Every once in a while, you hear the term “immortal” applied to a vehicle. This doesn’t mean parts don’t wear out (wouldn’t that be amazing!), but rather that the vehicle itself is timeless. It stands above its contemporaries in such a way that people immediately know there is something special about it. Sometimes it is due to a vehicles performance, its rarity, and many times even Hollywood. Many vehicles are memorable for good and bad – a ’77 black and gold Trans Am, a ’69 Orange Dodge Charger, the Yugo – but few vehicles achieve the hallowed status of truly becoming “immortal”. The Shelby Cobra 427, the Ford GT40, the 25th Anniversary Lamborghini Countach – which late 80’s/early 90’s boy DIDN’T have that poster in their room? Heck, even the De Lorean makes the list thanks to Michael J. Fox. These would all be considered “immortal”. There’s just that particular qualifier in each of them that allows them to ascend beyond just “the memorable”. Add to this short list the ’84-’01 Jeep Cherokee.
Robert Casey, the transportation curator at the Henry Ford Museum, says that the Jeep Cherokee XJ was the first true sport utility vehicle in the modern understanding of the term. It was an instant trend setter. It has often been said that imitation is the highest form of flattery. Well, many companies have made their own imitations of the Jeep Cherokee, with none truly figuring out the perfect blend that Jeep and AMC found. Nissan, Honda, Ford, Chevrolet – they and others have all tried, and honestly failed, to match just what the Cherokee had to offer. The XJ may not be the roomiest, or the most luxurious, or even the most refined small SUV, but just like every other “immortal”, somehow it’s shortcomings become the things that charm its owners as “personality traits” – or as we know it, the “Jeep Thing”.
One of those traits, but hardly a shortcoming, is it’s off-road capability. In fact it is here that the Cherokee truly stands far above it’s rivals. In 2001, the final year of production for the XJ in Toledo, OH, Car & Driver pitted the XJ against ten other “cute-utes”. Sadly, the XJ finished in 10th, a mere 3 points ahead of the last place Kia. The reason can basically be summed up in one statement: it wasn’t as sophisticated as it’s competitors. However, it aced the off-road segment, so much so that this is what they had to say about it. “The Jeep never got stuck – it acted as though it never would – so we quit our slippery-slope trial before the backing-out distance topped a half-mile.” This is what sets the Cherokee apart. Combine this with all those things that are just part of the “Jeep Thing”, and you have something very few vehicles can claim to be. When a timeless shape, quirks only an owner can love, and stand out performance can all be found in one vehicle, you end up with something quite rare indeed. You end up with something… immortal.