This Seemingly Beautiful Jeep Cherokee Is A Nightmare Example Of Why Mandatory Safety Inspections Make Sense

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Art by Jason Torchinsky
Photo: David Tracy

Mandatory safety inspections can be a threat to car culture and to the livelihoods of low-income families. As an enthusiast, it’s hard for me to support such measures without reservation. But after taking a $600 minivan through Germany’s rigorous inspection and then returning to the U.S. to find a Jeep that I thought was in nice shape actually turn out to be hiding dangerous faults, I’m more convinced now than ever: Mandatory safety inspections make sense.

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Immediately upon arriving back in Michigan after a number of months fixing and road-tripping a 1994 diesel manual Chrysler minivan (more on that to come!), I set out to fix my winter-beater 2000 Jeep Cherokee since Michigan’s snowfall will be here before I know it. Plus, I want to sell this Jeep soon, as I plan to relocate in the near future.

I’d lent the car to my younger brother a few months ago, as he’d just moved nearby and didn’t own a vehicle. In short order, he began complaining about issues with the brakes. “The pedal is really squishy and the car requires a hard push of the pedal to slow down,” he told me. This was clearly a hydraulic issue.

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Photo: David Tracy

In my driveway yesterday, I checked my brake fluid reservoir and found it to be empty. I poured some DOT 3 in, pumped the pedal a bit, and poked my head under the XJ. The culprit was immediately apparent, as fluid was pouring onto my right rear tire:

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Photo: David Tracy

There appears to be a hole in my brake line just before my wheel cylinder. This failure is something that my brother could not possibly have anticipated, though admittedly, it’s something that I should have taken care of before lending him my vehicle.

After all, I’d inspected the Jeep last year and noticed something wonky about the stoppers. From my 2019 article on this Jeep:

At some point, I’m going to have to go through the brakes. I’ll inspect all the hard-lines and rubber hoses, as well as the master cylinder, front calipers, and rear-wheel cylinders. I want this Jeep’s brake pedal to feel nice and firm. As it sits, the brakes aren’t terrible; the Jeep stops nice and straight without any shudder or squeal, so the pads and rotors seem fine, but the hydraulic system will need some attention.

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The good thing is that only the rear brakes were out and the fronts were still functioning okay. I’d only glanced at the rear brakes but I’d checked to make sure the front brakes were looking good because if there had there been a hole in one of the front lines and my brother had to initiate an emergency stop, it’s possible that he’d have lost control of the vehicle.

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Photo: David Tracy
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My point in mentioning this is that this Jeep is exactly the nightmare scenario that has me leaning towards mandatory safety inspections (which exist in places like Pennsylvania, which has a seriously rigorous regimen) even if those inspections take fascinating machines off the road and ultimately degrade car culture.

The Jeep looks safe to a layperson. It’s a 2000 model with only 110,000 miles and came with the factory-original window sticker and tons of service records. Anyone buying this machine would think it’s been well-maintained; indeed, mechanically and electrically, it’s excellent. The engine runs perfectly, the four-speed automatic transmission shifts in a timely and purposeful manner, and damn-near every interior switch functions.

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But the Jeep isn’t excellent, and it would take a thorough inspection to reveal things like that brake line rust and also this:

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Photo: David Tracy
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Which, after some prying with a screwdriver, now looks like this:

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Photo: David Tracy
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Photo: David Tracy

Yesterday, while under the Jeep swapping out a bad starter motor and neutral safety switch, I spotted that giant hole in my unibody rail, a major structural component of the Jeep. This is much more concerning than the brake line hole.

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Last year, when I’d inspected the Jeep, I’d found this crack in the unibody rail. It didn’t seem like a huge deal but was something I’d planned to weld up.

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One winter later, and that crack seems to have turned into a major structural vulnerability. Could an owner know this without inspecting the vehicle from underneath? Absolutely not.

This Jeep, a beautiful specimen when viewed from above, is a total nightmare hiding dark secrets below its shiny surface. It draws you in with its handsome looks, and then puts your life in danger with incognito rotted-out brake lines and a perforated frame rail.

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Mandatory Inspections Aren’t Perfect

These types of mechanical troubles aren’t rare, either. Back in 2018, my landlord knocked on my front door, complaining that the 2001 Oldsmobile Alero that I’d traded him was having trouble stopping. “The pedal just sinks to the floor,” he told me. The problem? Yep, a rusted-out brake line.

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Photo: David Tracy

Then late last year, I wrote “Don’t Wind Up Like This Person: Check Your Car’s Critical Steering And Suspension Parts,” referencing this Ford Escape whose lower ball joint had failed on a nearby road:

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Photo: David Tracy

In 2018, I wrote “Michigan Rust Just Forced Me To Conduct The Jankiest Zip-Tie Fix Of My Life,” referencing a friend’s lower radiator support, which had completely rusted off her Buick, and was dangling dangerously close to the road:

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Photo: David Tracy

Unless you’re inspecting your car regularly, you’re just not going to be able to anticipate these kinds of failures. You’ll go to press your brake pedal and it won’t work. You’ll hit a pothole and your unibody will break, possibly causing you to lose control. You’ll drive over a speed bump and your whole cooling module will bang against the ground, sending coolant and rusty metal bits all over the roadway.

