The Jeep XJ: Choosing the Right Suspension for Your Modern Classic
Produced from 1984-2001, the Jeep Cherokee XJ was one of the most popular SUVs of all time and to this day continues to be a trusted platform for offroad use. The XJ is light, nimble, and sports solid axles front and rear – a coveted trait that has all but disappeared in modern-day vehicles. With a leaf-sprung rear suspension and the tried and true 5-link short arm front suspension, the XJ provides a decent blend of on-road comfort and offroad travel.
With the newest XJ being 15 years old, however, it goes without saying that the stock parts on these vehicles are most likely not up to stock specifications anymore. The springs are probably sagged, the shocks busted, and the bushings worn out. It is a common adage on the forums that there are “a million ways” to lift a XJ. Companies offer anything from spring spacers with extended shackles to twelve inch radius arm “lift kits.” There are many options, true. But are they really the correct way to do things?
In choosing a suspension for your Cherokee, there are a few options that you need to consider:
- Long-Arm vs. Short-Arm
- Link Bushing
- Completeness – “Kit” vs. Piecemeal
This article will address each of those areas of consideration and will outline why this author believes the Metalcloak Duroflex Suspension System to be the best “kit” on the market today.
1. Long-Arm vs. Short-Arm
The age old debate of long-arm versus short-arm has gone about as far as the debate between Chevy and Ford or Coke and Pepsi. Here is the bottom line: each suspension setup has positives and each has drawbacks.
Long-arm setups utilize longer control arm links and therefore provide reduced suspension angles. As such, most folks assume that they ride better than short-arm setups. While this can be true, the argument fails to account for other factors affecting ride quality including springs, shocks, bushings, etc. It is also widely assumed that long-arm setups flex better than short-arm setups. Again, this is only partially true. The limiting “flex” factor in the majority of Jeeps on the road today has to do with shock travel. In other words, the travel of the shock will prevent the axle from further articulation – not the control arm. This can be remedied using long-travel shocks but that requires extensive modification of the shock mounting bucket to be done properly. That brings us to our next point: installation of a long-arm kit is much more extensive than that of a short-arm kit. Installation requires welding and an understanding of suspension angles for a proper installation. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does remove it from the realm of many DIYers to install the suspension themselves. Lastly, long-arm kits traditionally come at a much higher price point than their short-arm relatives. For a high quality long-arm suspension setup, you should expect to pay well north of $2,000 if you want it done correctly using high quality components.
Short-arm setups rely on links that are materially the same length as stock arms. The arms bolt into the stock link locations and therefore can be easily installed by anyone who can turn a wrench. The increase in offroad effectiveness of aftermarket arms is the result of (1) stronger construction (DOM tubing vs. stamped steel) and (2) flex-style bushings. Bushings will be covered in Section 2 below. Many folks claim that short-arms do not ride well but that is typically related to other factors as noted above more so than the length of the control arm itself. Properly setup, an aftermarket short-arm setup’s ride quality can be equal or superior to that of a stock Jeep. The one big benefit of short-arm setups that is often overlooked is ground clearance. A few years ago, a picture of a certain Jeepforum moderator began circulating the internet showing his Jeep TJ high-centered on a rock due to the length of his long-arm suspension links. Breakover angle is huge in the offroad world and short-arm setups do not hinder breakover angle like long-arms do.
The Metalcloak suspension for the Jeep XJ comes with “short-arms.” The arms are constructed of thick 3/16” walled DOM tubing to hold up to serious offroad abuse. They also come with a gold zinc chromate coating that is shown to withstand even the harshest environments. Finally, they feature Metalcloak’s Duroflex control arm bushing. More on that below.
2. Link Bushing
When selecting control arms for use on your Jeep, there are three main considerations that will impact your decision: (1) Arm length; (2) Tube Material; and (3) Bushing Style. Arm length is discussed in Section 1 above. Tube material is somewhat a matter of preference. Some companies use round, others use square. Some use steel, some use aircraft aluminum. This author prefers round steel tubing for strength and sliding ability over obstacles but I will leave that choice up to you.
As for bushings, this can be one of the most important decisions in deciding what suspension kit to purchase. For years, manufacturers offered 2 typical choices: rubber or poly. Rubber comes inside of your stock control arms and offers generous vibration damping abilities to help keep your ride comfortable. Rubber bushings are also self-centering. Poly bushings have a tighter feel to them than rubber but can be harsher on your components because they do not flex as much. There have been numerous stories of poly bushing control arms ripping off stock link mounts due to this. In the past few years, many companies introduced flex style bushings that utilize a ball and socket to offer high flex capabilities as well as a rebuildable joint. Currie set the standard with their Johnny Joint and many companies followed suit with similar products. While providing ample flex, these style joints are not self-centering (thus reducing usable flex) and they do not provide the cushy ride of a rubber style bushing.
When Metalcloak was designing their Duroflex bushing, they sought to develop a product that offered a high level of usable flex but still provided users with a high level of ride quality found in stock suspension components. To do this, they combined the best features of a flex-style joint with the characteristics of the factory rubber clevite bushing. The result? A rebuildable, high-misalignment joint that is self-centering and offers extensive noise and vibration dampening to the occupants of the vehicle.
