The XJ was selected by Robert Cumberford of Automobile Magazine as one of the 20 greatest cars of all time, calling it "possibly the best SUV shape of all time, it is the paradigmatic model to which other designers have since aspired."
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 an 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,
The XJ Cherokee introduced in 1984 was the first Jeep with a ladder-boxed chassis integrated into a single monocoque unit rather than the traditional separate body-on-frame construction.
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. 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 four headlights. The Wagoneer Limited came with vinyl wood trim on the sides and leather seats embossed with "limited".