Jeep Cherokee XJ Build – Project Clarence

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If you love the outdoors and you love automotive – 4x4ing is a natural extension of both of those areas of interest. The idea of modifying vehicles for off-road use and camping (aka over-landing) isn’t necessarily a new concept, but it has entered a new spotlight recently.

Central to this philosophy is the idea that back country adventures can be accomplished through self-reliance on a vehicle – one that can get you places that may not be accessible to most. From the standpoint of an avid backpacker and hiker, it is another tool in the arsenal of gear that helps get you to your destination. But while an expedition is defined as a journey with a purpose, over-landing sees the journey as the purpose.

XJ and 4Runner
Behind every great XJ build was probably a 1st gen 4Runner with a winch.

This is the story of “Clearance Clarence” – the 2001 Jeep Cherokee XJ.

There are a lot of XJs out there – during 18 years of production, Chrysler built nearly 3 million of them. Some of them became rock crawlers, others evolved into mud boggers, and a great deal of them are still rolling along the road as mildly modified adventure rigs. While I’m certainly not the first to document the trials and tribulations of building and fixing a Jeep, it’s a platform that has captured the imagination of many and each build takes on a character of its own.

My goal was to have a well-rounded, dependable, durable off-road machine that was also capable of long-distance on-road trips to all of the great hiking spots in and around the Pacific Northwest – and maybe a few of the harder to reach ones.

2001 Jeep Cherokee - Before and After
Before: Nov 2016 / After: Sept 2019

In the off-road community this little sport utility vehicle set a new standard for affordable 4×4 adventuring in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I was looking for a dependable tried and true platform to build into a capable trail runner there were many great name plates to choose produced by Toyota, Jeep, Nissan, Ford, Subaru and many others, but the Jeep Cherokee XJ was a front runner for a number of reasons:

  1. Cheap – In my area (PNW) you could buy two or three bone stock XJs for the price of one 4Runner with a 22RE motor. I picked up my 2001 Jeep Cherokee with 231k miles for $3k in 2016.
  2. Capable – Out of the box you get a low range transfer case, straight axles front and rear, and a near bullet proof drivetrain with the 4.0L straight 6 motor and AW4 transmission.
  3. Extensive Aftermarket – Jeep is a huge brand in the United States off road scene and even after production of the XJ ended in 2001, vendors have continued to manufacturer parts for these trucks. Suspension, drivetrain, brakes, tires/wheels, bumpers and armor can all be acquired easily and affordably for the XJ.
  4. Community Knowledge – The internet offers a wealth of good (and bad) knowledge about cars in general. The Jeep Cherokee has such an enormous following that almost any issue you encounter someone else has already had, fixed, and documented. Everything from replacing rear main seals to fitting a winch to your front subframe.
  5. You Can Build It In Your Own Garage – Most upgrades can be done with basic hand tools at home, in your garage, with cliche beer in hand. Even some of the more advanced hardware like motor hoists and ball joint removers and spring compressors can be picked up or rented from stores like Harbor Freight for a modest fee. I’m also not a mechanic, but I am mechanically inclined and capable of doing my own research.
Let's be clear - There was no road here before this Jeep arrived.
Let's be clear - There was no road here before this Jeep arrived.

It wasn’t long before the basics were taken care of and I started noticing little things that could be improved. Here’s a list of the modifications I’ve performed:


In the front I installed the Focal Integration ISS 130 5-1/4″ component speaker system. These speakers fit the stock door mounts and were installed with XTC 5-1/4″ shallow depth speaker baffles to reduce vibrations and protect the back of the speaker.

Since tweeters were a rarely selected option in the Cherokee, they had to be custom mounted in the plastic trim piece in the door located directly behind the side mirrors. This is fairly straightforward to do and requires very minor drilling.


In the rear I installed Focal RCX-130 Auditor Series 5-1/4″ 2-way speakers. In my configuration the rear speakers have mounts which are molded into the roof panel.


For bass, I originally installed an Alpine SWA-12S4 BassLine series 12″ 4-ohm subwoofer in a BassWorx wooden enclosure.

This was later replaced with an Alpine SWA-10S4 BaseLine series 10″ 4-ohm subwoofer in a stealth enclosure by SubThump specifically designed for the cubby area in the 84-01 Jeep XJ.


