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RETRO DRIVE: 1998 Jeep Cherokee 4.0

29 August 2016

The humble Jeep Cherokee may not be held in the same esteem as its sibling, the Wrangler, but this easy-on-the-pocket old warhorse has plenty of arrows in its quiver that more and more 4×4 enthusiasts are starting to appreciate. We checked out a prime example.

When asked why a particular set of obstacles were so nasty and obviously geared towards killing 4×4s, he responded by telling us that they were designed for guys who pitch up in ‘beaters’.  A beater is American slang for a ridiculously cheap 4×4 that one simply replaces once the wheels come off. And they will come off eventually because one tends to have less mechanical sympathy for something that cost you  R40 000 than you would for a brand new bakkie that likely cost R600 000 with a few optional extras added to the mix.

It’s not the beater part that surprised us, but one particular example of such a 4×4 caught us off guard. We expected Isuzu KBs, old Defenders, Suzukis and a Wrangler knock-off or two, but the Jeep Cherokee was also mentioned. Had the retail price of the first generation Cherokee really dropped by so much that it could now be considered a beater?

The original Cherokee was a fairly large SUV based on the Wagoneer. It made its debut in 1974 and was never offered in South Africa. We got our first taste of the second-generation Cherokee, which was produced from 1984 up until 2013 in China. The Americans considered it a small SUV, but in South Africa it was one of the larger SUV offerings. Sales were rather good, mostly because it was a relatively decent vehicle that was then at the forefront of technology. It has everything us Saffers like in a car – a snooty badge, elevated driving position, rugged off-road ability and a decent helping of luxuries. The four-litre 142kW/305Nm inline six-cylinder petrol engine and five-speed automatic ‘box also motivated our historically power-hungry market to respond well to the Cherokee.

One could also argue that it was a pioneer as far as combining luxury and off-road ability is concerned. The Range Rover may have gotten there first, but the Cherokee is the SUV that made this combo available to the masses. It’s fairly basic compared to current SUVs, but satellite controls on the steering wheel, fake wooden trim on the centre console and an airbag were considered the height of luxury back then. We were lucky enough to spot a beautiful 1998 Maroon example at Auto Investments in Centurion, who were kind enough to let us have a go in it.

Before driving it, we first had to admire the exterior styling. It’s by no means modern, but it still looks kind of good after all these years. The designers probably didn’t know it back then, but the Cherokee would have a drastic effect on Jeep’s design language going forward. The Grand Cherokee, for example, looks exactly how you’d expect a modern version of this Cherokee to look. The 1998 model’s age revealed itself somewhat during the driving experience. Noise, vibration and harshness levels were surprisingly good for a car that’s nearly 20 years old and the ride can easily be described as ‘plush’, but the handling was wayward at best. It leans through the corners like Valentino Rossi, but it did add a dose of character to the experience, which we liked.

The performance is adequate. It may have a power output to rival modern hot hatches, but it was built before cars were unanimously put on a diet to save fuel, which it’s also not very good at, by the way. The gearbox is surprisingly responsive and the engine sounds powerful. This particular unit has over 280 000km on the clock, but it comes with a full service history. You can tell that it has been looked after properly because there are no flat spots in the rev range and it does an ample job of powering that heavy brick-like body.

It’s no small wonder this generation of Cherokee regularly features on multiple Best SUVs Ever lists all over the globe. The Americans loved it so much, they used it as their official police vehicle in rural areas. Jeep eventually started building Cherokees for that exact application, which is why you’ll still occasionally see one of these things on American police TV shows.

It was, and still is, reliable and an epic off-roader, which you can now buy for a small amount of money. This stunning example is as pristine as they come and it costs R70 000. You can go cheaper, but we’d recommend a proper inspection before you sign on the dotted line. We’d also recommend that you take the plunge sooner rather than later, because at the time of going to print, we could find only four decent examples, which means the good units are being scooped up while the prices are still low.

Will it be a future collector’s item? It certainly will if owners keep beating on them.

Engine Four-litre inline six-cylinder petrol
Capacity 3 956cc
Power 142kW @ 4 600r/min
Torque 305Nm @ 3 000r/min
Fuel system Indirect injection
Gearbox Five-speed automatic
Weight 2 223kg
Drive system Part-time 4WD with transfer case
Traction aids None
Suspension Quadra-link with coil springs front, leaf springs rear
0-100km/h (when new) 9.5 seconds
Top Speed (when new) 183km/h

Text: Gerhard Horn and photography: Deon van der Walt