Crazy Guy's notes and ramblings about wheeling a Jeep Cherokee XJ
Ive had some people ask about my Cherokee. I dont mind questions at all, but maybe this will help you out if youre considering wheeling an XJ.
I absolutely love the XJ. I think they are every bit as versatile as a wrangler, plus they have a better wheelbase. I got a deal on mine and didnt expect to like it. I was planning to take it out on a couple trips and then throw it away. As it turned out, it worked very well from day one. Of course, as with any off roader, there are upgrades that need to be done. Obviously you want enough lift to clear whatever size tires you will run. Long arm systems work better and give a nicer ride than short arm systems, but are a lot more expensive. Roll cage, skid plates, lockers, winch etc is all pretty standard.
Particular to the XJ is the unibody construction. This can be a problem depending how you plan to use it. If you are going to wheel it hard in just about any terrain, I recommend reinforcing the unibody wherever possible. Besides the fact that the whole car will bend and then youll have trouble closing the doors, the frame rails themselves tend to get crushed. There are companies out there that make reinforcing plates for most of the unibody frame rails. I highly recommend that you buy all of these and get them welded on before wheeling. They dont fit after you crush or bend the car. If you are not planning to run doors, the bending isnt really a big issue, but eventually the rails get crushed flat and thats no good. A full roll cage also helps with the chassis stiffness. Attach the cage in as many places as possible to the body- minimum 6 points to the floor and full a-pillar dimple die plates. Mine is also attached to the b-pillar and 4 places on the roof. I would do more if I was starting over, but I really bash mine more than most people.
The D30 front is plenty strong with a locker, alloy axles and 35 tires. I have broken alloy axles, but I was being pretty stupid at the time.
The D44 rear is the only stock rear end option that makes sense. See below in things to look for for some more detail.
Cooling is an issue with these. Plan to buy the upgraded radiator. Also, bypass the stock fan switch so the electric fan comes on sooner. The stock switch comes on at around 240, which is really too late. I used a Flex-A-lite adjustable fan control. If you are running AC, the controller has a wire for that too. The stock gauge (on the 99 at least) reads 210 from a little over 180 all the way through 240- then it starts to move again. I recommend adding a real gauge.
I like my 99 auto tranny. It works at all angles, and believe me that means ALL angles. Straight up, straight down and on both sides. Some people like manuals, but for what I do, the auto is where its at. I added a transmission cooler thats about 9x12 as a precautionary measure. Along those same lines, I added a power steering cooler since I have burned up so many PS pumps in my various 4x4s.
The stock steering needs to be replaced. The stock steering is weak and death wobble is inherent in the design. Mine is working well with a drag link made from 1.25x.188 wall straight to the top of the steering arm and a tie rod under the steering arm all the way across to the other side made from 1.5x.308. I use hiem joints at the steering arms and a regular tie rod end at the pitman arm. This has served very well for several years, but the tie rod needs to be replaced on rare occasions due to rock damage. This only works with the track bar relocated above the axle and the sway bar mounts cut off the axle completely. Currie makes a good setup that will work with all the stock setup. I think Rusty's also has a good one.
To help fit big tires, run TJ fender flares. They look a lot nicer than the XJ flares and are big enough to fit 35s easily. The front will require a massive trim and the rear will be big too. They are relatively easy to install and are fairly cheap for a full set from Omix-Ada. Running with no flares is ugly. (IMHO)
The stock 2.7:1 transfer case isn't enough either. The case itself seems to be plenty strong, but it needs a 4:1 low gear. I installed the TeraLow kit from teraflex and consider it the best upgrade since the 4 liter engine. There is a 2-low kit that you can also install while you have the case apart. It's an easy install and fairly inexpensive. I didn't do it, but have several times wished that I did. Not enough to pull the case down and apart again, but certainly enough to spend the $11 or so.
Things to look for in an XJ-
An XJ is not the same as a Grand Cherokee ZJ. The ZJ has links and coils in the rear as well as the front which isnt quite as stable as the XJ with its rear leaf springs. If you are going to build a link suspension out back, the ZJ axle may save you money on a few brackets, but otherwise, its not an advantage. The ZJ also has a big gas tank that hangs way too far down due to the spare tire being in the rear cargo floor above the tank.
Get one with the D44 rear end, or plan to buy a D44 for it ASAP. The other two axle options are weaker, but the main difference is that the D44 does not have c-clip axles. If you break an axle, you can still drive. I bought a junkyard D44 for mine for about $200. It bolted in in about an hour. The happiest day was when I broke a rear axle on Pumpkin Eater and got to drive back to my trailer. Then I bought alloy axles for the rear and never broke another axle. I did eventually snap the pinion in half, but again- I was being pretty stupid at the time.
Get the 4.0 liter engine. The 2.5 isnt enough. Period. I swapped in the 4.0 from a 99 into mine, but I have unusual skills and a lot of time. They say it cant be done. It really was a big deal- buy one with the 4.0 already in it. The newer the better. I like the 99 drivetrain a lot.
Check for rust in the frame/body, of course.
Check that the framerails are nice and straight to begin with so you can add plating easily.
Get a 2 door. It will be a lot easier to make clearance for big tires in the rear. (plus they look better) If you will have rear seat passengers a lot, the 4-door is easier to get in and out of- especially if you have a full cage. I still think its worth getting the 2-door.
The most important upgrade to your rockcrawler is a change in your outlook on body damage.