Powering the front and rear speakers is an Alpine KTP-445U amplifier. It’s small, compact and is easily hidden from prying eyes. Mine is mounted behind the dash so that it’s secure and out of the way.

The subwoofer is hooked to an Alpine MRV-M250 Mono V-Power amplifier, which felt adequate for the 12″ sub but somehow doesn’t sound as good with the 10″ sub.

Re-blacked out trim.
Re-blacked out trim.
  • Plasti-dipped fender molding, plastic trim, badging, and logo pieces
    • Issue: Over time this plastic looses its blaaack-ness and begins to fade which is not aesthetically pleasing.
    • Solution: While Plasti-Dip is sometimes frowned upon for trim touch up, it worked surprisingly well for my application. Over the last 3 years there are only the tiniest signs that it’s beginning to wear around the edges.
  • Front and Rear Window Rain Deflectors by Rugged Ridge
    • Issue: Ever been on a back road in the middle nowhere in a rain storm in your vehicle? Your buddy pulls up next to you, rolls down his window and you do the same. Now you have this gaping opening in your door and sideways rain is pouring in to your lap.
    • Solution: With this kit you can easily adhere a set of tasteful deflectors to your doors to shield most of the outdoor moisture from getting inside your vehicle. This setup also allows for added security when you keep the windows cracked to allow for additional ventilation during scorching summer days.
Stage 1
JCR Front Bumper with hidden winch mount by Boostwerks
JCR Front Bumper with hidden winch mount by Boostwerks
  • JCR Offroad Crusader in bare metal with 2″ built in receiver + JCR unibody tie-in kit with steering spacer
    • Issue: The stock front bumper is a combination of plastics and thin sheet metal. It’s designed to be light-weight and, with the lower plastic molding, deliver a slight aerodynamic advantage to the front of the vehicle. To the annoyance of the off-road community the stock XJ platform did not come with front recovery points which is a weakness that most modifiers fix with a sturdy front bumper.
    • Solution: JCR’s Crusader bumper is one of the cleanest designs on the market for the XJ Cherokee and is designed to be practical and functional. With a 3/16″ thick steel structure and two 3/4″ shackle tabs the Cherokee’s frame will bend before this bumper does, which is why JCR highly recommends getting the unibody tie-in kit with steering spacer to re-enforce the connecting points that this bumper bolts to. As an added bonus there are also cut outs for 3×3 LED cube lights and hi-lift jack points.
    • Paint: To prep and paint the bumper ERA Paints offers a kit that can be color matched to your vehicle. The kit includes primer, base paint (PS5 Silverstone Metallic for my project), clear coat, gloves, tape, wipes, sandpaper, wax/grease remover, and a handheld spray nozzle.
  • Napier Precision Products – Hood Vents
    • Issue: Engine bay ventilation and heat soak become concerns when you start adding weight to a vehicle. The Cherokee’s engine and cooling system were designed for on-road travel and light-duty off-road use. I was also battling fuel injector vapor lock after extended or heavy use and with the Cherokee’s hood design all of that heat just gets trapped in the engine bay.
    • Solution: The LeBaron-style vents allow hot air to escape through the top of the hood from over 11 square inches of ventilation per vent.
Stage 2
Mountains views!
Mountains views!
  • Bushwacker Fender Flares
    • Issue: The factory-sized wheel wells on the Cherokee are not conducive to larger sized tires. Many people will either estimate their lift to clear the tire size that they want to fit or cut & fold some or all of the fender for more clearance or both. In my case, I wanted to fit 33″ tires with a 4.5″ lift and minor trimming. The other variable was that the width of my tires would be 12.5″ on a 15″ rim with 4.5″ backspacing which meant they would stick out from the Cherokee’s body a few inches, creating a roller-skate look.
    • Solution: In some regions this tire spacing may actually be illegal for street driving, for me it was a personal choice to have a wide body look. However, having wide fender flares can also protect your vehicles paint from debris that is kicked up by the tires. For my build I felt that is both a functional and aesthetic improvement to add Bushwacker’s high quality cut-out fender flares.
  • Iron Rock Off Road – Rock Sliders
    • Issue: The soft underbelly and sides of the unibody Cherokee are particularly vulnerable to damage from stumps and large rocks.