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This isn’t the first time I’ve supported mandatory vehicle inspections. Back in 2017, I penned an article titled “All States Should Have Mandatory Vehicle Safety Inspections.”

Back then I argued that authorities should check only the basic “silent killers” of an automobile — things like ball joints, tie rod ends, brake lines and tires (and also structural bits that could be rusted out). These are things that can fail suddenly and unpredictably, causing a vehicle to crash. “This really doesn’t have to be a tough inspection to be effective,” I wrote, “as it’s really only a few components that pose the biggest risk.”

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Simplicity, I argued, is key, because such inspections can easily become slippery slopes that are far too strict and make it difficult for low-income folks to drive. I think Germany’s inspection falls into that category. Having to make sure aftermarket parts have been specifically designed for a certain vehicle, checking the amount of braking force that each wheel makes and ensuring perfect headlight aim — these things may seem to make sense, but they’re taking things a bit too far, I think. Make sure the brakes work and the lines aren’t rusty, don’t worry about what parts someone used as long as they look safe, and just make sure the headlights appear to be working well enough — that’s all inspectors should do. Again, it’s a slippery slope, which is why I’m still hesitant to support the idea, even though I maintain that there needs to be some program in place to check the “silent killers.”

“Our government goes through all this trouble trying to make sure our [new] cars are safe,” I wrote. “If we’re going to do all that, and if we’re all going to share the road with one another, let’s at least make sure people’s wheels aren’t falling off.” It seemed like a fair thing to ask, though my piece received a lot of fair criticism, including a rebuke from Autoweek, who wrote “No, mandatory vehicle safety inspections are not a good idea.”

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In the article, Graham Kozak stated that an inspection program would cost taxpayers quite a bit of money, the reduction of vehicle crashes wouldn’t be dramatic (especially when compared to the number of crashes caused by driver error) and a mandatory inspection would make it harder for low-income families to get to work. Here’s a quote from that story:

Those stuck in marginal cars will pay the most of all, because their access to personal transportation — like it or not, an absolutely essential part of life outside of select urban areas — will be jeopardized. After all, nobody wants to be driving a crappy old car, but it might be the only way for someone to get to work.

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In response to that quote, I have to reiterate that the ticket to my proposal isn’t about “marginal cars.” What I’m calling for is a check of major safety issues: rusted-out brake lines, suspension components and major structural bits. Vehicles with these issues simply shouldn’t be on the road, whether the driver is rich or poor, because these cars are well beyond just “marginal.” They’re deathtraps.

As for the effectiveness of such a program, it does appear that Pennsylvania has done an effectiveness study and concluded “The results of the research clearly demonstrate that the Vehicle Safety Inspection program in Pennsylvania is effective and saves lives.” I can’t put my stamp of approval on this study, as I haven’t read through it in detail, but at least in principle, it’s hard for me not to support such a system.

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My 2000 Jeep Cherokee, a handsome, seemingly-innocent SUV, is hiding dangerous faults. And to think that so many other vehicles here in Michigan are, too, is just scary.

Before I conclude, allow me to just point out how disappointing this Jeep is. When I first bought it for $500, I thought I’d scored the deal of the century. But then that crack in the unibody rail became a GIANT hole, and the rust spots on the doors turned into holes. Check it out; here’s how the doors looked before I hit them with a grinding wheel:

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Photo: David Tracy
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And here’s the hole that resulted when I went to grind off the rust and paint what remained (which you can see is still flaking a bit, and not completely gone):

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On the passenger’s side, there was this rust spot on the door:

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After grinding, it resulted in a big hole:

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Photo: David Tracy
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Here’s a look at how bad the hole in the rocker panel got once I’d removed most of the rust. Here’s what it looked like before:

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And here it is after the grinding:

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Photo: David Tracy
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Turns out, this Jeep, which I touted as a “great deal” after first inspecting it, wasn’t such a great deal after all.

Sr. Technical Editor, Jalopnik. Always interested in hearing from auto engineers—email me. Cars: Willys CJ-2A ('48), Jeep J10 ('85), Jeep Cherokee ('79, '91, '92, '00), Jeep Grand Cherokee 5spd ('94).

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DISCUSSION

srrlx1986
Scott the Stagehand

I grew up in Pennsylvania moved to Michigan. Lived in Michigan for five years and moved back to PA. I have a few thoughts.

1. When I lived in Michigan I saw more front suspension/tie rod failures than anywhere in PA.

2. I did like it that I did not have to go get my vehicles inspected but the registration was double that of what it was in PA so I really didn’t save any money.

3. I also work around the family shop which does frame pulling from collisions, I typically get 10-15 calls a month about frame rot. I have to turn those jobs down due to liability and safety concerns and suggest the owner get a new vehicle.

4. I hate to say this but I prefer the safety inspections. If you have a decent person they will tell you if your car is starting to rot or if certain parts are failing. When I lived in Michigan I had no idea, and things would fail like my brake lines having the rust blown off after a car wash.

Just wondering are you are going to do with the Cherokee?