New & Used Jeep Wrangler: In Depth
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The Jeep Wrangler is a convertible SUV that's hard to miss, even with so many on the road. The automotive icon continues to pay homage to the design of World War II-era military Jeeps and has one of the more recognizable forms in the automotive world.
Competitors to the Wrangler continue to be few, with the closest being the discontinued Nissan Xterra, Toyota FJ Cruiser, and HUMMER H3. GMC is said to be considering a competitor, and Ford is mulling a Bronco revival, but neither will have the heritage of Jeep's legendary off-roader.
Jeep Wrangler history
The Wrangler emerged from its ancient roots into the modern era in the late 1980s. There have been three generations of Jeep Wranglers built since 1987, each one an evolution of the last. The model can be considered a successor to the CJ line of Jeeps, which also featured open tops, fold-down windshields, and solid off-road chops.
The first Wrangler, known as the YJ, is unique in that it's the only one to have used rectangular headlights. It was offered from 1987 to 1996 and came with a choice of four- or six-cylinder power and manual or automatic transmissions. Several appearance packages were offered over the production run including the Islander and very popular Renegade models.
Beginning in 1997, 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. In 2003, the Wrangler got its most capable production model yet, the Rubicon, named for the famous trail where Jeep tests its creations. And in 2004, a long-wheelbase Unlimited (LJ) model joined the line, bringing a roomier back seat and a little more storage, as well as a somewhat quieter ride thanks to its extended wheelbase.
MORE: Read our 2016 Jeep Wrangler review
Numerous upgrades arrived for the 1997–2006 Wrangler, including a return to the round headlights found on CJ models. 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 ("LJ") 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 introduction of the "JK" Jeep Wrangler turned the Unlimited into a four-door model with an available 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, 3.8-liter Chrysler V-6 that year.
The Wrangler received a heavily revised 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 stout 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 replaced.
The Wrangler is now available in both short and long wheelbases. The two-door model is still available and comes in both hardtop and soft-top versions, and the doors on all models are still removable.
Given its extreme off-road abilities, the Wrangler has never been known for on-road manners, but with this generation the streetability has improved greatly. The long-wheelbase Unlimited provides the best ride of any Wrangler yet, and a series of powertrain and suspension changes have further enhanced things for both models. Both models are larger than before, with greater comfort for passengers and room for their stuff, and the Wrangler now offers such niceties as power windows and locks with a remote, items only dreamed of before.
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 dents, scrapes, and gouges. Meanwhile, new Jeep Wranglers come priced from less than $24,000 to about $40,000, with the latter being the loaded top-of-the-line Rubicon.
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. Jeep also offered a Moab special edition that borrowed much of the Rubicon's look, but without its front locker and super-low 4:1 'creeper' transfer case--which gave 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. And for 2016, the Wrangler gained a new Black Bear Edition that includes off-road rock rails, five-spoke black wheels, Silent Armor tires, and some other blacked-out details.
In addition to the standard Sport, Sahara, Willys, and Rubicon models and their variants, the Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited are offered in a variety of special-edition packages and models. Currently, those offerings include the military-inspired Freedom edition, the Willys Wheeler, the Rubicon Hard Rock, and the X.
A next-generation Jeep Wrangler is expected for the 2018 model year, and is expected to offer more modern underpinnings throughout—including an available turbodiesel engine and eight-speed automatic transmission. The changes would be aimed at improving the iconic model's safety and fuel economy, while ensuring that it lives on and retains its rugged capability.