Face it, the TJ is peak Jeep Wrangler

1997 Jeep Wrangler FCA

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

1981 Jeep CJ-7 passenger 3/4 front
1981 Jeep CJ-7 Mecum

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

1997 Jeep Wrangler 3/4 rear
1997 Jeep Wrangler FCA
1997 Jeep Wrangler interior
1997 Jeep Wrangler FCA

1997 Jeep Wrangler 3/4 front green
1997 Jeep Wrangler FCA

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.

Goldilocks Wrangler

1997 Jeep Wrangler red accessories
1997 Jeep Wrangler FCA
2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited top view
2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited FCA

2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited 3/4 rear
2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited FCA
1997 Jeep Wrangler cutaway
1997 Jeep Wrangler FCA

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.

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    Good morning. I’ve never owned a jeep, but a friend of mine told me if I wanted to look at one I should get a TJ. I live on Panama City Beach and we do have one stretch of beach in Walton County where you can drive your vehicle on the beach (covered up with Jeeps). I wanted to get your opinion on maybe a 2005 or a 2006 TJ, wanted to see what you might recommend, I’m a newbie . Thank you.

    I have a 2006 with the 4.0 and 6-speed manual. It is a blast to drive! Look for a clean one with a solid frame. Some people try to hide the rust by painting over it. Join a Jeep TJ Facebook group and you will learn a lot more about them. Good luck!

    I’ve owned an ’04 Wrangler and learned that the 5 speed that was in the TJ from 2000-2004 (NV3550) was the best and most robust manual transmission that came in the TJ.

    I Love my 97 TJ, I bought it back in 2000 with 45k on the meter and have since put it over 100k, when I first got it, my wife wanted to drive it home so I got stuck driving her explorer.
    I prefer this over any newer model because this baby can squeeze through alot of tight spots that the newer ones cant.
    A few friends and I went up in the Calif hills to do some trails and they were soo tight that our mirrors were rubbing the trees, Try and go there with the new crap.
    I have gone out to my Jeep and found notes all the time on it “HEY YOU WANNA SELL YOUR JEEP?”

    NOPE, when I die it goes to my grandkids.

    I just brought home a ’04 TJ Rubicon with 35,000 miles. I bought a well used ’03 Wrangler 2 months ago, and driving it was a joy. Smaller than a 2 door JK and with arguably one of the best automobile motors ever made. I then went on a search for best the TJ I could find! The TJ (especially the TJ Rubicon) is PEAK JEEP!
    I can say this his after a long run of owning other Jeeps: A new 2010 JK (terrible motor), a new 2013 JK (better, but still a JK). Then an ’06 TL (I thought this was going to be the “perfect jeep” but didn’t like the overall looks). Then in a moment of stupidity, an old Land Rover Defender, ( weird ergonomics and transfer case…stay away!)
    To add cred to my opinion, I have also owned these jeeps: ’53 Willys truck, ’69 Commando, ’78 Cherokee Chief ( found one in nice original condition, my daughter wrecked it!), ’82 Wagoner, new ’93 Grand Cherokee, new ’96 Grand Cherokee, new ’02 Wrangler (Sahara).

    Wife wanted a convertible and loves the beach. Purchased a 2006 TJ Unlimited with 80k miles. Multiple trips to a beach area that requires a permit and specific gear. Perfect beach getaway from the crowds. The longer wheelbase of the 2 door unlimited rides well, handles well, and has more cargo area. We have also attended multiple Jeep events for some light trail rides. Fun vehicle with good aftermarket parts availability and upgrades.

    A correction is needed to the article. The first model year of the jeep wrangler unlimited was in 2004. It still was a 2 door model based on the TJ body, but the wheelbase was stretched for a larger trunk space and larger rear seat legroom. The jeep wrangler unlimited TJL or LJ, only lasted for those two years from 2004 to 2006. Most enthusiasts consider the 2004 to 2006 unlimited models the holy grail of jeeps due to its unique lengthened wheelbase, it still having the I6 engine, and the option of the Rubicon trim in 2005 and 2006.

