While modern SUVs evolved through the efforts of different vehicles and companies over the decades, the 1984 Jeep Cherokee XJ is often credited as the SUV that started it all. The Cherokee XJ was not only a re-imagination of what a car could be but a reinvention of it, revitalizing the automotive industry and earning the long-lasting admiration of car enthusiasts worldwide.
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The Roots of the Jeep Cherokee XJ
While the SUV’s origins can be traced back to military vehicles of the 1940s, no vehicles resembling current-day SUVs were on the road for several decades afterward. Most consumer cars were limited to sedans, station wagons, and trucks for heavy-duty work.
By the late 1970s, however, it had become clear that the automotive industry needed a change. North America’s car-driven culture and society was struck particularly hard by the 1970s energy crisis, and drivers had seen too many fuel-free gas stations to feel comfortable driving a gas-guzzler.
As tourism and work industries evolved, it also became clear that consumers didn’t have enough options; families couldn’t drive their suburban cars into the woods for a camping trip, for example, and trucks weren’t a viable solution for parents who needed to drive their children to school.
1978 saw the initial conception of the Cherokee XJ, limited to blueprints and clay mockups. The XJ wasn’t the first of the Cherokee models; it was heavily inspired by the preexisting Cherokee SJ, one of Jeep’s station wagons. Interestingly enough, Jeep had first dubbed the SJ a sport utility vehicle in 1974 as part of its marketing materials, an entire decade before they released their first true SUV.
It would take another six years for the Cherokee XJ to come to fruition. Despite the long wait, the Cherokee XJ rolled out to rave reviews, setting the stage for developing an entirely new subset of vehicles: the SUV.
What Set the Cherokee XJ Apart
The release of the Cherokee XJ caught plenty of eyes simply for the fact that it was the first new Jeep model in two decades. It could have been a momentary trend in broader car culture, but the XJ provided a wide variety of features that catapulted it into the car history books.
Most off-roaders at the time typically had a body-on-frame construction, meaning that the body of the vehicle was placed atop a separate chassis. While unibody constructions weren’t new, the Cherokee XJ was the first off-road vehicle to have a unibody structure where the body was directly attached to the vehicle’s frame. This feature was primarily limited to sedans but caught automotive manufacturing by storm with the XJ’s success.
The frame wasn’t the only powerful portion of this vehicle, though. Potential buyers could pick either the 2.5L four-cylinder engine or the 2.8L V6 six-cylinder engine to power their new four-wheel drive.
Much to the surprise of heavy-duty vehicle enthusiasts, this more powerful vehicle was smaller than the full-sized Jeep Wagoneer SJ. The Cherokee XJ was shorter, slimmer, and a full ton lighter, proving that a vehicle didn’t need to be oversized to be sturdy.
Good Design and Comfort
Unlike many cars of the era, which sacrificed form for function, the Cherokee XJ offered a sleek design that appealed to many drivers at the time. The vehicle was available with two- and four-door bodies, a feature uncommon for Jeep vehicles of the period.
But it wasn’t just the exterior that earned plenty of attention; Jeep fanatics and 1980s car fanatics alike can easily see that the car’s interior was heavily inspired by the SJ, with plenty of room for both passengers and cargo and a back seat that could be easily folded down or removed entirely.
Improved Fuel Economy
Oil shortages in the 1970s left drivers wary of cars that constantly needed their tanks refilled. This fact was only compounded by the energy crisis aftershocks in 1979, a year into the XJ’s development. Jeep took note and worked hard to increase the vehicle’s fuel efficiency.
When the EPA tested the XJ’s fuel efficiency, its test results were quite impressive. The XJ’s four-wheel drive provided the vehicle with more efficient fuel use, with the manual and automatic XJs reaching a combined 21 MPG and 18 MPG, respectively. Those numbers rival some current-day SUV models still working on their fuel efficiency.
Before the release of the Cherokee XJ, there was a substantially more apparent divide between work vehicles and commuter cars. Families were typically limited to station wagons, which weren’t capable of the heavy-duty tasks that a light truck or off-road vehicle could do.
The Cherokee XJ, however, combined the sturdiness of a truck or off-roader with the spaciousness of a station wagon, providing an impressive versatility for families and friends hoping to escape the city or suburban life for trips on the road(or off the road.
A New Category of Cars
Even the vehicle’s category was revolutionary. Though Jeep had coined “sports utility vehicle” a decade earlier with the Cherokee SJ, neither that nor the term “SUV” had gained widespread usage at the time; Jeep initially dubbed the XJ the “Sportswagon.” However, many contemporary sources now recognize the XJ as one of the earliest, if not the earliest compact SUVs to hit the market.
The Legacy of the Cherokee XJ
To say the Cherokee XJ revolutionized the automobile industry would be massively understating its influence. Automobile manufacturers rushed to create their own version of the SUV, leading to fierce competition in a vehicle category that hadn’t even existed beforehand. The competition has only grown more intense, with more drivers beginning to opt for SUVs over sedans in 2020.
The XJ’s incredible success influenced even Jeep itself. Jeep not only built a whopping 14 trim levels for the XJ, including a specialized trim for its 60th anniversary, they eventually developed entirely new lines of Jeep SUVs based on the XJ’s success. Some of these SUVs would become direct successors to the Cherokee XJ, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Eventually, the Cherokee XJ was retired. The Jeep Liberty stepped up in 2002 to take its place, and the shorter-lived Liberty was replaced by the Cherokee KL, a crossover SUV that some feel bears little semblance to its namesake.
However, the Cherokee XJ’s impact on the automotive industry hasn’t been forgotten, with the 1984 XJ being perhaps one of the more popular model years.
Explore the World of SUVs with SUViews
Jeep may have carved out a new road for SUVs, but the world of SUVs has grown far beyond their 1984 invention. If you’re baffled by the myriad of luxury SUVs, subcompact SUVs, or any other form of SUVs on the market, SUViews can provide plenty of guidance, whether you’re looking for reviews on the latest models or advice on navigating the world of SUVs.
Like Jeep laid the foundation for modern SUVs, SUViews will lay the foundation of SUV knowledge so that you can choose the right SUV for you.