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.

Jeep XJ with Rigid Industries Headlight Upgrade
There's nothing like having a new pair of eyes to see at night.

It wasn’t long before the basics were taken care of and I started noticing little things that could be improved.

Front

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.

Rear

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.

Sub-woofer

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.

Amplifiers

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.

Stock
  • 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 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 and, from a purely functional standpoint, this is a weakness.
    • 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 I highly recommend 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.
  • 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
  • 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.
Stock
  • 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 – Coming soon!
Coming soon!
Stock
  • 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 – Coming soon!
Stock
  • 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 – Coming soon!
Coming soon!
Coming soon!
Coming soon!
Coming soon!

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