Designs of the XJ Cherokee date back to 1978 when a team of American Motors (AMC) and Renault engineers drew several sketches. A few clay models were based on the existing SJ Cherokee. Early sketches of the XJ Cherokee had a European influence, and most of the styling cues were done by AMC engineers under the direction of Richard Teague. The ongoing debate suggests that Renault sketch artists were involved right after the 1979 partnership with AMC. Noticing that General Motors was developing a new two-door S-10 based Blazer, AMC decided to design an entirely new four-door model, but worried about rollovers, Gerald C. Meyers hired one of Ford's best engineers, Roy Lunn to design what is known as the Quadra-Link suspension. François Castaing developed the drivetrain using a much smaller engine than normally found in 4WD vehicles and reduced the weight of the new model,
Both two- and four-door versions of the XJ Cherokee were offered throughout its lifetime, each having exactly the same track and wheelbase measurements. Two-door models, however, received longer doors and front seats that could fold forward to assist in rear passenger entry and exit. This was in addition to extended-length rear windows that did not open, although an optional rear vent window was available on some models. Its appearance has led some to mistakenly believe that the two-door models are a short wheelbase version of the four-door.
A variation on the Cherokee from 1984 through 1990 was the Jeep Wagoneer. These were unrelated to the similarly named full-sized Grand Wagoneer models that had carried the Wagoneer name before this point in time. The compact XJ Wagoneer was available in two trim levels: the "Wagoneer" and the "Wagoneer Limited". Both Wagoneers were distinguished from the Cherokee models by their two vertically-arranged headlights on both sides. The Wagoneer Limited came with vinyl wood trim on the sides and leather seats embossed with "Limited".
This version was the first to be sold in Europe; it was launched in 1992 in some markets, 1993 for the United Kingdom. Early versions had the 4.0 L (242 CID) six-cylinder engine only: the 2.5 L (150 CID) engine did not arrive in Europe until 1995.
In mid-1985, a two-wheel-drive version of the Cherokee was added to the line-up. This marked the first time any Jeep product was offered with two-wheel-drive since 1967, and was done in the hopes of attracting a few more buyers who didn't need (or want to pay for) four wheel drive. When the XJ Cherokee based Comanche (MJ) truck was introduced it was also available in two and four wheel drive. The new two wheel drive models shared the front suspension with four wheel drive models. Jeep simply used a single axle tube from hub to hub with no differential between, resulting in a low added cost front suspension.
American Motors's compact XJ Cherokee was to be replaced by a new and larger model known as the ZJ (later named the Jeep Grand Cherokee when introduced in 1993) that was under development by AMC. However, the smaller model's continuing popularity caused Chrysler executives to rethink this decision, and while the ZJ models were introduced in 1993, the XJ models were retained until 2001. The Jeep XJ has remained a popular choice by off-roading enthusiasts due to its potent off-roading capability in stock form. Its popularity has resulted in strong ongoing aftermarket support in the form of a wide variety of products and upgrade availability.
- 1984-1985 2.5 L, 150 CID AMC 150, Carbureted 105 hp (78 kW)
- 1986-1990 2.5 L, 150 CID AMC 150, TBI (fuel injected) 117 hp updated in 87-90 to 121 hp (90 kW)
- 1984-1986 2.8 L GM 60° LR2 V6, 110 hp (82 kW)
- 1985-1987 2.1 L Renault turbodiesel (initially sold in U.S. and until 1993 in Europe)
- 1987-1990 4.0 L, 242 CID AMC 242, 173 hp (129 kW) with Renix fuel injection system
- 1991-1996 4.0 L, 242 CID AMC 242 "High Output", 190 hp (142 kW) with Chrysler fuel injection system
- 1994-1996 2.5 L VM Motori turbodiesel with intercooler I4, 118 hp (88 kW) (sold in Europe and South America)
HP 280, LB 350