By on June 23, 2007

If you’re looking for someone to blame for the whole yuppie-SUV fad, look no further. Back when I was bouncing over Rocky Mountain off-road trails in my VW bug, I sneered at actual Jeeps. And when I headed out across the desert in my Dodge van, I (almost) never missed having four-wheel drive. The moment we became city folks with kids, we just had to have a genuine 4X4 SUV.

When we were first married, Stephanie and I would jump in the van and head for the woods or desert every weekend. But when the two rug-rats appeared (not so mysteriously), it wasn’t so easy anymore. We spent most weekends at the park, zoo or beach. Turns out there’s nothing like feeling trapped in the city to make you a sucker for the scale-the-Himalayas SUV marketing fantasy.

Initially, I was infatuated with the idea of an International Scout, then available with a turbocharged Nissan diesel engine. But it was too gnarly for Stephanie to take seriously as a kiddie-taxi. Not for the first time in my life, fantasy outstripped practical reality.

But Detroit was reading my mind; they launched a wave of civilized cute-utes. In 1983, a Ford dealer leased us a fresh-as-a-filly Bronco II for six months, in exchange for TV ads. Within ten blocks of handover, I was ready to take it back.

Driving the Bronco was like riding a unicycle; staying upright was a constant struggle. The combination of a short 94” wheelbase, swing-axle front suspension and a high center of gravity turned out to be… challenging (deadly for others). As a practiced unicyclist, I eventually got the hang of keeping the Bronco upright, but I was never fond of vertigo.

After six months, I sent the lil’ Bronc back home, hopefully to grow up. We checked out the newly-released Jeep Cherokee (XJ). One short test drive and– predictably enough– we bought it on the spot. Compared to the Bronco, the Cherokee handled like a Ferrari.

Though launched four years after John Travolta’s hard hat days and honky-tonk nights, the Cherokee was the fuse that led directly to the explosion of four-wheeled Urban Cowboys. Virtually overnight, our pre-school parking lot was full of Cherokees. And I gotta say, the Jeep was a brilliant piece of kit.

At 3100 lbs, the Cherokee was a featherweight by today’s bloated standards. [A 4,225 lbs. Jeep Liberty? Don’t try to tell me that air bags weigh half a ton.] Foreshadowing the current trend, the Cherokee was a unibody SUV, and a tough one at that. With solid axles and a Quadra-Link suspension up front, it could hop boulders with genuine élan.

I never got into four-wheeling as a sport; ours was bone-stock. But that didn’t stop us taking long rambling trips throughout the West, getting as close to lost as possible. I always carried detailed maps that showed unimproved roads and trails. Usually, there weren’t any “consequences.” But we sure came close.

We were heading for Bryce Canyon National Park from the south. The only roads into Bryce are from the north; it was going to be one Hell of a detour. But one of my maps indicated a faint line. Good enough for me. We worked our way higher and higher into exquisitely pristine back country. Eventually our “road” became a steep trail. Then we started crossing banks of snow in the shadows.

It was late in the day. The spring-time snow became deeper, the trail steeper. I figured that backing down was riskier than keeping up our speed. So I kept the hammer down and maintained enough momentum to crash through the ever bigger snow banks. We had no sleeping bags, shovel, or winch. But we did have two little kids.

I didn’t stop sweating bullets until we reached the top.

Of course, most of the Jeep’s miles were racked up less eventfully, bombing down the freeways of LA. After we moved to Oregon and sold the Benz, the Jeep became my car.

Oregon is a back-roads paradise. The boys and I took full advantage of our new-found freedom. We’d “get lost” in the high desert and mountains for weeks at a time.

Ah, memories— bought and paid for at the pump. Yes, the Cherokee certainly conformed to the old stereotype of Indian thirst; there were times when I wondered if I’d ever left the service station. And despite slurping gas prodigiously through its miserably complicated carburetor, the Chevy-sourced 2.8-liter V6 was a pokey turd.

And after 15 years and almost 200k miles, the Cherokee began to show the effects of its endless abuse. Right to the end, it was happy drifting on Oregon’s endless gravel logging roads.

We finally replaced it in 1999 with a Subaru Forester. So you can blame us for starting the CUV fad too.

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27 Comments on “Auto-Biography 22: Bury My Jeep at Wounded Knee...”


  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    I bought a 4 cylinder Cherokee in 1985. I still have it sitting in my back yard with a canoe on top and all the camping gear in it.

