The Jeep Cherokee XJ will always be the greatest jeep of all time, and my off-road weekend in northern Michigan showed exactly why, even if it ended in 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 be. Chiseled nice look? Verify. Good visibility? Verify. Low service weight? Verify. Reliable engine and driveline? Verify. Lots of low torque and decent power? Verify. Easy and cheap to fix? Verify. Incredibly good terrain? Verify. Practical? Verify. Reasonable ride quality for daily driving? Verify. Can you get it at a reasonable price? Verify.
The Cherokee is the best Jeep of all time, and always will be, as no future Jeep will ever offer so much off-road capability at such a low price (the only solid Jeep left is the expensive Wrangler and its truck variant, the Gladiator). no future Jeep will ever be so light (due to safety regulations), no future Jeep will be as easy to repair, no future Jeep will offer as good visibility due to crash safety rules and no future Jeep will have those classic sharp lines that are awful for aerodynamics.
However, the best thing about an XJ is the first point. Throw a couple of dollars and a couple of hours on it, and the jeep comes out of the gun near any modern off-road vehicle. I put a $ 120 scrap lift on my jeepalong with maybe $ 200 worth of Bilstein shock absorbers, and it did this:
It’s literally just a stock XJ with a three – inch scrap lifting package and some Walmart Goodyear Wrangler Authority off-road tires. And even if I did not say that my Jeep was nowhere near as capable as some of the modified vehicles in our group of ten, it really held up. Given that I have a lot of experience in off-road driving and that I do not mind if my jeep breaks down because I can only fix it (and I do not mind if it gets scratched), I took some of the more difficult obstacles and Jeep went great.
Though I got stuck pretty well 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 amazing (he will tell more about it in his own story).
The off-road driving took place on Drummond Island in northern Michigan. The trails were filled with lots of standing water and mud, with only a few rocky obstacles along the way.
It was a great time. Rory was in his nice Toyota, I was in my XJ, my friend Brandon and his girlfriend Ashley rolled in Brandon’s leg stock 2015 Jeep Wrangler JK Willys edition (which he actually helped assemble at the factory in Toledo) and my friend Adam was in its slightly modified two-door JK. We all joined another group of Jalopnik readers who a few months ago invited me to ride terrain with them. I had not met anyone in the group in person, but when my little crew arrived on Drummond Island, we were among a group of amazing people who loved old jeeps. The whole weekend was great, especially since I got to share a bunk bed 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, I started to hear a buzzing sound from the back of the vehicle, but only when my foot was on the pedal. I was worried about the differential, so I pulled out the filler plug, just to see gray liquid seeping out. Water had clearly entered my shoulder.
All I had was a liter of gearbox oil on hand, so I had to fill the remaining space – about a liter – with diesel engine oil. I drove about 100 km with this mixture before I found a hardware store, where I bought some real 80W-90.
I inspected the gears when I opened the diff for the second time, and they looked good. I’m not sure exactly what makes all the noise under load, but if I have to guess I would say it’s either the pinion layer or the base layer. One thing is for sure: the pinion seal is toast, as the shaft’s rotating yoke pushes gear oil everywhere.
The problem with the rear diff was not so bad that I could not drive the jeep, so I just limped home the vehicle. On the way, I looked down at my temperature gauge and my engine – whose cooling system had admittedly been marginal all weekend, with the needle always sitting a few degrees above the correct engine operating temperature – began to overheat.
Before my off-road trip, the engine was warm. When I accelerated the engine and forced the coolant through the seemingly clogged radiator (I tried to flush it before the trip, to no avail), the temperature normally dropped to a safe range. For some reason, after that terrain ride, not even speed could save this four-liter from getting too hot. See when an ethylene glycol-based liquid boils out of my reservoir:
So I will probably need to replace my rear axle and radiator; possibly also my main pack. I also no longer have working headlights, as all the water apparently caused some short circuits. Plus my left turn signal no longer works.
Still, it’s not as bad as my very first terrain trip that I wrote about for Jalopnik back in 2015. It was awful, but it only cost me $ 200 to fix it. And I suspect that it will not cost much more to fix the Jeep after this off-road excursion. That’s the beauty of XJ.