The Jeep Cherokee (XJ) is a compact sport utility vehicle that was manufactured and marketed by Jeep in the USA from 1983 to 2001, as well as in other countries, and sometimes under other names, until 2014, with Jeep selling almost 3 million units between 1984 and 2001.
Sharing the name of the original full-size Cherokee SJ model, the 1984 XJ Cherokee was Jeep's first all-new vehicle design since the 1963 SJ Wagoneer, from which the '74 SJ Cherokee had been derived. Instead of the traditional separate body and chassis, the XJ featured a light-weight, compact and space-efficient, integrated body and frame design. The models were originally marketed as Sportwagons and became the precursor to the modern sport utility vehicle (SUV) as that term was not yet in use.
Designs of the compact-size XJ Cherokee date back to 1978 when a team of American Motors (AMC) and Renault engineers drew several sketches. Clay models were based on the then current full-size SJ Cherokee. Early sketches of the XJ Cherokee had a European influence, and most of the styling cues were done by AMC engineers under the direction of Richard A. Teague, vice president of design.
Noticing that General Motors was developing a new two-door S-10-based Blazer, AMC decided to develop an entirely new four-door model in addition to a two-door version. American Motors' vice president of engineering, Roy Lunn, designed what is known as the "Quadra-Link" suspension, that limited rollovers. Renault's François Castaing developed the drivetrain using a much smaller engine than normally found in 4WD vehicles and reduced the weight of the new model. It "is noteworthy as the first nonmilitary 4x4 with unibody construction." The unconventional design enhanced XJ's durability and off-road capability that eventually won over most critics, even those models with the early underpowered GM engines. The XJ is described "as the first small crossover SUV in the U.S.," with "plenty of the Jeep toughness (and a straight-six engine) built in." The design and market positioning of the XJ, along with the AMC Eagle essentially "foreshadowed the car-based crossover utility-vehicle fad."
"The new XJ Jeep ... was 1,200 pounds lighter, 31 inches shorter, six inches narrower and four inches lower than the Cherokee SJ it replaced, and yet — thanks to unibody construction — the XJ kept 90 percent of its predecessor’s interior volume." And, not only was fuel economy much improved, but "articulation is also better, as is ground clearance, as well as approach, departure and breakover angles. These, along with its smaller profile, make the XJ better both off-road and on."
Although the XJ models had just been introduced, AMC quickly began development of its successor. To compete against its much larger rivals, the smallest U.S. automaker created a business process that is now known as "product lifecycle management" (PLM) to speed up its product development process. By 1985, development and engineering was based on computer-aided design (CAD) software systems while new systems stored all drawings and documents in a central database. The pioneering PLM was so effective that after Chrysler purchased AMC in 1987, it expanded the system throughout its own enterprise.
British TV presenter and motoring expert Quentin Willson described the XJ Jeep as "a real 4x4 icon" and one of the "few truly great cars... which, despite being left behind by newer models, still offer fresh and urgent possibilities. Cars which become more relevant the older they get."