I was 10 when the XJ Jeep Cherokee came out for the 1984 model year. My memories of it infiltrating the Southern California landscape are still vivid. Seemingly every day of fourth grade, I saw a dozen more on the road. Their prominence then reminds me of CR-Vs today, except the Jeeps were way cooler. The Cherokee became such a trendy, popular vehicle that my folks almost jumped on the bandwagon. They test-drove one, only to leave the dealer empty-handed. "What happened?" I asked when they came home sans a super-awesome Cherokee Chief. "Your mom didn't like it," my dad said. In all my disappointment, I'm sure my mom consoled me and gave her reasons, but for the life of me I can't remember what they were.
Part of what made the '84 Cherokee such a phenomenon was its radical departure from the SJ Cherokee of the 1970s. Compared to, say, the big, curvy, and brawny '78 Cherokee Chief (shown above), the '84, with its compact, boxy, chiseled facade, looked like an athletic, fit son standing next to his out-of-shape, heavyset dad. The contrast was striking. So, too, were sales: The XJ's best sales year was 1999, with more than 200,000 sold, while the SJ's was just under 41,000 in 1978.
I had mixed emotions when I first saw the new Cherokee at the 2013 Detroit auto show. Substantially bigger and heavier than the '84, albeit totally in line with other compact crossovers, the 2014 appeared, for lack of a better term, funky. The front end was especially polarizing, with its garish seven-slot trademark grille and thin, slanted headlights set high on the front corners. And could a small, unibody crossover really be "Trail Rated" and live up to the Cherokee name?
I took our freshly arrived long-term Trailhawk V-6 on a recent fishing trip to the Eastern Sierras to find out (read the long-term Arrival review of this 2014 Cherokee HERE). First impressions from behind the wheel: It feels and operates like a scaled-down Durango, which is a good thing, considering we just rated the Dodge number one in its segment. Steering feel is first-rate, not at all let down by the meaty all-terrain Firestones. Same goes for the ride, which is surprisingly compliant yet offers a strong sense of sportiness, reminiscent of a Raptor, just plusher. Off-road? I wouldn't call the rutted dirt roads I encountered hard-core, but nevertheless, the Trailhawk's 8.7 inches of ground clearance and multi-mode 4WD system didn't break a sweat. Inside, with the seats down, the Cherokee had no problem swallowing a bunch of duffels, fishing gear, and a pair of 35-quart Pelican Elite coolers.
In light of the 1984 Cherokee, the 2014 epitomizes the evolution of the SUV. Back in '84, we tested a Cherokee Chief whose 115-hp GM-built V-6 was good for 0-60 in 12.6 seconds and the quarter mile in 18.8 seconds at 71.4 mph. Braking from 60-0 took 158 feet and the skidpad netted 0.72 g lateral acceleration. Today, those numbers are 7.6 seconds, 15.9 seconds at 87.8 mph, 128 feet, and again 0.72 g. What started as a utilitarian vehicle with solid front and rear axles, a carbureted V-6, a five-speed manual, and part-time 4WD has evolved into an everyday crossover with a fully independent suspension, a high-tech 271-hp V-6, a nine-speed automatic, and full-time 4WD with rear locker.
As the saying goes, history repeats itself. It's no surprise that the Cherokee is once again being assembled in Chrysler's Toledo, Ohio, plant, and is on pace to sell around 161,000 in 2014 -- through June alone, Jeep had already moved 80,432. After a long day in the Sierras, I parked the Trailhawk and looked back at its deep cherry paint, lower black cladding, and red powder-coated recovery hooks suitably caked in dirt. I couldn't help but feel like my childhood dream had finally come true.
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