    • Solution: Adding a sturdy pair of rock sliders is a pre-emptive to avoid any significant bending or structural damage from any of the larger piece of debris that the Cherokee will be crawling over. A well engineered set of rock sliders will also increase the rigidity of the center of the vehicle.
Stage 1
  • Uniden and Firestik CB Radio Setup
    • Issue: “Hey! Stop-you’re-about-to-back-into-” *crunch* This is why it’s important to have clear 2-way communication between vehicles.
    • Solution: CB, or Citizen Band, radio has been around for a long time. Today, it’s a cheap and easy solution for mobile communication.
      • Radio Unit – Uniden PRO505XL – Cheap, functional, compact & comes with all the hardware needed to mount anywhere in the Jeep.
      • Antenna – FireStik FS-4BK 4 (r) li Fs Series 900 watt – A high quality 4 foot tunable antenna for CB radios. I can transmit and receive a clear signal even to folks with smaller antenna setups.
      • Extended coax cable – FireStik K-8R9 9 foot Fire-Flex coax cable with Fire-Ring – You will need this cable if you want an externally mounted antenna.
      • Mount – I needed the antenna to be both flexible and easily disconnect-able which required the following components:
      • SWR Meter – Workman SWR2T – Required for tunable antenna setups to properly dial in your CB radio setup and to avoid damaging the radio unit itself. Do yourself a favor and either borrow one of these from a friend or purchase one to ensure that your radio is tuned properly.
  • Rear Drum to Disc Brake conversion for Chrysler 8.25″ axles
    • Issue: There is nothing inherently wrong with the drum brakes on the XJ. It’s just that they’re a little “old school” if you know what I mean.
    • Solution: The 1994 – 1998 Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ components swap over with very little modification to the Chrysler 8.25″ axle found in the XJ. The link above provides one of the best guides to completing this swap. The benefits I noticed were:
      • Simplified future maintenance
      • Slightly improved brake feel and balance
      • This swap was significantly cheaper overall at ~$100 vs ~$600 for an aftermarket kit.
Stage 1
Ox Locker on Chrysler 8.25 with electronic shifting system
Ox Locker on Chrysler 8.25 with electronic shifting system
  • Rear electronic locking differential – Ox Locker – Chrysler 8.25 – 29 spline C-clip – all gear sets + electric shifting system
    • Issue: Anyone who has taken their open differential vehicle off-road and been in a low traction situation will encounter the “one tire fire” scenario. This happens when one tire on an axle losses traction it will spin while the other tire doesn’t move. The solution is to lock the two wheels together. There are many articles and walk-through videos on internet that describe this. While some Jeep Cherokees came with a factory limited slip differential in the rear axle this one did not. As a daily driver and touring vehicle I needed a selectable locking differential and, at the time, did not want to swap a more common axle in with more extensive aftermarket support.
    • Solution: There aren’t many options on the market for Chrysler 8.25 axles – enter Ox Locker. They make a variety of locking differentials that pair nicely with their manual, electronic, or air engagement systems. You pay a premium for these locking differentials but the added traction is significant and noticeable when things get hairy.
  • Front electronic locking differential – Eaton E-Locker – Dana 30 – 27 spline – 3.73 and up
    • Issue: For that extra bit of traction – having a front locking differential (combined with a rear locker) provides for a true four wheel drive experience. The OEM Dana 30 axle placed in the front of the Jeep Cherokee is not necessarily the best candidate for a locker – my low pinion Dana 30 27 spline is no exception – however I wanted to be able to lock the front wheels with the flip of a switch for snow, mud, and some light rock crawling.
    • Solution: Eaton is a major automotive OEM part manufacturer and therefore has a high standard for quality and longevity to uphold. This electronic locking differential for the Dana 30 could have easily been an OEM part, except the Jeep Cherokee was meant to be inexpensive and locking differentials aren’t a trivial cost. Overall I’ve been thoroughly impressed with this locker and have had zero issues. Traction is fantastic.
Coming soon!
  • Rigid Industries Truck-Lite 5″x7″ LED headlights
    • Issue: The OEM one-piece 5×7″ bulb assembly on Jeep Cherokees are not dissimilar to those gas lanterns in ye olden thymes of yore – always just a whisper away from being blown out and plunged into eternal darkness. Compared to the modern optics in todays cars and trucks, these standard headlights leave a lot to be desired.
