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The Jeep Cherokee, first introduced in 1974 as a replacement for the station wagon, is arguably the most popular and recognizable issue from the iconic American brand. Not only has the Cherokee lasted five generations, each with its own stylistic and functional changes, but it has also managed to reflect Americans’ evolving relationship with the automobile. In other words, each generation came to more closely resemble the SUV’s that are popular today. For that reason, some consider the Cherokee to have been ahead of its time.

First Generation: The Jeep Cherokee SJ

Prior to the 1970’s, the station wagon dominated American markets because of its popularity with families. Jeep claimed its share of the market with the Wagoneer, a model that first hit the road in 1963. Compared with similar models, the Jeep Wagoneer was arguably the toughest, most SUV-like vehicle of its time. Still, by the 1970’s American drivers wanted something more.

1974 saw the introduction of the Jeep Cherokee SJ, a vehicle that, while it did not look all that much different from the Wagoneer, had a much sportier and more capable feel. The SJ was marketed toward younger drivers, and the trim levels, some of which came with unique graphics packages, reflected this new intended audience. The Golden Hawk and Golden Eagle packages, for example, boasted recognizable style lines along the sides of the exterior.

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Second Generation: The Jeep Cherokee XJ

The 1980’s marked the beginning of a shift in car culture in the United States, and the Cherokee XJ is undeniably a product of that shift. Drivers began to seek out more capable four-wheel drive vehicles that were lightweight enough to be practical for everyday use, and the XJ was one of the first attempts by any automaker to strike this important balance.

The Cherokee XJ achieved this balance through the use of a lighter “unibody” design in which the frame of the vehicle is constructed from a single piece of metal. In previous designs, heavy steel rails were used to connect parts of the frame together, making vehicles much heavier than needed. The unibody design pioneered by Jeep in these types of vehicles continues to have many imitators in the decades to come.

Second Generation: The Jeep Cherokee XJ

Drivers of the third generation Cherokee KJ, introduced in North American markets as the Liberty in 2001 so as not to be confused with the larger Grand Cherokee, noticed several steering and other performance related enhancements. For example, the KJ was the first Jeep to consistently feature an independent front suspension (a version of the Wagoneer employed such a suspension, but only for one model year). The third generation Cherokee also employed a tighter platform, making it more capable on trails and over rocks.

With the KJ, Jeep also introduced cosmetic enhancements that made the vehicle look more like the sleek SUV’s on the road today. Jeep also employed a shift in its strategy for marketing the Cherokee brand, toting the KJ as a multi-purpose vehicle that was as capable of conquering the tallest mountain just the same as congested rush hour traffic. And critics of the time agreed that the Cherokee KJ delivered on both ends.

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Fourth Generation: The Jeep Cherokee KK (Liberty)

The fourth generation KK, which hit the market in 2008, was a boxier, roomier addition to the Cherokee family geared toward those unconcerned about gas mileage despite a trend of growing environmental awareness. It isn’t that Jeep was not trying to make headway in markets where lighter and more efficient vehicles were popular- they simply had other models to compete in these growing markets.

The Cherokee KK was known for its creature comforts and was a true hit with first-time Jeep owners who traditionally avoided the reliable and high-performing brand in favor of more comfortable vehicles. All in all, the fourth generation Cherokee will go down as a redesign that brought Jeep into a new segment of the American market.

Fifth Generation: The Jeep Cherokee KL

The Cherokee KL, its current iteration, marks a genuine reboot for the Cherokee brand, boasting a new platform with a wider wheelbase as well as a range of four-wheel drive options to choose from. Despite the controversy surrounding its front-end styling (in 2019 Jeep pleased longtime Cherokee owners by reverting back to the traditional styling), the KL is widely considered to be the highest performing Cherokee to date when compared with similar models from other automakers.

Its four-wheel drive options alone, which allow the driver to utilize different aspects of the suspension to handle different conditions, cause the KL to stand out among competitors. While brands like Subaru, known for its all-wheel drive performance, allow drivers to switch between different modes, the mechanisms employed in the Cherokee were unique at the time of the model’s release. The fifth generation Cherokee even retained many of the comforts of its predecessor, ensuring that the brand satisfied many of its customers who came on board with the KK or Liberty.

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Reflecting Car Culture in the United States

To examine the history of the Jeep Cherokee, in many ways, is to examine the development of car culture in the United States. Station wagons were not capable and stylistic enough for younger drivers in the 1970’s, and so the Cherokee was born. Then, when smaller compact SUV’s began to dominate the market, the brand’s designers ensured that the second and third generations of the Cherokee represented viable options for American drivers.

Now, in a time when these concerns about size combine with a desire for high-performing vehicles that can handle a range of surfaces and scenarios, the fifth generation Cherokee seems to have struck a profitable balance once again. In short, it is no secret that those in the industry keep a close eye on the sales of vehicles like the Cherokee that almost seem to guide the auto markets, and not the other way around.



Categories: History