New & Used Jeep Wrangler: In Depth
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The Jeep Wrangler is hard to miss, even after being on the road for such a long time. The convertible SUV is available in both short and long wheelbases, all while paying homage to the design of military Jeeps in WWII.
There still aren't many competitors to the Wrangler, with the closest being the Nissan Xterra and the now-deceased Toyota FJ Cruiser and HUMMER H3.
MORE: Read our 2015 Jeep Wrangler review for pricing with options, specifications, and gas mileage ratings.
Since 1987, Jeep has produced three different generations of the Wrangler, but all have stayed fairly consistent through the years. The 1987-1996 Wranglers (the ones with rectangular headlights) offered a choice of four- or six-cylinder engines, and manual or automatic transmissions. Renegade and Islander option packages dressed up the Wrangler with different wheels, exterior trim and interior appearance and options upgrades.
From 1997 to the present, the utility vehicle got an upgraded suspension design to improve on-road comfort and roadholding, plus new engines to boost power and fuel economy. The so-called "TJ" built from 1997 to 2006 carried on the original two-door soft-top design, with instantly recognizable classic Jeep lines. But in 2004, a long-wheelbase Unlimited model joined the line, expanding the model count to three--along with the more off-road capable Rubicon added in 2003.
Then numerous upgrades arrived for the 1997-2006 Wrangler, including a return to round headlights. It also added a new 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine in 2003, the same year the automatic transmission was upgraded from three speeds to four. Trim packages expanded to add the Rubicon, beefed up with stronger front- and rear differentials, a 4:1 low-ratio transfer case and other off-road improvements. The Wrangler Unlimited extended the wheelbase by 10 inches, offering more cargo room but still just two doors. A limited-production Sahara Edition also debuted in 2005, offering a range of desert-themed appearance upgrades inside and out.
The new Jeep Wrangler
In 2007, the most recent generation of Jeep Wrangler (the "JK") turned the Unlimited into a four-door model with a hardtop roof. The old AMC in-line six-cylinder engine (which dated all the way back to Rambler days) was replaced with a 205 horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6 that year. The two-door model comes in both hardtop and soft-top versions, and the doors are still removable.
Today's third-generation Wrangler is offered in two main body styles: the standard short-wheelbase Wrangler and the long-wheelbase, four-door Unlimited, both of which are available in Sport, Sahara and Rubicon trims.The three trim levels run the spectrum from minimalist (Sport) to luxurious (Sahara) to serious off-road (Rubicon). The Sport is a basic vehicle, but can be optioned to suit the buyer. The Sahara offers power windows and locks, an upgraded sound system, different exterior looks, and other comfort and convenience items.
As one of the hallmarks of the Jeep brand, the Wrangler doesn't have to drive all that well to telegraph its mission to owners. But it does drive fairly well on pavement now, thanks to a series of suspension and steering and powertrain changes over the past few years. And it's also better equipped to handle people and cargo, as it's grown larger and a lot wider, and has added an array of features unthinkable to the GIs who drove the sturdy little machines into combat.
Overall, with its classic looks, superior off-road capability and unique packaging, the Jeep Wrangler manages to stay relevant despite continuing largely with tradition. Ride quality, comfort, steering, and even occupant safety might not be up to the standards of some daily road commuters or families, but if you head to the trails on the weekends the Wrangler is king.
You might even be happy with a used Wrangler if you're a serious trail hound and expect some cents, scrapes, and gouges. Meanwhile, new Jeep Wranglers come priced from less than $23,000 to about $40,000, with the latter being the loaded top-of-the-line Rubicon.
The Wrangler received a freshened interior in 2011, with an all-new instrument panel and upgraded materials throughout the cabin—plus better noise insulation. For 2012, Jeep then added its new 285-hp Pentastar V-6 to the Wrangler. Hooked to a five-speed automatic or six-speed manual, the new engine yields much quicker acceleration and better responsiveness compared to the 3.8-liter pushrod V-6 it replaces.
The Wrangler received a few additional changes for 2013, limited to comfort and convenience additions like new LED map lighting, interior lighting, and available Alpine speakers. A new easy-lift top mechanism was also introduced for 2013. There's also a Moab special edition that borrows much of the Rubicon's look, but without its front locker and super-low 4:1 'creeper' transfer case--which gives it a more affordable price, too.Changes for 2015 include the usual new paint colors and trim packages, as well as a new standard eight-speaker audio system, a new nine-speaker system that includes a subwoofer, a package that bundles steel wheels with 31-inch tires for Sport models, and a Torx tool set that's standard on all models, allowing owners to remove the windshield or doors wherever they are.