    • Solution: Not so with the Truck-Lite LED headlights by Rigid Industries. Yes – they’re expensive. But, yes – They are the #1 upgrade I did to the Jeep early on. They produce such a crisp beam pattern that you would think they’re projectors. The light is bright and consistent and doesn’t scatter – just a clean, bright, white light in the places where you need it to be for optimal visibility. Because the beam pattern is so precise and aligned so perfectly, I’ve never had other drivers complain or flash their lights at me. The only downside is that because the LEDs do not produce much heat snow can build up around the headlight housing, but… that’s why you add fog lights and light bars, right?!
Stage 1
Rigid Industries all the way around.
Rigid Industries all the way around.
  • Rigid Industries D-series Pro spot beam 3 inch LED cubes – front
    • Issue: 1) The original fog lights in the factory front bumper provided some additional low ground illumination but pale in comparison to the more modern LED solutions on the market today. 2) The fog light holes in the JCR bumper were pre-cut for 3×3 cube fog lights.
    • Solution: To fill these holes I bolted on a pair of Rigid’s LED cubes with the spot beam pattern. At the flip of a switch I can turn night into day in whatever direction their pointing, transforming night into day and increasing visibility much further down the trail than even Rigid’s Trucklites on high beam.
  • Rigid Industries D-series Pro flood beam 3 inch LED cubes – rear
    • Issue: How many times have you been on a tight trail in the middle of the night and had to back up? You’re backing up… backing up… *crunch*. Or maybe you arrive in to camp late and want to back in to a spot. The Jeep Cherokee’s reverse light brightness, like nearly every other light on the vehicle, is modest at best.
    • Solution: Aftermarket bumpers may offer pre-cut holes for aftermarket reverse lights, but this project hasn’t reach a level where it makes sense to replace the factory bumper. So I pulled out the cutting discs and dremel and put a pair of 3×3 holes in the rear bumper to mount these lights. It was important that the lights and wiring be protected and not just bolted externally to the bumper. The result was just as extraordinary to behold in the dark as the front Rigid LEDs – the darkness just melts away.
Refreshed 4.0L with Banks header and Design Engineering fuel rail & injector insulation
Refreshed 4.0L with Banks header and Design Engineering fuel rail & injector insulation
  • Fuel rail and injector cover kit by Design Engineering
    • Issue: By design, the 4.0L motor has its header located directly beneath the air intake manifold, fuel rail and injectors. Needless to say, the amount of heat in this region of the engine bay is significant, so much so that after turning the engine off immediately after any kind of intensive engine usage, the fuel in the injectors will vaporize and cause the engine to sputter and misfire when attempting to start the engine back up. While this issue usually clears up within 15 to 20 seconds, it’s very unnerving and can trigger engine misfire codes.
    • Solution: This kit, by Design Engineering, blocks and insulates the entire fuel rail and injectors – virtually eliminating the problem.
Stage 1
Banks 51306 Torque Tube Header
Banks 51306 Torque Tube Header
  • Banks 51306 Torque Tube Header
    • Issue: There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with the OEM header, however as I was swapping out my high mileage motor with lower mileage unit from a 2000 Jeep Cherokee I decided to upgrade to a quality stainless steel header from Banks. For 2000-2001, Jeep moved to a distributor-less ignition design with a rail of coil packs on the 4.0L motor, they also updated the exhaust system to meet California emissions standards. Two additional catalytic converts were added to the end of the header. This means that this model year of Jeep Cherokee requires a slightly different header design in order to maintain this emissions standard. The Banks header product linked above is the one that fits on this model year. For older (1999 and later) Jeep Cherokees you will need the Banks 51327 Torque Tube Header.
    • Solution: The Banks header is a quality part in all respects. With some cheaper alternatives floating around the internet you hear about issues such as cracking, warped materials, fitment issues. Banks knew what they were doing when they designed and built this header for the Jeep Cherokee. Theoretically it will provide a slight power increase and better throttle responsiveness. I noticed a slightly more aggressive exhaust note with my stock muffler. The other advantage to this design is better heat dissipation.
