The Jeep Cherokee XJ will always be the greatest Jeep of all time, and my weekend off-roading in northern Michigan demonstrated exactly why, even if it ended with serious damage.
When people ask me what my favorite car is, I always answer “Jeep Cherokee XJ.” That’s because it’s as perfect as an SUV can possibly be. Chiseled good looks? Check. Great visibility? Check. Low curb weight? Check. Reliable engine and drivetrain? Check. Tons of low-end torque and decent power? Check. Easy and cheap to fix? Check. Amazingly capable off-road? Check. Practical? Check. Reasonable ride quality for daily driving? Check. Can be had for a reasonable price? Check.
The Cherokee is the best Jeep of all time, and always will be, because no future Jeep will ever offer as much off-road capability for as low of a price (the only solid axle Jeep left is the expensive Wrangler and its truck variant, the Gladiator), no future Jeep will ever be as light (due to safety regs), no future Jeep will be as easy to repair, no future Jeep will offer as good visibility due to crash safety regs and no future Jeep is going to have those classic sharp lines that are terrible for aerodynamics.
The greatest thing about an XJ, though, is that first point. Throw a couple of bucks and a few hours into it, and the Jeep will out-gun damn near any modern vehicle off-road. I put a $120 junkyard lift on my Jeep, along with maybe $200 worth of Bilstein shocks, and it did this:
That’s literally just a stock XJ with a junkyard three-inch lift kit and some Walmart Goodyear Wrangler Authority all-terrain tires. And while I won’t say my Jeep was anywhere near as capable as some of the modified vehicles in our group of ten, it really held its own. Given that I have lots of experience off-roading, and that I don’t mind if my Jeep breaks since I can just fix it (and I don’t mind if it gets scratched), I took some of the harder obstacles and the Jeep did great.
Though I did get pretty stuck at one point:
Other off-roaders in our party included Wrangler JKs, a JL, TJs, a TJ Unlimited, and my boss Rory’s Lexus GX470, which was actually quite awesome (He’ll tell you more about it in his own story).
The off-roading took place on Drummond Island up in northern Michigan. The trails were filled with lots of standing water and mud, with just a few rocky obstacles along the way.
It was a great time. Rory was in his fancy Toyota, I was in my XJ, my friend Brandon and his girlfriend Ashley were rolling in Brandon’s bone-stock 2015 Jeep Wrangler JK Willys edition (which he actually helped assemble at the plant in Toledo), and my buddy Adam was in his lightly-modified two-door JK. We were all joining another group of Jalopnik readers who, a few months back, invited me to go off-roading with them. I hadn’t met anyone in the group in person, but when my small crew arrived on Drummond Island, we found ourselves among a group of great people who loved old Jeeps. The whole weekend was fantastic, especially since I got to share a bunkbed with my boss Rory in a trailer. Hopefully HR is cool with that.
On Sunday, I pointed my 300,000 mile XJ south and headed home. In short order, I began hearing a whirring noise from the rear of the vehicle, but only when my foot was on the pedal. I was worried about the differential, so I pulled the fill plug, only to witness gray fluid dribbling out. Water had clearly entered my axle.
All I had was a quart of gear oil on hand, so I had to fill the remaining space — roughly a quart — with diesel engine oil. I drove for about 10 miles with this mixture before finding a hardware store, where I bought some proper 80W-90.
I inspected the gears upon cracking open the diff for a second time, and they looked fine. I’m not sure exactly what is making all the noise under load, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s either the pinion bearing or carrier bearings. One thing is for sure: The pinion seal is toast, as the axle’s rotating yoke shoots gear oil all over the place.
The rear diff problem wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t drive the Jeep, so I just limped the vehicle home. On the way, I looked down at my temperature gauge, and my engine — the cooling system of which had, admittedly, been marginal all weekend, with the needle always sitting a few degrees over the proper engine operating temperature — was beginning to overheat.
Prior to my off-road trip, the engine would run warm. When I revved the motor and forced coolant through the apparently clogged radiator (I tried flushing it prior to the trip, to no avail), the temperature normally dropped into a safe range. For some reason, after that off-road trip, even revs couldn’t save this four-liter from getting too hot. Watch as an ethylene glycol-based fluid boils out of my reservoir:
So I’m likely going to have to replace my rear axle and radiator; possibly also my head gasket. I also no longer have functioning headlights, as all the water apparently caused some shorting. Plus, my left turn signal no longer works.
Still, it’s not as bad as my very first off-road trip that I wrote about for Jalopnik back in 2015. That was awful, but it only cost me $200 to fix. And I suspect fixing the Jeep after this off-road excursion won’t cost much more. That is the beauty of the XJ.