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Jeep Blew It

Editor’s Note: The following essay was originally featured on THE ROCK FIGHT podcast and is available to listen to in the player below.

Today I’m picking a fight with… Jeep. Because they pissed it all away.

Why? Why Jeep? Why did you do it? The ‘it’ I’m referring to here is killing the Jeep Cherokee in 2001.

You invented the SUV category with the first civilian jeep which became the iconic Wrangler. Other car brands expanded and diluted the SUV market but the Jeep brand held an authenticity that no other could match thanks to the incredible dynamic duo of the Wrangler and Cherokee.

The Cherokee, which was Introduced as the SJ in 1975 and followed by the XJ in 1983, was the perfect complement to the utilitarian Wrangler: rugged in its own right, but with more storage and seating.

In the 90’s I had friends with Explorers, Blazers and Suburbans, but it was the Cherokee I coveted.

Look, I'm not a car guy. At all. But there is something about what we drive and how it’s inextricably tied to our personality or identity. In 1999 I had my grandmother front me a down payment and I got a 96 Cherokee Sport. Black with red pinstripes and of course, stick shift.

Because nothing says poseur more than a Jeep with automatic transmission.

After only two years of owning my Cherokee two tragedies befell the world: First Jeep killed the Cherokee and introduced the Liberty; a heinously designed vehicle that took all of the softer parts of the Jeep heritage and turned it up to 11. And secondly I traded my Jeep in for a ….big sigh… Nissan Xterra. Yeah…I know.

You just don’t understand! It was 2001! Being outdoorsy was cool and Nissan put their marketing crosshair right on my back and I admit it…I got sucked in.

Jeep has never recovered from this move. Their vehicles have gotten increasingly worse and worse every year leading to their modern day lineup which is as vanilla as it comes.

The Wrangler is the only model that has kept some of its allure even with all of its modern sensibilities (can you even get one with manual transmission anymore?); but even this classic was tainted by the introduction of the Gladiator which is the dumbest use of a pickup bed that we’ve seen since the Subaru Baja.

They brought back the Cherokee in name only. Nowhere is the boxy unique look that made the XJ great to be found, and the rest of their lineup is an actual embarrassment. To a young person today, Jeep is just another car brand making gas guzzling SUV’s and that dumb short bed pick up truck.

Does any of this matter? Not really. Jeep isn’t the first company to forget what was great about its brand in the name of widespread appeal. But there was a time when they were number 1 with outdoor enthusiasts…and then Subaru, the baja notwithstanding, came along with the Outback and a bunch of commercials starring Crocodile Dundee.

They saw the opening, they seized the crown and they haven’t looked back.

As for that Xterra? What a forgettable vehicle. I had it for 2-3 years before moving on and I regretted not keeping my Cherokee for almost every day since. But there is a happy ending to this story.

Because about 2 years ago after the acquisition of my sick new adventure van, I had the need for an ‘around town’ car. And lo <cue dramatic movie music>, just two hours up the road was a dealer who specialized in 80’s and 90’s early model SUVs.

I don’t believe in fate, cosmic forces or the impact of your star sign, but I can tell you, and this is 100% true that the first listing this dealer had on the only day I went looking was a 1996 Jeep Cherokee Sport, black with red pinstripes and a manual transmission.

And that Jeep is now sitting in my garage.

I’ve never tried to find the VIN number for the one I sold over 20 years ago, but it could be the same damn car. But you can bury me in this one because I’m keeping it until I die.

I doubt anyone driving a 2022 Renegade would say the same thing.

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