    It sits every year until the following spring and off the kids and I go on canoe trips. A little over 200k miles and it still performs well ( if you don’t drive over 65) for the little 4 banger.

    It’s a shame they took the utility out of SUVs. The little Cherokee still does what it was designed for vastly better than it’s newer more expensive brethren.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Seriously, all the knowledge in this group and no one can really explain our overweight vehicles?

    Seems to me that most of the new tech is actually lighter. Steel wheels are rarer, unibody is more common. What is it and why?

    Crash protection? Is it really more heavy than the old steel bumpers? Electronic sensors? huh? AC? Aren’t newer AC units lighter?

    Yes, higher HP engines weigh more, and make the whole car weigh more to handle the power, but is that totally responsible?

  • avatar
    chuckR

    What Landcrusher says. Whats the weight of a four banger vs a big 6 or 8? How about big alloys and big tires vs steel rims and moderate sized tires? Whats a guess on weight added by merely stretching or widening the body an inch?
    Just where the heck is the weight?

  • avatar
    NICKNICK

    Good questions–
    In my vehicle the weight difference between the four cylinder and the V6 is 100lbs. NBD.
    The steel wheels were 25lbs, the alloys 21lbs. The difference between 15″ alloys and 17″ alloys was less than TWO pounds per wheel and tire combination. No weight there.

    If an airbag unit were made entirely of steel (a steel brick), and it ain’t, it would weigh about 10 pounds. Also, no probalo.

    My entire Dell desktop weighs in the neighborhood of 20 lbs–you can’t tell me the computer equipment in a car weighs more.

    Seats are still made of foam. twice as much foam is still negligable weight.

    Can’t be thicker body panels–my doors and hood and roof cave just from sponge pressure when washing.

    Hmmm…well, uranium is quite dense. Maybe the Yucca mountain thing fell through and the gov’t is hiding nuclear waste in our cars…

    How *DID* they get compact cars to gain 50% in 20 years?

  • avatar
    poltergeist

    Just a few things that add considerable weight to “most” new cars.

    Side impact door beams and increased front/rear structure for crash-worthyness. The thin steel skin on the outside means little compared to the beefed up roof pillars and energy absorbing “crumple zones” that all cars have now.

    Power seats. I’m amazed at how much heavier the 8-way power seat is than the manual one in a late model Accord. It’s virtually a two person job to lift one out of the car. I’d est. it’s at least 2-3 times heavier.

    These 16-17-18 inch wheels that we all must have now are substaintially heavier than the 13-14-15 inchers that were once the norm. Not to mention the “run-flat” wheels/tires that we’re seeing now. I’ve weighed an ’05 Odyssey Touring PAX rim/tire and they’re over 80lbs each!!!

    Don’t forget ABS/SRS is standard in most cars now. Remember that it’s not just the components, it’s additional wiring/sensors etc.

    All the stuff we “expect” in new vehicles today does add up.

  • avatar
    ejacobs

    The story reminds me of the souped-up black Jeep Cherokee racing along the Oregon beach in “The Goonies.”

    My parents had a 1986 S-10 Blazer with the same 2.8 V6 (I believe it had fuel injection by then), and holy cow was it a gas-sucking dog. However, it actually was very reliable.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    This is my favorite Auto-Biography to date.

    Long, long ago, in the single days, I did go fairly well off-road with friends in their 4WD vehicle (I drove some of the bad parts) and I remember it fondly but…

    Now I’m married, family, job, etc, etc, I’m now a creature of the ‘burbs and although I still harbor a secret desire for a 4WD vehicle, I find it hard to justify the extra expense, diminished fuel economy and, so far, as a family, we have found all the places we wanted to go camp are accessible via minivan – and then we hike.

    So, the Southern trail into Bryce is closed to me but I guess I don’t miss the experience enough and maybe Paul Niedermeyer was crazy to try it, anyway.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    I would love to have a Chrysler engineer do an analysis of the 1200lbs weight difference between the old Cherokee and the Liberty. It’s not the engine; todays engines have lots of alloy, and are generally lighter. I’m sure some of it can be explained, but I think they got lazy on watching the weight, like a lot of Americans. Don’t forget the Cherokee was engineered in part by Renault, and they wanted it light.

    KixStart: It would have been ok in the summer; we did it over Easter break, and the snow in the shaded parts was the problem.

  • avatar
    rpn453

    Vehicles today are larger, safer, more powerful, and have more features packed into them. It’s no mystery where the weight is coming from. The engineers are doing the best they can to keep weight down at a reasonable cost. I suspect that this Jeep would not do well in a major accident by today’s safety standards.

