Face it, the TJ is peak Jeep Wrangler
At the end of August 2023, Jeep delivered its five-millionth Wrangler since the 1987 model year, when the off-roader officially succeeded the long-running CJ series. Senior Editor Brandan Gillogly wrote the story below in December of 2018, and for him the Wrangler TJ remains a high-water mark that Jeep has yet to surpass. Got a favorite Jeep of your own? Tell us about it in the comments. -Ed.
Jeep’s ‘90s and early 2000s motto, “There’s only one,” sort of sent the wrong message. If there’s only one Jeep, it has to be the Wrangler, right? So what does that make the Grand Cherokee? For many Jeep fans, the Wrangler is the only model that matters and clearly the cornerstone of the Jeep brand. It’s hard to come up with another model more important to its parent’s brand equity. Not the BMW 3 Series, not the Ford Mustang, and not the VW Beetle. Jeep Wrangler. Through four generations the basic recipe has barely changed—so which generation Wrangler is best Wrangler?
You can trace the Wrangler’s roots back to the CJ series of Jeeps that were civilian versions of the original flatfender Willys MB. The longer-wheelbase CJ-7 got the proportions right, as the shorter CJ-5 was nimble on trails but a bit twitchy on the highway. The added wheelbase that allowed for more stable handling and trail ascending also added some much-needed cargo space, making the CJ-7 the right compromise of capacity and maneuverability.
From CJ to Wrangler
AMC kept many of the CJ-7’s dimensions when it developed the Wrangler, also known as the YJ, for 1986. The Wrangler got a redesigned leaf spring suspension with new anti-roll bars, but most of the skin was the same. You can buy new body tubs for CJ-7s and YJ Wranglers and they’re the same stamping.
The four-cylinder and six-cylinder engines were carryovers and despite a taller windshield with prominent wipers, it still looked like a CJ, except for the square headlights. Many a Jeep enthusiast was (and still is) incensed that the characteristic round headlights were ditched in favor of square headlights. Still, sales under Chrysler remained strong as the YJ Wrangler continued to deliver a solid platform for off-road enthusiasts and anyone looking for a competent runabout.
Enter Chrysler, welcome TJ
Just a year after the release of the YJ Wrangler in early 1986, Chrysler purchased AMC. Despite the new ownership, production carried on and minor updates were made as Chrysler began making plans for the YJ’s successor. The all-new TJ Wrangler debuted for 1997 with the same wheelbase and 4.0-liter AMC inline-six as the YJ, but returned to round headlights. It looked a lot like a CJ-7, with the classic door shape that featured a rounded rear edge of the window frame, but underneath was a new four-link suspension cribbed from the Grand Cherokee. Eventually an overdrive automatic transmission made its way onto the option sheet, as did a six-speed manual. The TJ also marked the debut of the Rubicon trim, bringing selectable front and rear locking differentials and Dana 44 axles along with a unique transfer case with 4:1 low range. Thus was born the most capable factory Wrangler up to that point.
After a 10-year run, the TJ was succeeded by the JK Wrangler, which brought a four-door model, the Wrangler Unlimited, for the first time. The inline-six was gone, replaced with a 3.8-liter V-6 shared with the Dodge and Chrysler minivans. Wrangler Unlimited sales took off, leaving the two-door in the dust. That trend continues with the JL Wrangler, introduced for 2018.
Both the two-door and four-door models of the latest generation have evolved the basic Jeep recipe by adding further (optional) luxuries, so they each make a more practical family truckster than the previous work hardened models. The JK’s updated four-link suspension is still a bit truck-like, although it’s even better on-road than a TJ, and the JL Wrangler continued the improvement. The JK and JL both brought more powerful engines (eventually), with the Pentastar V-6 packing 50 percent more power than the AMC 4.0-liter—much appreciated when adding taller tires and a week’s worth of travel gear to the payload.
With improved interiors and more creature comforts, JK and JL Wrangler generations make fewer compromises for a daily driver and are still excellent platforms for rock-crawlers or more mild trail and camping rigs, yet we still feel the TJ is the sweet spot. It has better ride quality and off-road performance than the YJ—thanks to the four-link front and rear suspension it adapted from the Grand Cherokee—while maintaining many classic CJ characteristics. It marked the return of round headlights to the Wrangler and despite a completely new body, it kept the same 93.4-inch wheelbase of its predecessor as well as the classic AMC paddle-style door handles.
Most important to AMC fans, it used the 4.0-liter AMC inline six for its entire production run from 1997-2006. Its 10-year run and sales success meant that the aftermarket was eager to vie for a piece of the action. The choices for suspension lift kits, body armor, tube doors, and soft tops are extensive, so even though they’ve been out of production for more than a decade, TJ Wranglers are still a viable platform for whatever kind of off-roading you’d like.
For our money, the TJ Wrangler is the best of both worlds, with the size, looks, and straight-six powertrain of a classic Jeep, but the on-road ride and off-road articulation of a more modern four-link suspension. Add in the capability of the optional Rubicon package and it’s no wonder they’re holding their value so well. Besides, the top engine available in the JK and JL are both V-6s, and we all know the only Jeep that should have a V-6 is a Commando.
Feel free to tell us why we’re wrong, by the way. We welcome all manner of Wrangler fans, so sound off below with stories of why your Wrangler is best Wrangler.