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Published: 6/17/2001

End of the road for Cherokee

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER

Citizen's band radios were an option on Toledo-made Jeep Cherokees when they arrived in showrooms at $9,995: The upscale version of the model, code-named XJ, had simulated wood-panel sides.

America's vocabulary hadn't been infiltrated with the ubiquitous "SUV" label.

Seventeen years, 11 months, and seven days after the first sellable XJ was built, the 2,884,172nd and last model is expected to roll off the Toledo Jeep Parkway's assembly line Friday.

Although the Cherokee outlived crazes for CBs and faux wood -- and once helped cause people to use the name Jeep for every sport utility vehicle regardless of brand -- this week will mark the end of a model invariably described as "classic," "boxy," or "antiquated."

The Cherokee even outlasted two owners, American Motors Corp., and Chrysler Corp., but is being supplanted by an all-new compact SUV named Liberty. There were high hopes for the XJ, but its longevity and sheer numbers are surprising, admitted Jim Julow, an engineer who helped coordinate planning for the Cherokee and its one-time upscale twin, the Wagoneer.

Nearly 3 million XJs had been sold worldwide through May, including some assembled in Beijing and a half dozen other foreign spots from parts made at Toledo Jeep Assembly and elsewhere. Light trucks typically lasted six to 10 years when the Cherokee was conceived, but U.S. sales for the SUV peaked 16 years after its debut.

“The thing was a hit from day one,” said Mr. Julow, now vice president of the Dodge Global Brand Center for DaimlerChrysler AG's U.S. unit. “It has worn its age really well....

“We'll all shed a little tear in a week or so, but there's a lot of Jeep yet to come.”

For Toledo Jeep worker and Cherokee owner Duane Hughes, sadness comes from another source. Ending Cherokee production will cut about 1,420 of 5,650 permanent and temporary jobs, although retirement incentives, job sharing, and other plans should help ease layoffs.

“It's an ugly car, but it's good,” the Toledoan said. “I'm just sad about losing my job. The car itself? I get tired of looking at it. Of course, I see 400 to 500 a day, and then I come out and drive one.”

Other emotions have surfaced at dealerships and among drivers since the Cherokee's end was announced in January. In February, Rob Cunningham headed to Bowling Green Jeep and replaced his 1993 Cherokee before necessary with a 2001 model, the last of the line.

The Toledo-made Liberty wasn't on the Perrysburg man's mind when he found out the Cherokee was going the way of the Lion store, Tiedtke's, Ottawa Tavern, Buckeye Beer, and other Toledo institutions.

“I didn't think about it - there was just kind of this anger that another Toledo tradition is gone,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I wanted to buy another Cherokee for the value, and I just love it.”

The Cherokee tradition was born in late 1978, when AMC began planning the XJ behind closed doors. High gas prices, fuel shortages, and foreign competition had prompted automakers to make compact cars, but, for the most part, light trucks were unchanged from their full-sized bodies.

Helping change all that was the Cherokee, a Jeep 21 inches shorter, six inches narrower, and nearly 1,000 pounds lighter than its predecessor, which would become the Grand Wagoneer.

Market research, Mr. Julow said, showed there wouldn't be much demand for a compact SUV. Initially Jeep expected annually to sell 60,000 or so of the so-called sports wagons.

In the first full year, about 94,000 Cherokees and Wagoneers were sold in the United States and Canada, a number that would continue to grow in the 1980s and prompt production increases at Toledo Jeep. Designed to compete with the Ford Bronco II and Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, they were the only compact SUVs available with four doors and two four-wheel-drive systems.

The Cherokee's revolutionary uniframe structure, with a steel underbody welded to a light metal frame, probably gave it some additional life, Mr. Julow said.

“As it turned out, there was a whole group of consumers coming along who were looking for something that was a little more nimble and a little more right-sized,” he said. “We had a lot of high hopes for the Cherokee back then, and certainly we had to have a lot of confidence.”