Coming soon!
Coming soon!
Rubicon Express 4.5" Superflex Lift
Rubicon Express 4.5" Superflex Lift
  • Rubicon Express 4.5″ Superflex Lift – with short arms (removed) + Full Rear Leaf Pack + Billstein Monotube Shocks
    • Issue: Small wheel arches and unibody design require a significant lift in order to clear larger tires, unless you want to do a lot of fender trimming.
    • Solution: Perfect lift height for clearing 33″ tires with minimal trimming.
  • Rubicon Express Steering Stabilizer (removed)
    • Issue: Larger tires and a lift may have the adverse symptom of increased bump steer.
    • Solution: Integrating a properly sized hydraulic shock that connects the axle and the steering arm can decrease this issue. Ultimately, an upgraded over the knuckle steering setup allowed me to remove this from my setup.
  • Rubicon Express Sway Bar Disconnects
    • Issue: The rear sway bar is removed with the Rubicon Express 4.5″ lift kit and the front can be removed as well, but there are reasons why you might want to keep this mechanism in place. At high speed and in terms the vehicle may become less stable when sway bars are removed from the suspension equation.
    • Solution: “Quick” disconnect kits can be used to set the sway bar at the correct angle to retain stability during cornering or highway driving and also come with a dis-connectable bracket for off-road use when full wheel travel and axle movement is needed.
  • Iron Rock Off Road – Heavy Duty Over the knuckle Steering 1/2″
    • Issue: There are a few problems with the Jeep XJ’s OEM steering setup. 1) With larger tires there is increased wear on the ball joints and on aged setups a lift and larger tires can multiply the decrease in durability. 2) The materials used are thin and weak when bashed against rocks or stumps. Many XJ owners have reported bent or broken steering arms when pushed hard off road.
    • Solution: Stronger, thicker metals and improved joint design can produce a significant upgrade for your Jeep. The Iron Rock Off Road solution I installed was so good that it allowed me to remove the steering stabilizer from the equation entirely.
  • Iron Rock Off Road – Rock-Link Front 3-link Long Arm Kit
    • Issue: There are numerous videos online discussing the pros and cons of short arm vs long arms on straight axle vehicles. One of the most prominent issues I noticed with the 4.5″ lift is that the increased downward angle of the short arms transmits quite a bit more turbulence from the terrain into the vehicle. In other words, bumps just felt harder with short arms.
    • Solution: I can attest that the increased stability of a 3-link long arm on the Jeep XJ much appreciated and there is a definite improvement in comfort-ability both on road and off road. With articulation short arms certainly become a bottle neck with larger lifts, long arms remove that limitation.
33" BFGoodrich KO2 All-Terrain T/A - Pro Comp Series 69 Flat Black Alloy 15x8 - 2001 Jeep Cherokee
33" BFGoodrich KO2 All-Terrain T/A - Pro Comp Series 69 Flat Black Alloy 15x8 - 2001 Jeep Cherokee
  • Tires – 33″ BFGoodrich KO2 All-Terrain (33×12.5xR15)
    • Issue: The factory tires were adequate for highway cruising and gravel roads but traction and differential clearance become weak points of the smaller, all-season tires.
    • Solution: In order to improve ground clearance and traction while still retaining stock axle strength and maintaining highway drive-ability a 33″ all-terrain was the logical choice. BFGoodrich’s KO2 is a proven tire design that does 90% of what I need it to do on pavement, snow/ice, and mud. For the remaining 10%, there’s always the BFG KM2 or KM3 mud terrain.
  • Wheels – Pro Comp Series 69 Flat Black Alloy (15×8″)
    • Issue: The factory Jeep wheels did not have the required backspacing to fit a larger tire.
    • Solution: Pro Comp makes a durable, light-weight wheel and a simple design for easy cleaning. At 16lbs, 3.75″ backspacing, and a 5 x 4.5″ bolt pattern this wheel is a overall improvement to the factory wheels. Steel wheels are a better option when wheel damage occurs. Typically steel can be bent back into place easier than aluminum alloy, but because this Jeep is not rock climbing or stump jumping it’s a highly unlikely situation. I also carry a spare which is easier to swap on in order to get moving again.
  • Lug Nuts – Pro Comp BLAAACK Nuts
    • Issue: Why not?
    • Solution: Color goes with the wheels.
Showing 3 comments
  • Anonymous

    great article. Waiting for the (coming soon) to come 🙂

  • CookAnderson


  • Anonymous

    so cool. The XJ has always been on my list as a potential project.

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