  • avatar

    Loved that ramble up the mountain in the Jeep. Your kids must have had a wonderful childhood.

    I had one somewhat similar experience. I used to have a ’77 Toyota Corolla. Where I go on Cape Cod in the summer, there are loads of dirt roads. I was happy to explor them in the Corolla in the early ’90s, because I was never worrying about the car’s getting scratched up. My mother loved to ride with me. She was crippled and couldn’t do this sort of thing on her own, and my father wasn’t that wild about it. So one time we spent several hours exploring dirt roads. Ended up goign down one with an awful lot of brush in the middle. I drove further and further, and the road got dicier and dicier, and I was worried that I was going to hit a rock (which I wouldn’t have been able to see) and tear open the oil pan. At length, I stopped. No place to turn around. I backed up over a mile. My mother loved it.

    On the weight issue, I don’t get it. I d’nt have power seats, but if they were going to add a lot of weight, I’d avoid getting them. My ’99 Accord weighs 3200 and something. Comparably sized cars weigh 400-600 lbs more. My old ’93 Saturn weighed 2450. Most compmarable cars weigh around 2700-3k now. Besides the power equipment, what is it???!

  • avatar
    thx_zetec

    The weight gain is amazing. Here is my explanation:

    1. Extra weight cascades: say you make front seats 50 lb heavier each to add power features, this is 100 lb. Now you need heavier floor stamping and fasteners to keep the seat in place, 2 lb per seat, now you are 100 + 4 = 104 lb. The old suspension now needs to be beefed up, add 20 lb now 124 heavier. Oops need a bigger motor and tranny, add 10 lb, up 134 lb. Now wheels and tyres are not adequate, all 2 lb at each corner 8 total, now 134 + 8 = 142 lb. The cycle repeats with smaller increases – example now suspension must be 1 lb heavier to hual the bigger motor etc, and don’t forget you need gas tank 1 gallon bigger which adds a 1 lb. Oh – yeah – and heavir bumpers add 5 lbs front and 5 lbs back.

    2. The cube law: making something 10% bigger in length, width, height will add over 30% to mass.

    3. Chasis Rigidity: In the 80′s, 90′s having “tight” chasis was all the rage – this adds weight. Those vault-like german cars weight as much as a, er, vault.

    4. Economics: Cars today were designed ~5 years ago. When gas is $1.50 per gallon there is little incentive to substitute lighter materials. You can lighten a design but every lb costs. Imagine you sell a car with 1 more mpg but costs $2,000 more than competitor – who sells the most?

    5. Crap (well stuff – one man’s stuff is another man’s crap). Spoilers (totally useless), power seats, safety stuff/junk, bigger wheels and tyres, higher quality interior appearance (no cheap plastic), stability control (to compensate for the fact that people love high center of gravity), “nav”.

    6. Electrical: The electrical complexity of cars has increased exponentially. I read a typical car has 60 lb or copper in wire, figure equal amount in insulation.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    zetec nailed a lot of it. One more thing that can be added is that most folks simply don’t care. Even with $3 gas we still have plenty of near-Cadillac sized Camrys and full-sized pickups flying off the shelves.

    Today’s compact SUV’s are often larger and heavier than a mid-sized SUV just seven years ago. zetec’s implicit comment about redesigning benchmarks and standards taking place in the early part of the development process is spot on.

    I actually have owned a grand total of one SUV, and it was an old school one that falls far short of today’s standards and expectations. It’s a 1988 Isuzu Trooper with the 4-cylinder, 5-speed and 120k original miles. It cost all of $650, has an a/c unit that couldn’t make your finger cold in the 90+ degree Georgia summers, and has all different types of unique guttural noises when you drive it. It’s an absolute blast and I especially enjoy the fact that the frame and body will probably last as long as yours truly.

    I could bring it back to spec, but that would really mean nothing to me. It’s the modern equivalent of the old pick-up truck that everyone wants until they actually realize that airbags and CD players don’t come standard. Even though it sucks on the highway and is always a handful, there are few vehicles that offer such joy on the one lane roads of Georgia at such slow speeds.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    Great read. My family and I are currently on our annual road trip through big state country. This year we’ll hit Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. As I write, I am only a couple hours from Bryce Canyon, although there is no snow anywhere to be seen.

    Our steed of choice is our ’05 Liberty. Driving our Accord would have saved us about $150 in gasoline and an hour or so of time, since I don’t like to cruise with the Jeep any faster than about 80 mph.

