The Jeep Cherokee might better be called Cherokee Classic.

Tall and boxy, it single-handedly triggered the beginning of the sport-utility vehicle (SUV) craze when it was first introduced back in 1984. In the ensuing 13 years SUVs have grown softer, more luxurious and more like cars, while the Cherokee struggled to keep pace because its interior was small and it lacked many of the amenities found in the newer models.

But, like Mark Twain, news of its death was greatly exaggerated, and for 1997 it continues with renewed vigor because Chrysler has spent $215 million on improvements. One drawback, however, is that while the base price is only $20,460, when equipped with many of the popular options as our test car was, the price soars to $27,330, and that puts it in competition with the plusher Grand Cherokee.

On the outside it looks much the same, despite a new grille, rounder bumpers and a liftgate that is now lighter and easier to use.

The interior is where most of the changes have taken place. Most notable is a new dash with dual airbags and a central stack of controls for heating/cooling, audio and various incidental switches. Other improvements include new door panels with lighted window switches and an optional overhead console that contains a trip computer and bins for sunglasses and garage-door opener. These additions not only liven the interior but bring its comfort level closer to that of its competitors.

The modular dash makes it easier to accommodate a right-hand-drive model for export, which is important because one out of three Cherokees built at the Toledo Assembly Plant are sold outside of North America. Cherokees are also assembled in seven other countries.

Instrumentation remains a very readable combination of white numerals on a black background with orange needles. Between the front bucket seats is a full-length center console with built-in cupholders and a large storage bin.

With a 101.4-inch wheelbase it remains snug inside, with a back seat that is hard to get into and rather crowded once you're there. Credit the small back doors and intruding wheel arches for the difficulty of getting in back.

Luggage space is tight, and made even more so by the spare tire, which is mounted inside rather than underneath or on a rear rack.

A split-folding back seat adds hauling versatility, but it is not the easiest to use.

The short wheelbase, on the other hand, makes it maneuverable in the outback, so the tradeoff becomes interior volume versus off-road functionality. Folks who want to explore rugged terrain will appreciate its mobility, even though the percentage of Jeep owners who actually take their vehicles off-road consistentlyis quite small. Most are driven around town and that is how I drove this one.

The optional 4.0-liter, six-cylinder engine is more than adequately strong. With 190 horsepower it zips through traffic authoritatively, although it does drink fuel at the rate of 15 mpg in the city and 21 mpg on the highway when equipped with the automatic transmission.

A five-speed manual is also available.

The base engine is a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder with 125 horsepower, but I would choose the larger engine for most applications.

Both engines were revised last year with aluminum pistons, and the engine block of the six has stiffened with additional ribbing.

Our test car was equipped with Jeep's Select Trac four-wheel-drive system that allows full-time, four-wheel drive, an option that is gives traction to all wheels seamlessly, which is most valuable in bad weather conditions.

Changes to the Cherokee have brought it up to snuff in terms of safety and convenience, but it remains small inside, and our well-optioned test vehicle was pricey.


The base price of our Cherokee Sport was $20,460. Options included air conditioning, power mirrors, leather-wrapped steering wheel, tilt steering wheel, ar wiper, traction lock differential, trailer towing package, power windows, power locks, keyless remote entry, AM/FM stereo with compact disc player, aluminum wheels, cruise control, fog lamps, overhead console, Select Trac system, skid plates, tow hooks, heavy duty radiator and a power driver's seat.

The sticker price was $27,330.


The basic warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: Traditionalists will love the Cherokee's simple exterior and off-road maneuverability. The new interior makes it more comfortable and safer.

Counterpoint: The back seat remains small and hard to get into, and a well-equipped model costs as much as some Grand Cherokees.


ENGINE: 4.0-liter, 6-cyl.


WHEELBASE: 101.4 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 3,153 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $20,460


MPG RATING: 15 city, 21 hwy.