A blue 2021 Jeep Cherokee is off-roading in dirt.

Evolution of the Cherokee

The 2021 Jeep Cherokee is riding onto the market as a reliable vehicle for a low price, offering impressive technology and capability all wrapped up in surprising comfort and efficiency. By all accounts, it is a great small crossover that provides a lot of value to the everyday driver. But the modern Cherokee is only the pinnacle of a long line of vehicles, and the arc of the Cherokee is largely the arc of the everyday utility vehicle. Over time the Cherokee has gotten leaner in stature but far more robust in terms of technology and opulence. From a full-size full-frame truck to a compact and sleek unibody crossover, this is the evolution of the Cherokee.

The SJ

The original Cherokee was a sporty version of the spacious and luxuriant Wagoneer. With only two doors, the SJ generation of Cherokee was aimed at younger and more adventurous buyers than the upscale Wagoneer it was largely based on. The new Cherokee enticed those younger buyers with elegant, up to date styling that still looks good today. That it was still capable off-road was simply icing on the cake.

The Cherokee was part of the blossoming Jeep lineup that provided not just rugged and supremely capable off-roading machines to the masses, but a growing number of comfortable, plush, and stylish vehicles to those who had a taste for them. The sporty SUV proved to be a success. Over time, the SJ generation Cherokee gained several variants, including wide-track variants that offered more stability on rough terrain and four-door models that made getting in and out that much easier.

The SJ also represents the end of an era in terms of what powered American automobiles. Introduced before the American auto industry could fully respond to the oil crisis, the SJ was first released with the option of an enormous 6.6-liter V8 engine. This is the largest displacement engine ever put in any production jeep, even to this day. This huge 401 cubic inch beast allowed the original Cherokees to easily outrun just about any other truck of the era but was terrible in terms of both efficiency and emissions.

The modern 2021 Cherokee features multiple engine options that outperform the staggering 401 V8, including one that is less than a third the size of the old muscle car engine. Times and technology change, but some things are timeless. The modern Cherokee is still no performance slouch in its class, and the Sporty Utility Vehicle nomenclature that the original SJ Cherokee popularized is still very much with us.

The XJ

A wood-paneled 1991 Jeep Cherokee is parked in front of red dirt at sunset.

The next Cherokee would not be surprised by the oil crisis but instead, be built largely by lessons learned from it. In many ways, it was one of the earliest crossovers, as it was built with a unibody design far more efficiently engineered than the original SJ Cherokee. The XJ included the legendary 4.0-liter inline-six that quickly became synonymous with torque and effortless reliability and matched very well with the new lighter and more streamlined chassis architecture.

While the underpinnings were ever more optimized, the styling of the XJ was not what one would call streamlined. Despite the second generation Cherokee’s small stature, the little compact SUV turned-crossover was buff, with thick angular lines that belied the leaner machine’s still impressive strength. The XJ’s available 4.0-liter inline-six engine was not quite as powerful as the huge V8 that was an option in the SJ generation, but it brought more than enough torque to muscle out of almost any situation, even off the road. In addition, it was a lot more reliable than the previous generation’s bulky V8 and had a lot less weight to move around.

While the engine options, styling, and reliability of the XJ are all impressive, the most notable aspect of the vehicle that the modern Cherokee inherited was unibody construction. Introduced to Cherokees in the XJ generation, one of the first SUVs to sport it in general, this type of vehicle construction uses the body of the vehicle as a stressed member, doing away with the extra weight of the old ladder frame design. Thanks to the XJ, the modern Cherokee is much lighter than it otherwise would be.

The Liberty

The KJ and subsequent KK models are part of the Cherokee lineage, even though they did not have the Cherokee name in the American market. These Jeeps introduced more and more car-like features to the Cherokee heritage, as the “crossover” designation became more common to describe the segment the Cherokee had played a large part in pioneering, just like the SUV segment it spawned from.

Crossovers are essentially SUVs built like modern cars. Instead of the bulky frame-based trucks of before, modern crossovers are built with unibody construction, like the XJ Cherokee. The KJ and KK models, called Liberty when sold in the US market, added such technological improvements as rack and pinion steering, aluminum cylinder heads, and updated safety equipment. The KJ and KK models provided the car-like refinement to the Cherokee heritage that would only be improved upon in the current version of the Cherokee.

A red 2011 Jeep Liberty is towing a boat past a lake at sunset.

The KL- The 2021 Jeep Cherokee

The modern KL-generation Jeep Cherokee is a surprisingly powerful unibody-built crossover that features the same refined driving experience as a well-built passenger car. While vehicles bearing the Cherokee name have evolved over time, their purpose as rather luxurious daily driven adventure vehicles remains the same.

The 2021 Jeep Cherokee features several engines, including a torquey 2.0-liter turbocharged unit and the renowned Pentastar 3.2 liter V6. These represent the most powerful engines put in a Cherokee, making more power than even the enormous 6.6-liter 401 V8 of the ’70s. It should be noted that the modern Cherokee is not only more powerful than the original but weighs a thousand pounds less.

A full suite of driver aids, infotainment technology, and cabin amenities keep long trips feeling short. Available technology includes an 8.4-inch color touchscreen with navigation, automatic dual-zone temperature control, an in-dash 7-inch screen to display vehicle status and environmental conditions, a power liftgate, and a premium Alpine speaker system. A dual-pane panoramic sunroof is available that turns almost the entire roof of the Cherokee into a beautiful tinted skylight.

Highly efficient front-wheel drive and surprisingly capable all-wheel drive variants of the 2021 Cherokee are available, depending on what you would prefer. In both cases, an advanced 9-speed ZF transmission works to improve fuel economy and power delivery at all times. The Cherokee has come a long way, but in many ways still provides the same comforts, style, and performance it always has.

An Evolution to Greatness

The legacy of the Jeep Cherokee is alive and well in the 2021 model. Almost half a century of development, improvement, and continued popularity have made the 2021 Cherokee one of the most impressive crossover vehicles on the market. This is certainly no surprise, as in many was the Cherokee was the first crossover vehicle on the market, predating the trend and being so capable few non-enthusiasts realize even today that the XJ generation was built like a car. But that’s what Jeep does. Improve, persist, optimize, and consistently impress. That’s certainly what the Jeep Cherokee has done, and the 2021 Jeep Cherokee is all the proof you’ll ever need.