Pioneer Cars: Jeep Cherokee

North American model was the first prominent SUV. After years of success, the Jeep Cherokee lost itself in the market by not keeping up with the changes of its segment

2019 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk (left) and Limited (source: Stellantis)
Two versions of the Jeep Cherokee after its latest visual update in 2019

Stellantis has kept its word and produced the last Jeep Cherokee on February 28th. The Belvidere, Illinois plant has gone idle after six years of continuously building the SUV in its latest generation. There is much speculation about the near future, so we are going to focus on the model’s long history for now.

In theory, automakers should update their cars like the Volkswagen Golf. The same recipe is updated and improved from time to time, without any revolution. However, there are times when they need more than that. The Jeep Cherokee shows a little bit of the ups and downs its maker went through in all those years.

1975 Jeep Cherokee S (source: WheelsAge)
The first Jeep Cherokee was released in 1974. It was meant to be a sporty counterpart to the Jeep Wagoneer

Jeep Cherokee SJ (1974 to 1983)

After enjoying sales success with the Wagoneer in the luxury segment, Jeep decided to expand the scope of its project. The very first Cherokee arrived in 1974 as a direct derivation of its sibling. More specifically, a version with only two doors, long rear quarter windows, and sporty appeal, aimed at younger drivers.

1979 Jeep Cherokee Chief (source: WheelsAge)
The Chief trim level was available during most of its production cycle

AMC was known for its ability to do a lot on a tight budget and the Jeep Cherokee was no exception. The following years brought several trim levels, stronger engines, graphic packages, and even a widebody kit. Those updates made its appearance on par with the initial purpose and set it apart from the Wagoneer.

Although the SUV arrived right after the oil crisis, it managed to sell well. In fact, it even used the biggest engine ever used on a Jeep model: the 6.6L V8 shared with the Wagoneer and the J-Truck. The Cherokee would only receive a new generation in 1984; an all-new project much more suitable for the new times.

1984 Jeep Cherokee Pioneer (source: WheelsAge)
The Jeep Cherokee XJ was highly successful because of its off-road potential especially in base trim levels

Jeep Cherokee XJ (1984 to 2001)

Renault’s ownership played a key role in the process of building a substitute. The main guideline followed by AMC was to use unibody construction instead of body-on-frame. After many prototypes, the new SUV appeared with an innovative construction that offered comparable room with much less size and weight.

1997 Jeep Cherokee Classic (source: WheelsAge)
Despite bringing many improvements, the 1997 facelift only lasted four years in the market

The Jeep Cherokee XJ was one of the first modern SUVs. The new size enabled the use of smaller engines and AMC’s entrance in new market categories. The simple, yet robust construction enabled an impressive off-road potential. It made this generation a true sales success and a reference until the present day.

Such success spawned a luxury spin-off in 1984, named Wagoneer, and ensured its survival after Chrysler acquired AMC. The first Grand Cherokee was meant to replace it, but Jeep ultimately chose to keep both as regular and luxury versions. The Jeep Cherokee XJ would get a facelift in 1997 that lasted four years.

2002 Jeep Liberty Limited (source: WheelsAge)
Jeep built the Liberty with an all-new concept to adapt to the new times and bring new customers

Jeep Liberty KJ (2002 to 2007)

New millennium, new market demands, new environment… And a new push to cut costs from Mercedes-Benz. One of DaimlerChrysler’s goals was to make the US side profitable again and that meant replacing aging models with more efficient options. In the domestic market, not even the Cherokee name survived.

2002 Jeep Liberty Renegade (source: WheelsAge)
During its first years, the Jeep Liberty had a Renegade version with off-road appeal

At that time, the only other Jeeps available were the Wrangler, with old-school features, and the Grand Cherokee, a luxury SUV. The Jeep Liberty built a bridge between them in the line and offered a more urban approach. That was necessary because compact SUVs were finally becoming a global market segment.

Pairing urban design with a more comfortable cabin and more efficient engines was a good idea. The SUV did not become a legend like its successor, but performed well enough to deserve another generation in 2008. The scenario was different from several points of view at that time, so a new model was necessary.

2008 Jeep Liberty Limited (source: WheelsAge)
The second Jeep Liberty adopted a modern design and moved upwards in the company’s line

Jeep Liberty KK (2008 to 2013)

The introduction of a four-door Wrangler and the car-based Compass and Patriot forced the Jeep Liberty to reinvent itself again. The new SUV lost its smallest engines to avoid competing with its smaller siblings, gained in refinement to stay away from the Unlimited, and kept a smaller size than the Grand Cherokee.

2008 Jeep Liberty Sport (source: WheelsAge)
The second Jeep Liberty was a close relative to the Dodge Nitro

Though the SUV craze was only emerging, it was already clear that it would focus on urban use. The new Jeep Liberty featured long equipment lists and had special editions with unique items: the Jet had chrome wheels, the 70th Anniversary had exclusive colors, and the Renegade featured unpainted body cladding.

We can say that the biggest problem with this Jeep Liberty is too much internal competition. The SUV was quite attractive on its own, but it was easy for people to be swayed by the other Jeeps. Add that to some safety issues and subsequent recalls and you can understand why the SUV soon succumbed to low sales.

2014 Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk (source: FCA)
The Trailhawk version was the Jeep Cherokee KL’s biggest competitive edge among compact SUVs

Jeep Cherokee KL (2013 to 2023)

The very first Jeep to use a platform codeveloped with Fiat brought modern design and more equipment. However, people could not get past that split-headlight design. On the bright side, the Trailhawk variation was a great addition: it gave it off-road credentials that most of its direct rivals never dreamed of having.

2018 Jeep Cherokee Overland (credit: Aldo Ferrero)
The luxury-oriented Overland version

Sadly, the global return of the Jeep Cherokee nameplate was not enough to boost its image. The SUV had internal competition from the Wrangler Unlimited, the Grand Cherokee and, later, the Compass. Besides, it used a platform that was only average when new; it fell behind the market’s standards over the years.

Compared to newer competitors, the Jeep Cherokee KL falls behind on driving assistance systems, weight reduction technologies, and powertrain efficiency. Not to mention that it has no electrified options, which Jeep has already set as a goal for the next few years. For several reasons, it was time to update the SUV.

2023 Jeep Recon EV Concept (source: Stellantis)
The Recon EV is a concept car presented last year. It has similar proportions to the Jeep Cherokee KL

Jeep presented the concept car above, named Recon, last year. All we know so far is that it is electric and will be aimed at North America. Perhaps it will be the future of the Jeep Cherokee, but it is all speculation again. For now, we just know that the shapeshifter SUV had a rich market history through all those years.


  • Jeep Cherokee’s Future Hangs in the Balance after Plant IdledCar and Driver
  • Jeep Liberty Models: What You Need to KnowCar and Driver
  • The Last Jeep Cherokee Rolls Off the Line At BelvidereJalopnik

Do you own a Jeep Cherokee? Check these out!

Author Profile

Danillo Almeida has explored his passion for cars in two distinct ways. The first one is his graduation course in Mechanical Engineering, which will hopefully lead to a job position in the field. The other one is expressing his knowledge and opinions on the matter through writing. Almeida has already contributed to blogs, stores, and websites in general writing automotive content in many formats.

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