    But we consider the price well worth the sacrifice. The off-road capability opens a whole world of places to go and things to do – and we do go and do do.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    As for the Cherokee’s (Liberty’s) weight gain, all you have to do is drive the two vehicles back to back to appreciate that Jeep put the weight to good use (mostly). The original Cherokee’s were lightweight tin cans – and they drive and feel that way (I car pool every day with a guy who owns a 2000 Cherokee in good condition).

    The improvement in on-road manners, quality, and comfort is astounding (and the Liberty is no Lexus). Purists hate the additional lbs. but for the rest of us, the Liberty’s weight gain is well worth it.

  • avatar
    seldomawake

    Great read!

    Just my $0.02: I really enjoyed my time in a Bronco II. Mind you, I wasn’t driving.

  • avatar
    Seth

    I have a 2007 Mitsubishi Outlander 4wd XLS model. It weighs a whopping 3600 lbs and has more luxury/sport features than a mercedes from a decade ago. Its amazing how far an SUV has come. Oh and it gives 23 mpg. I guess CUVs are here to stay until diesel versions arrive.

  • avatar
    GEMorris

    Wow, so the 2.8 was sourced from Chevy, learn something new every day.

    I was sure it was the same PRV V6 that was in the eagle premier, and that Jeep had snagged it from Renault during their dealings with them. The PRV6 was a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo co-designed 90 degree v6, talk about weird. It’s probably most famous for being the propulsion unit of the Delorean

  • avatar
    mrdweeb

    Most people credit the K-car (and government guaranteed loans) with saving Chrysler’s hide, but the Cherokee brought Jeep to the ‘burbs and cash to the coffers.

  • avatar

    Thanks to thx_zetec for the explanation of the weight gain. That’s exactly the inverse of the point Amory Lovins makes: that when you start to take weight off of a car, it cascades, so that eventually you lose the need for things like power steering (my old Toyota Corolla weighed less than 2k lbs, and had a 1200cc engine, and the steering was light as a feather), power brakes, etc.

  • avatar

    When my dad bought our 84 Cherokee in 87, he made sure to get the 4cyl for this very reason. Then he proceeded to put an older mechanical carb from an AMC on it to eliminate the computer.

    Although come to think of it, I think the computer had already eliminated itself, so it was either replace that or switch to the mechanical carb.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Most people credit the K-car (and government guaranteed loans) with saving Chrysler’s hide, but the Cherokee brought Jeep to the ‘burbs and cash to the coffers.

    True but irrelevant. Chrysler had come out of its financial troubles by 1988 when they acquired Jeep. When the K car and the mini van came out in 1984 Jeep was a part of either AMC or Renault.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    As for the cause of weight gain in vehicles, I think much of it has to do with size. Look at a 1976 Honda Civic and it’s modern namesake and you’ll see what I mean. I think you could put a ’76 Civic into the trunk of on 07 Civic.

    It’s even worse with trucks. My 1985 Toyota 4×4 pickup was about 2/3 the size of the monstrosity that the Tacoma has become. I guess that’s why the 1985 could give me 25mpg even with the old-tech 22r carbureted motor. Of course, it had no power steering, no AC, no radio, and a thin vinyl bench seat (which nevertheless was able to take me on long trips without any serious fatigue.)

    I think we’ve become spoiled when it comes to what is “neccessary” on our cars.

    50 years ago a heater was optional on some cars and trucks. My family always thought AC was a wasteful extravagance, even when we lived in the humid DC suburbs. Radios didn’t become standard until the 60′s, tape decks didn’t become standard until the 80′s. Road noise was accepted as simply part of the driving experience and it wasn’t that long ago that power windows were an extravagance only found on luxo-barges.

    Nowadays anything that doesn’t have dual-zone climate control, surround-sound MP3 with enough power to deafen, power windows/door locks/RKE, powered leather seats, and a dense core of sound-deadening insulation is considered barbaric. What people haven’t realized is that all this luxury comes at a price and that price is weight. It’s not any one thing, it’s all of the above, and more, that have added to the weight of our vehicles.

  • avatar
    LK

    I have to go to an all-afternoon meeting, but I wanted to make a few quick comments:

    Part of the reason the Liberty is heavier is that it has IFS, which is heavier than the Cherokee’s solid front axle & link/coil suspension design. Plus, on the Liberty the engineers spent a lot of time trying to reduce NVH – for example, they have a huge mass damper on the rear axle. There’s also a lot more sound insulation, and the front structure is much stronger for good crash test ratings. The Liberty was a response to smaller cute-utes like the RAV4, but the only way the Jeep folk could make it drive (somewhat) like a cute-ute but still go off-road was to add a LOT of weight.