    I have an 06 LJR auto with a Rubi Crawler auxiliary transmission. I have to agree, best Jeep ever made for all around crawling, comfort & room.

    As a former TJ owner and current JK Rubicon owner, I believe the JK is the sweet spot. The TJ is great until you want to take it out of town. The JK is just enough bigger and more refined that it will take you down the interstate like a relatively believable car, but it’s got the original soft top styling and rugged personality of the CJ. That, and the JK gave the 4 door to the world, which was a literal game changer.

    Plus, the TJ is easy to work on for a backyard garage mechanic with parts readily available. Best Jeep ever built.

    As a former owner of 2 TJ’s- a ’04 with 4.0 and 5MT and a ’05 with 2.4L and 6MT, and a current JK owner, I handily agree. My ’14 Sahara w/6MT is great and I’m a very satisfied owner, but if I were advising a new Wrangler owner who doesn’t want to spend $45k+ on a new JL, I’d point them right to a later TJ- preferably a Sport with a rear Dana 44 or if they can find one, an unmolested Rubicon (I don’t like buying someone else’s mods). Yes- the LJ is the high point, but I actually prefer the smaller and more manueverable original TJ.

    We’ve owned 2 YJs, 2 TJs and 2 JKUs. Definitely like the TJs the best. One of the TJs is our current Jeep. An 02. Love it!

    My fits ride at 16 was the 1976 CJ5 Levis Edition. What you forgot to mention ws it wasn’t 6 cylinder. It had a 304. Now those Jeeps would get it. We took the mats out and pulled the drain plugs. How else do you know when you are driving too deep in the river? Currently I drive a 2015 Wrangler Sahara.

    I love my XJ Cherokees with the 4 liter straight 6 and the 4 speed automatic. I can’t imagine a Wrangler without the 4 liter 6.

    Without a doubt, the TJ is the best Jeep ever made. I have owned an 82 CJ, 84 XJ new, 91 YJ, 01 TJ new, 18 JLUR new, and just a couple of weeks ago I bought a ’04 TJ Rubicon. The CJ got me into more advanced trails so I added TBI, 4:1, lockers, spring over axle, and much more. My wife complained that I kept putting money in that old jeep and it was still just an old jeep, so I followed her suggestion, bought a new TJ in 01 and immediately built it into what the Rubicon would become a few years later by adding lockers, 4:1, Dana 44’s. I also put a 5″ long arm suspension lift under it it making it a very capable jeep. My wife loved it, but we were exporing areas further and further away so she talked me into selling it and buying a new 2018 JLU Rubicon, and this time having someone else build it. I ordered a loaded JLUR and had the dealer up in Kellogg Idaho build it into a jeep as capable as the TJ was. Its a very nice and capable jeep and with the long wheel base it is even more capable than the TJ on some trails, but not nearly as much fun as a TJ. So I just bought an ’04 Rubicon. So happy to be back in a TJ – a real jeep. The JLU’s are very nice, but I have my doubts if they will endure as the TJ has from mechanical reliability, capability, and reputation aspect with the loyal following that TJ has maintained. TJ Rubicons will never be worth less than they are right now. If anyone is thinking of getting a Jeep for recreational purposes or as a tow behind for their RV, do it now. As for daily drivers, there are many options out there that would be way better than a TJ. Jeeps are addictive and I appreciate having a wife that enables my Jeep addiction.

    I’m on my 6th jeep, and finally own a 05 TJR. My first jeep was a 1982 CJ8. That was the best jeep I owned until I bought my 04 unlimited. I’ve also owned a 22 jeep gladiator. I really liked the CJ8 and the 04 unlimited because of the comfortable ride and the longer wheel base. I’m really liking this 05 TJR because it really fits on a lot of different trails.

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