and then I bounced.
The Jeep was excellent. Oil and coolant consumption was nonexistent, though fuel consumption very much wasn’t; The Jeep only averaged about 17 MPG, and broke my back over major cracks in the road thanks to the bad shocks.
What was worse was hitting a crack while turning, because that instigated the dreaded death-wobble, where the front axle hops up and down uncontrollably and violently. Clearly, there’s a steering part that needs to be replaced (likely the track bar). I’ll have to take care of that when it warms up.
Also, while the leather seats are pure excellence, I will admit that, while napping in the Jeep on the side of the road, the electric height adjuster stopped working, so now it only goes fore-aft, and it tilts. Tall people will not enjoy driving this Jeep.
So the Jeep isn’t perfect, but the fact that it made this 1,500 mile trip with zero major issues, and it looked good doing it, proves that this low-ish mileage, 2000 Jeep Cherokee Limited was pretty much the deal of the century. Plus it got me to my soccer game by the second half (we lost). I pretty much drove for 10.5 hours straight, and the boxy unibody off-roader handled it like a champ.
I really should buy more functional automobiles. They seem great.