Here's the compact sport-utility vehicle that started the trend, the Jeep Cherokee, whose boxy form has aged successfully into a modern classic. At one time, it was the yuppie family car of choice, the vehicle to be seen in while doing suburban
chores such as toting home gardening supplies, schlepping the kids off to school or taking the golden retriever out for a romp. Or it was the eminently practical, go-anywhere, rough-and-tumble Jeep wagon for traveling under inclement conditions to
ski slopes and campsites. Either way, it seemed to strike a lively chord when it first appeared in 1984, and remains a popular item in the ongoing mad rush to ditch sedans for sport utes. In many ways, the Cherokee has held up nicely, and it's
well-priced compared with the legion of expensive sport-utility vehicles crowding the highways and cluttering showroom floors. In other aspects, including its cramped interior, sparse amenities and buckboard ride, Cherokee seems stuck in the Stone Age.
Our 1998 test craft was a value-priced model that offers a lot of sport ute for less than $20,000. The simple, unadorned exterior with plain steel wheels was nonetheless attractive and contrasted nicely with some of the more overwrought luxury-barge
utes being hawked these days. A five-speed stick shift hooked up with a four-cylinder engine provided enough motivation for most applications, and certainly enough for crawling over rugged terrain. The setup was fun to drive, too, feeling macho and
trucklike. But on the highway, the limitations of the four-cylinder were obvious. Freeway merging, passing and steep grades were daunting. For extra power, the Cherokee is also available with a powerful 4.0-liter straight-six, a venerable but
good-running engine. It's the better choice. Although the drivetrain seemed to work well, there were worrisome noises on this brand-new tester, including groans from the clutch on takeoff and a high-pitched whine apparently from the engine belts
under acceleration. Compared with its competition, the Cherokee's ride is heavy and stiff, feeling clunky and old-fashioned. Its front end, with its heavy off-highway gear, stumbles over rough pavement and porpoises at highway speeds. The power
steering has been improved for '98, and it's quicker and more direct. Inside the Cherokee, the interior also seems out-of-date, with a tight, narrow cabin, truck-style dash and sparse gauges. The seats are not terribly supportive, and for the driver,
there's absolutely no place to put that left foot when it's not working the clutch. As a relatively low-priced model, there were no electric windows, central locking or other toys, except for, oddly, power-adjustable side mirrors. I gladly would have
traded the power-adjustable side mirrors for central locking. The cargo space behind the back seat is broad and roomy, especially for a small vehicle. But why does Jeep insist on mounting its spare tire on the inside, steal
ing cargo room? It's not terribly difficult or expensive to mount it on the outside, as does essentially all the competition. For all its warts, the Cherokee is still a bargain compared with others of its ilk. Women buy the Cherokee almost 3-to-2
over men, and this classic box still holds nearly 10 percent of the compact sport-utility-vehicle market. Still, what if Chrysler did the same sort of makeover of the Cherokee that it did with the Wrangler? With Wrangler, the automaker was able to
accomplish a reasonably inexpensive transformation of the original four-by-four, making it more modern and better performing without losing its appeal or boosting its price. Chrysler could do the same with the Cherokee, designing a better suspension
and a classier interior while keeping the styling intact. It would be grand. Not the Grand Cherokee, the redesigned and more-expensive version, but just a grand Cherokee, still low-priced and still high class. 1998 Jeep Che rokee
Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door wagon, rear/four-wheel drive. Base price: $17,990. Price as tested: $19,625. Engine: 2.5-liter in-line four, 125 horsepower at 5,400 rpm, 150 pounds-feet of torque at 3,250 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed stick shift. Curb weight: 3,181 pounds. Length: 167.5 inches. EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city, 20 mpg highway. Highs: Budget price. Rugged four-wheel drive. Classic styling. Lows: Cramped interior.
Low engine power. Buckboard ride.