Still, there were some problems with the XJs. Engineer Leonard Wu last week remembered spending a couple of months at Toledo Jeep armed with a flashlight, searching for the source of water leaks in the body that were later corrected.

Probably the biggest complaint customers have had over the years was the tight fit getting into the Cherokee's back seat. Having a rough ride prompted some grumbling too.

But the Cherokee's size, rugged capability, and design won over many drivers, Mr. Wu said.

“If you look at the vehicle, it just had the right aesthetic appeal,” said Mr. Wu, now manager of Jeep body exterior for the Cherokee and Wrangler.

Two-time Cherokee owner Owen Collins agreed. Mr. Collins in 1996 wanted a four-wheel-drive vehicle when he was commuting from Bellevue to Fostoria for his job as an engineer for Norfolk Southern railroad, and he picked the Cherokee for its design. He won't go back to cars.

“I just like the vehicle. I like the look,” said Mr. Collins, whose wife, Kathryn, now drives one. “It seems like you're on the floor now when you sit in somebody's car.”

Jeep sustained such a loyal Cherokee following by not moving upscale, said Susan Jacobs, president of Susan Jacobs & Associates automotive consulting firm in Rutherford, N.J.

“The Cherokee remained consistent with its basic concept, which was essentially to provide off-road capability in a basic vehicle,” she said. “It didn't try to chase numbers and didn't evolve. It remained focused on its core buyers.”

The larger Jeep, the Grand Cherokee, gave some Cherokee loyalists a scare when the former Chrysler introduced it for the 1993 model year. The two SUVs, however, complemented each other, said Ms. Jacobs and Dave Doster, sales manager for Ohio's largest Jeep dealership, Sylvania Township's Yark Automotive Group.

“Not everyone can afford a Grand Cherokee,” Mr. Doster said.

An emphasis on making big, elaborate SUVs as people started turning to light trucks in the 1990s made the Cherokee a favorite for buyers who wanted a moderately priced model with a proven design, said David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research at the Environmental Research Institute of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

But an influx of low-priced, compact SUVs in the last couple of years made a new Jeep critical, Mr. Cole said. Part of the reason the Cherokee lived as long as it did was that the SUV craze took off halfway through its 18-year span, he said.

“It took advantage of that,” Mr. Cole said. “It has had unusual legs.”

Cherokee sales soared to 165,261 nationwide in 1999, setting a U.S. record and surpassing the model's previous high of 10 years before when 162,655 were sold. In 1996, the Cherokee's best year worldwide, sales reached 222,277, nearly four times as many as AMC officials originally hoped for the vehicle.

The most popular versions of the vehicle sell for $22,000 to $24,000 today, about the same price range as the initial equipped models of the Liberty.

The Cherokee retained its basic look - and the name first used by Jeep in the 1970s, which will continue on the Liberty outside of North America - but improvements were made over the years.

For 1987 models, Jeep used a new I-6 engine to replace the V-6 supplied by General Motors Corp., which meant the six spark plugs were in a row instead of two rows of three plugs. The Cherokee was freshened a decade later with slightly curvier lines, dual airbags, a steel lift gate, and other features.

Some Jeep workers, dealers, and drivers contend DaimlerChrysler should tweak and keep the Cherokee, the plan folks in Auburn Hills had until two Germans were dispatched late last year to shore up the automaker's money-losing Chrysler unit. Part of the new line of thinking, with which industry experts concur, was that there isn't enough room for both the Cherokee and the Liberty.

Doubters remain.

“I thought it was a pretty good vehicle,” said Russ Whetsel of Rossford, who works at Toledo Jeep on the Wrangler line. “I'd like to see it run longer. I still think it would sell well even with the Liberty.”

Said Adel Kamal of Toledo, who works on the Cherokee line and prefers it to the Liberty: “Everybody feels bad, but there's nothing you can do about it.”

Yark Jeep hates to lose the Cherokee, but the Liberty is a worthy successor in the compact market it blazed, said Mr. Doster, the sales manager.

“You've got to move forward,” he said.



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