Secondhand Saint: Jeep Wrangler TJ

Jeep can be considered the inventor of the SUV in America.  The Wrangler, still in production today, is a reminder of where the original SUV came from.  The TJ model, produced from 1997-2006, is, in my opinion, the best interpretation and the best mix of modern technology and old-style design, with time-tested engines, classic styling, and unlimited ability to go anywhere.

Cutaway of the TJ Wrangler from launch, showing the newest pieces of technology available in 1997.

The original CJ lineup, which saw little serious change (save for new engines over time) until its death in 1987, got replaced by the YJ Wrangler right when AMC went to Chrysler.  During that time, the YJ was slowly evolved into a much better truck than its predecessor.  The TJ, introduced after a 1 year hiatus in 1997, was a much different sort of truck.  While it carried plenty of styling cues from the older Jeeps, it was more civilized on the road and offered better creature comforts.  The new model brought some of the original’s extra features along with it, including removeable doors, folding windscreen, and a simple interior design without many bells and whistles.  Initially, the two engines offered included a 120hp 2.5L AMC inline-4 and the tried-and-true AMC inline six, appearing here as a 4.0L, 190-hp engine, as a carryover from the final years of the YJ.  The TJ Wrangler holds the distinction of being the last Jeep to use any parts from the American Motors era.  Transmissions were a 5-speed manual and a 3 speed automatic, updated to a 6-speed manual in 2004 and a 4-speed automatic in 2003.  The original 4-cylinder engine got replaced by a new Chrysler unit (a 2.4L engine using the PowerTech name with 150hp) in 2004.

These Jeeps are incredibly easy to modify and are immensely popular in off-roading circles.

On the move, Wranglers aren’t sporty but have a personality that nothing else can attest to.  They aren’t ideal on-road but when the road ends, not a lot can catch one.  And, thanks to efforts by Jeep themselves and a huge aftermarket following, the TJ Wrangler offers a lot of customizability.  The Wrangler Rubicon, introduced for 2003, came with heavy-duty Dana 44 axles, an ultra-low 4.10:1 final drive ratio, offroad tires, and locking differentials.  The other trim levels, the SE, Sport, and Sahara, are available with off-road tires and plenty of extras as well.  The TJ offers creature comforts as well, something that the CJ series and the YJ Wrangler didn’t do as well.  Air conditioning was optional on most models, as well as a CD player and an Infinity audio system on select models.  A hardtop was offered as an extra too.  ABS was available on the new TJ for its entire model run.

Near the end of production, Jeep introduced a long wheelbase version of the Wrangler, the Wrangler Unlimited. It is to some extent a spiritual successor to the old Jeep CJ-6.

Before the production run ended, Jeep introduced a long wheelbase model for customers who wanted more room, the Wrangler Unlimited.  Unlike the current model, the TJ Unlimited was still only a two-door body, but used a 10″ longer wheelbase and as a result was given a higher tow rating.  It was also available with more creature comforts than the standard models, and included the same Dana axles as the Wrangler Rubicon as standard equipment.  In 2006, Jeep introduced the current JK Wrangler, a very different model with more electronic systems than the Wrangler has ever seen.  The TJ Wrangler enjoys an enormous enthusiast following, and there are a mind-blowing number of aftermarket customization options available.  Like the original CJ series, the Wrangler TJ is easily modifiable, with lift kits, huge tires and rims, and plenty of engine and transmission parts available.  Custom roll cages are also available to create a one-of-a-kind look, as well as tube bumpers and custom exhaust systems.  The fact that the TJ has become cheap to buy is a big benefit, too–and the parts to modify them are also cheap and easy to come by.

It’s not supposed to be a Mercedes, but the Wrangler’s interior is basic, tough, and easy to understand. Dual airbags were standard.

Pricing is pretty reasonable for the TJ Wrangler truck.  The vast majority built use the 4.0L I6, which some describe as one of the most indestructible engines ever made.  The prices range from as little as about 7 large for a very used-up truck with high miles and some issues, up to about 18 grand for one that’s been left untouched with low miles and no damage.  A good one can be picked up for about 12-13 grand, but I wouldn’t spend more than 12 on one about now  The Unlimited is priced closely to the short wheelbase models of identical years, so none of these are expensive to buy.  Parts are very cheap for these trucks, making repair costs rather low, which makes up quite a bit for their lack of fuel economy (the aerodynamics of a brick with old-school engines is not a great formula for a gas miser).  They’ll go anywhere in the snow, they’re cheap to fix, and provide an experience unlike anything else on the road.  A Wrangler is not for most people, but for those who love the great outdoors on four wheels, little else will do, and the second-gen TJ model mixes modern technology with old-school design, which is exactly why I’d recommend it.

-Albert S. Davis

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