For years, the Jeep Cherokee was Chrysler’s sole official police car; it was surprisingly competitive against the Ford Crown Victoria, though it had been developed on a tight budget and ran with a straight-six rather than a V8.
People within Chrysler had been trying to get a police version of the popular SUV for years, but were told the Diplomat and Gran Fury would meet all Chrysler’s fleet needs — the two "M bodies," indeed, had over 80% of the market for some years. Still, some police departments had been buying Cherokees on their own, including cars with manual transmissions. (Eagle County, Colorado, was one; they had transitioned from the AMC Eagle.)
The first customized Cherokees were unofficial modifications to fleet orders. Because fleet buyers had some problems under severe service with the rear axles, the company substituted Dana 44s from the MJ (Jeep Comanche pickup) metric-ton model. Michael Smith of the Vehicle Development Group was put in charge as Program Manager for the XJ Special Service Vehicle (XJ-SSV); the result was a surprisingly sturdy and capable vehicle, which was almost entirely built using existing XJ (Cherokee) and MJ (Comanche) parts.
Former AMC/Jeep and Chrysler engineer Bob Sheaves remembered, "It was an absolute backdoor program — everything done on the Q.T. and at the absolute minimum cost." They used the basic XJ body with the pickup’s foot operated parking brake and column shifter; the floor-shift for the transfer case had to remain. Tires on early models were the same as the police Diplomat/Gran Fury, Eagle GT 235/70R15 tires; they were put onto the tough stamped steel wheels from the Up-Country option package.
Bucket seats were used instead of the Comanche bench, "because of the cost of a couple of two-inch spacers for the bench’s rearmost track mounts and the cost of recertifying the seat retention in a crash." The spacers were needed because the floor pan of the truck rose up in front to make room for reinforcements required for the bed attachment; and recertification, which would have cost over $100,000, was required because the government needed to know the seats would not be torn out of the floor in an accident. Instead, Jeep engineers used heavy duty springs and foam in the standard bucket seats with low-line covers.
Front and rear springs and shock absorbers were from the Up-Country package; the front and rear sway bars were heavy duty items from the towing package. The cooling system and power steering pump were from the Laredo towing package with air conditioning, and a transmission cooler was standard. The MJ metric-ton Dana 44 rear axle was retained for years, providing the police Cherokees with heavier-duty axles than civilian models, until the late 1990s when Chrysler axles replaced the Dana 44 in both civilian and fleet Jeeps. No new part was needed, and unique parts did not have to be kept in inventory. Other than the performance and durability pieces, the Cherokee police package was basic and bare, a "stripper" model.
The results were astounding — the Cherokee easily outperformed other 4x4s in the Michigan State Police tests, even after nine years. Reportedly, Eagle County ended up retiring their XJs with 300,000 miles on them, while Crown Victorias usually lasted 80-100,000 miles and Caprices were retired at around 125,000. The Cherokee was popular not only with Colorado county police but also with the Border Patrol and even the Marines — when a tough, mobile vehicle was needed for law enforcement or emergencies, the Cherokee was often seen as the best choice.
There were a matchbox-size and larger toy versions made of the Cherokee in the police trims of various departments. Jeep Cherokees in police trim have appeared in movies and on TV, most visibly perhaps in the cable series Eureka.
In its second year of testing, 1993, the Jeep Cherokee beat the Ford Crown Victoria around the handling course (Cherokee was beaten, by a narrow margin, by the Chevy Caprice). The only Cherokee tested was the 4x4, which, being heavier, was at a disadvantage when compared with the rear wheel drive version — as was shown in later years, when both were tested. The I-6 Jeep was far slower in acceleration than the V8 Chevy, but within tenths of the V8 powered Ford. It suffered in the 0-100 against the cars — but then, the Chevy made it in nearly half the time of the Ford; compared with the Chevy-vs-Ford differences, the Jeep-vs-Ford differences were minor indeed.
The 4x4 was a bigger issue for gas mileage, where the Crown Victoria led by 2 mpg (the Caprice was was 0.7 mpg lower than the Jeep 4x4; for those who wanted gas mileage, Chevy had packages with better gas mileage and lower performance). The three turned in similar braking results.
In the Michigan State Police 2001 model year tests, the two wheel drive Cherokee was about half a second slower to 60 miles per hour than the Ford Police Interceptor, but faster than any of the Ford trucks, the Tahoe, and the Impala. The top speed, 111 mph, beat the Ford and Chevy trucks, but not the cars. The big Ford trucks and Hummer H1 had extremely long stopping distances, while the Cherokee was similar to the Tahoe and a few feet worse than the Ford cars; Hummer also anchored the low end of the vehicle dynamics testing with a time of 2 minutes, 1 second.
Jeep Cherokee’s performance relative to the Ford Crown Victoria, a car that had three quarters of the police market sewn up, was quite good; despite its greater bulk and slower acceleration, it usually managed to get around the track in almost exactly the same time (rear wheel drive model), and often achieved similar gas mileage.
(The 1996 Chevrolet Caprice, in its final year, was sold with either a 4.3 liter or 5.7 liter engine. Our results are for the 5.7 liter, the better performing of the two options.)
* In this and other tables, the Caprice is used through 1996, and the Impala starting in 2000. The Lumina was also tested but was never popular as a police car.
All but Caprice had an electronic speed limiter.
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