Springs and shocks are the backbone of any suspension setup. If either one of these items is low-quality or worn out, your suspension will not ride or perform well even if everything else is perfect.
The Jeep Cherokee XJ uses coil springs in the front and leaf springs in the rear. Each will be addressed separately.
In terms of coil springs, there are 3 styles (shown below). The chief engineer for Metalcloak already wrote an article detailing why a dual rate spring is ideal for a long-travel suspension setup. This author is just a lowly Jeeper and is still a few courses shy of a redneck engineering degree. As such, here is a redirect to that article:
Long story short, Metalcloak’s coils are unique in that they actually harness the power of two entirely different spring rates. The result? On-road, the “soft-rate” stays 100% compressed at the top of your coil bucket and your ride is dependent on the “firm-rate” lower portion of the coil which feels very similar to a stock setup. Off-road, the coil articulates better than any other coil this author has ever seen. Un-sprung, this coil looks more like a 6” lift linear coil. Needless to say, you won’t be unseating coils offroad anymore.
This brings us to the rear of the Jeep. The XJ uses a tried and true leaf-spring setup out back. The market offers many different ways to lift leaf-sprung vehicles: lift blocks, add-a-leafs (or bastard packs), extended shackles, shackle relocation kits, and full replacement leaf packs. Many of these products come with unintended consequences such as increased chance of axle wrap, faster wearing of components, and even broken leafs. A full replacement leaf pack is the correct way to lift the rear of your Jeep and Metalcloak understood this.
If you do a quick internet search for Jeep Cherokee leaf spring you will be swamped with a multitude of vendors who produce (or brand) their own leaf springs to go with their suspension kits. More often than not, though, forum users will have something negative to be shared about these components. They wore out quickly, they ride terrible, they squeak. One company, however, always seems to emerge as the gold standard for XJ leaf springs – Old Man Emu. But wait, you thought this was a Metalcloak suspension article? Well, you were as surprised as me. Metalcloak understood that the OME leaf spring was the head honcho on the market and was already the recipient of not only a lot of R&D but also many, many years of real-world experience. Not feeling like they needed to reinvent the wheel, the Metalcloak XJ suspension kit actually comes with Old Man Emu’s CS033RB leaf springs. The springs are heavy duty, two-stage leaf springs that offer superior ride, handling, and articulation. They also come with re-greasable nylon liners and anti-friction pads to keep the noise and vibration to a minimum and keep these springs running smoothly for the life of them.
With springs addressed, we know move to shocks. A properly setup shock should be tuned to the vehicle and should provide extended travel that is matched with the rest of the vehicle’s suspension setup. As such, the Metalcloak kit can be optioned to include a set of Old Man Emu shocks that pair with the suspension like beer and chicken wings.
Alternatively, Metalcloak understands that some folks are very particular when it comes to their Jeep’s shocks. Some like a very firm ride, some like a soft ride, and some like tunable shocks. With this in mind, the Metalcloak kit can be purchased sans shock absorbers. Personally, we feel that factory JKU shocks pair nicely with the suspension and we opted to forgo shocks since we already had a set of JKU shocks on hand.
4. Completeness – “Kit” vs. Piecemeal
Finally, when choosing your suspension setup it is important to consider whether you want to purchase a kit or buy all of the components piecemeal. Historically, I have found that many “kits” are incomplete or use inferior parts and therefore I have opted to purchase suspension components separately. The Metalcloak kit changed that, however.
As stated above, the “kit” is actually a collaboration of Metalcloak components with products from other vendors. Where Metalcloak could improve on the product, they did. Their trackbar (that actually clears your differential) – included, their swaybar disconnects (with mounting brackets for when disconnected) – included, adjustable bumpstops – included, extended brakelines – included. Where there were already quality products available, Metalcloak decided to simply include those instead. When unboxing the kit, I was actually pleasantly surprised to find these items. Crown bumpstops, Rubicon Express u-bolts, OME leaf springs, etc. Essentially, Metalcloak pieced together the kit that I would have bought separately anyways and they offered it at a price point that I could not come close to matching had I bought these items piecemeal. I challenge you to find a more complete kit or buy these products separately at a cheaper price. You simply cannot do it.
The graphic below shows what all is included (note: this is the kit without shocks):
The only additional items that must be purchased are a slip-yoke eliminator and corresponding rear driveshaft. You may also want to add some shims to adjust the rear pinion angle. I chose the Iron Rock Offroad shims with centering pins and also decided to upgrade to the IRO heavy duty u-bolt plates. Coincidentally or not, these u-bolt plates also come with the gold-zinc coating that shines so well on the Metalcloak arms and trackbar.
The Metalcloak kit is a true game changer for the Jeep Cherokee XJ and will restore your ride to a level that you probably didn’t even think was possible. The kit shines both on-road and off and will breathe some new life into your modern classic. Visit Metalcloak’s website to learn more and to purchase your suspension. Trust me – you’ll be glad you did.
(a) OME rear springs, IRO u-bolt plates, RE u-bolts, JKU shocks
(b) Metalcloak coils, bumpstops, swaybar links, brakelines, control arms, JKU shock
(c) Sits nice and level, rides as good as it looks
(d) Kit Detail
Submitted to ModernJeeper by EugeneTheTJ.