    That being said, I’ve driven both and consider the Cherokee to be the superior vehicle. Better off-road, lighter, faster, more MPG, and it handles better at the limit (the Liberty might drive like a car, but it’s very top-heavy and doesn’t really like to change directions).

    One of the drawbacks with the Cherokee was the poor front crash-test results – it’s not a good idea to combine a weak front end/bumper structure with an inline-six that provides very little crush space. IIRC, they had to install an offset electric fan because there wasn’t enough room to put a normal (at the time) belt-driven fan between the block and radiator. So, if you plan to run into anything the Liberty is the better choice. But, the Liberty is more likely to roll over…so it somes down to if you’re a crasher or a swerver.

  • avatar
    Steve_K

    My wife has a Jeep Liberty, and I can tell you that extra ton or so has been a complete waste. Gas mileage from the slow 3.7 V6 is 2 mpg higher than my S10 ZR2 4×4 pickup with the 4.3 V6, and depreciation is much more rapid. The engine is noisy, and not in a fun way like the 4.0 I6 Cherokee mill. Road noise still invades the cabin. Hell even the blower fan is a beast. Despite coil springs in the rear and struts up front, you’d swear this bouncy thing had two live axles and leaf springs. Sharp corners are a cause for alarm, yet the Lib sports little ground clearance. I wouldn’t dream of taking it offroad with those weenie suspension links. It’s been surprisingly reliable though; only issues in 3 years/110k miles have been the “Part-time” indicator light and the low fan speed resistor.

  • avatar
    Steve Biro

    God, how I miss the old Cherokee! Especially with two doors and manual transmission. By the way, Jeep says the new Patriot weighs 3104 lbs with an automatic transmission. Not too bad by today’s standards. Remember: 3000 pounds if the new 2000 pounds.

  • avatar
    Glenn 126

    Paul, way back in my teen years, my best pal ran beetles – and he rigged up one with two very big, very soft tires from some kind of military aircraft on custom wheels – we’d drop the PSI to about 10 in the rear, and go “boonie-ing” in the back woods of northwestern Michigan. He warmed the 1600 motor to oh maybe 70 hp as well and added a baja bug kit (or should that be subtracted the sheetmetal to resemble a baja bug?)

    We managed to drag a Jeep CJ out that’d gotten stuck WAY back in the two-tracks (totally embarrassing the dude who’d stuck it), and one time, when my pal was out alone, he came across this guy running towards him in the nude (!) waving his arms and screaming to stop, totally frantic. He did stop – it ended up that this guy and his girlfriend had literally hiked to the middle of nowhere, they went skinnydipping, she’d dived into a shallow spot and broken her back. She was also nude. The two men wrapped her up, carried her to the beetle and my pal carefully – and very slowly – drove out of the woods and got her to hospital. Thankfully, she survived and was not parilyzed. (This was before there were any choppers for medical evac – the mid 1970′s – and no motorized ambullance could have possibly gotten back to where they were).

    Ah memories.

    As for vehicle weight, look at the weight of one of the safest cars engineered in the late 1970′s, the (unknown to Americans and volvo-eque looking) Volkswagen K70.

    106″ wheelbase, 1.8 liters (by 1973-4-5), front wheel drive, inboard disc brakes in front with 3 (redundant) brake circuits, 2 for front and 1 for rear drums, crumple zones, a massive 26 cubic foot trunk, plenty of room for 5, autobahn performance (considering it’s bluff look and 1.6 or 1.8 litres), hemispherical combustion chambers, overhead camshaft (chain not belt driven), alloy head, alloy transmission and oil pan, and it weight in at about 2400 pounds.

    Add air bags, ABS etc. and you’ll add 50 pounds or less.

    So what excuse do the modern car engineers have, other than sheer laziness?

    My Prius has about the room of that K70, 106″ wheelbase, has 140 pounds of traction batteries and weighs 2900 pounds, the lightest car of it’s (interior) size now “out there”.

  • avatar
    Glenn 126

    Sorry, the Volkswagen K70 was engineered in the late 1960′s, let’s bring back the edit function?!

    The car wasn’t even engineered by VW, but by NSU, which VW bought and merged with Audi. The K70 may be seen here, if you care.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_K70

    http://web.telia.com/~u31614134/eK70.html


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