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The original SUV that also convinced suburbanites to abandon their station wagons for something more stylish and trendy.
Jeep quite literally invented the sport utility vehicle with the Cherokee. Not only was it the first vehicle of its type, but it was Jeep's marketing people who invented the term. It is a vehicle type, along with crossovers, which is now a staple on our roads, but the Cherokee went through a long process of evolution before it become today's suburbanite must-have. And unlike some other SUVs, the Cherokee actually had some decent utility credentials.
The SUV might have risen to prominence in the Nineties, but the Cherokee can trace its lineage all the way back to 1963. It was in this year that Jeep first unveiled the Wagoneer, a 4x4 with a raised but carlike body, and more importantly, a carlike interior. There were other vehicles at the time with roughly similar bodies, but these had stripped out and strictly utilitarian interiors, and the Wagoneer is generally regarded as the first "luxury" 4x4. It predates the Range Rover by seven years, and always sold in much bigger numbers. The Wagoneer's body-on-frame platform was shared with Jeep's Gladiator pickup, and it drove very much like a pickup.
Nonetheless, those who lived in areas where some kind of truck was needed loved finally having the option of a vehicle which was actually comfortable. The Wagoneer would prove so popular that it would enjoy a 28-year production run. The Cherokee would first appear in 1974 and was essentially a sport trim of the Wagoneer. It is in Jeep's sales material from that same year that we find the first use of the term "sport utility". For the first several years it was available only as a two-door, as a way to emphasize the sportiness, although it remained very truck-like. It was offered with either an inline-six or a V8, and with the V8 it was one of the fastest 4x4 vehicles in its class.
It was the first vehicle to win Four Wheeler magazine's Achievement Award, which would later become the Four Wheeler of the Year Award. The highly capable off-roader with a car interior made for a popular vehicle, but the vehicle was still heavy and difficult for many to drive. It still wasn't ready for mainstream success. A new and more mainstream Cherokee was designed in 1978, but it wasn't until 1984 that Jeep would actually debut the new vehicle. It is this Cherokee, the 1984 XJ Cherokee that is the most historically significant. Gone was the body-on-frame construction, replaced by a lighter unibody design.
This also brought with it more carlike handling and improved fuel economy. The Cherokee was seen as a way to have it all, and for the first time, a 4x4 vehicle was replacing standard cars for the average car-buying member of the public. The popularity of the Cherokee got a boost in mid-1985 when a rear-wheel-drive version debuted as a lower-cost option for those who had no need for 4WD. In 1992, Jeep came out with a police version, which was followed by several other fleet versions. It proved to be hugely popular with government and law enforcement, and a special version was even built for the USPS.
It was with this generation that the Grand Cherokee (essentially a replacement for the aging Wagoneer, introduced in 1993) would debut, adding a bit more practicality and with it, more market appeal. Jeep would also finally become a real presence in Europe, Latin America and China with the XJ Cherokee. It was a real hit worldwide. Automobile magazine would name the Cherokee one of the 20 greatest cars of all time, and it's easy to see why. The Cherokee would spawn a whole host of imitators, and it was plainly the vehicle which got the SUV trend rolling.
The Ford Explorer probably deserves some credit for making the SUV the family vehicle of choice, but this never would have happened had the Cherokee not paved the way. It is also the vehicle which made Jeep what it is today. Sure the Wrangler is a more pure form of Jeep, but nothing before or since has made money for the marque the way the Cherokee/Grand Cherokee has. Officially, the Cherokee was replaced by the Liberty, but this was actually still sold overseas as the Cherokee, and now that Liberty production shut down a couple of months ago, the Cherokee nameplate might be reintroduced.
Liberty sales were in decline for years, and Jeep seems to be hoping that reviving the old nameplate will bring back some of the customers they have lost. This is possible, but no matter what, the Cherokee's place in the history books is secure. Though it might seem now as though the SUV trend would have been inevitable, it is very possible that the viability of the vehicle type would never have been realized were it not for the success of the Cherokee. It surely left the automotive world a different place.