1997 Jeep Cherokee Sport
1997 Jeep Cherokee Sport. Click image to enlarge.

By Jeremy Cato

It’s not overly refined and it’s of modest size, but there are at least two good reasons to consider a late 1997 and newer Jeep Cherokee: big off-road muscles and an affordable used car price.

Truly, the Cherokee was a solid design when it had its debut in 1984 and until it was replaced last year by the Liberty, it remained relatively competitive in an increasingly tough segment.

Okay, the Cherokee of the late 1990s was not a class leader in terms of cabin and cargo room, highway ride and overall polish. That despite a noteworthy re-do for the 1997 model year. But look at the table of prices for used ones. You should be able to find a 1998 Cherokee for about half its original sticker. Not bad at all.

I’m not reluctant to recommend a ’97-and-newer Cherokee if you’re on a tight budget and you realize this is above all a serious off-road vehicle. That means you get some compromises in city/highway ride quality, the cabin is a tall climb to enter and the packaging inside is a case of form-follows-function. The function in this case being the ability to climb up boulders.

I would suggest avoiding the four-cylinder version; it’s under-powered and fuel economy is not great. This is especially true for trucks with the automatic transmission.

The straight six-cylinder engine is no fuel miser, either, but it does have enough power throughout all speed ranges. In either engine case, you will experience engine and overall drivetrain noises that notably exceed what you get with the cute-utes like the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Wind noise is pretty evident, too.

In terms of road manners, the Cherokee offers impressive manoeuvrability thanks to its overall balance and suspension design. If you’re in the bush, you’ll find the suspension absorbs but the worst bumps quite well. An “Up-Country” suspension makes things uncomfortably stiff. Brakes are pretty good, though anti-lock was optional.

The cabin will carry four adults in fair comfort, but there’s no extra room for a fifth. Shoulder room all around and knee room in the rear both are at a premium. Rear entry is tight because of narrow doorways. The dashboard re-design for 1997 was a major step forward. If you want to maximize cargo room, look for a Jeep with the spare tire mounted on the back door – or buy an aftermarket rack.

The all-new interior for ’97 included a passenger-side airbag. The seats for ’97 were also made more comfortable and variable-sized cupholders were located in the centre console.

Some models can be found with an overhead console that includes storage space for sunglasses and garage door remotes, as well as including readouts for external temperature, fuel range, average fuel economy, odometer and trip elapsed time. It was an option during the Cherokee’s run.

Pre-1996 Cherokees were notorious for poor ventilation, but from 1997 onward the revamped Cherokee had much more airflow (boosted some 30 per cent in ’97) thanks to a more powerful cooling system and improved ducting.

Jeep offered two different four-wheel-drive systems with the Cherokee: one strictly part-time layout (Command-Trac) and a full-time four-wheel-drive system called Selec-Trac. The former is operated by a floor-mounted lever and is strictly for bush-whacking, while the latter comes with a centre differential lock for serious off-roaders who also want all-wheel drive in mixed traction (e.g., slushy roads). Both systems have been proven on the job.

On the quality front, the ’97 improvements made a real difference. Aside from changes in seals, door latches and even door design to cut down on squeaks, rattles and wind noise, everything got a good tweak for reliability. For specific issues, look to Buyer’s Alerts.

Used vehicle prices vary depending on factors such as general condition, odometer reading, usage history and options fitted. Always have a used vehicle checked by an experienced auto technician before you buy.

For information on recalls, see Transport Canada’s web-site, www.tc.gc.ca, or the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration (NHTSA)web-site, www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on vehicle service bulletins issued by the manufacturer, visit www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

For information on consumer complaints about specific models, see www.lemonaidcars.com.

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