Whether we are talking about lower case “j” jeeps from WWII or the upper case “J” Jeep, the name Jeep has been synonymous with off-road greatness. Although Jeep went from nickname to a full-blown car brand, the name still kinda rings as Wrangler unless otherwise specified, right?
The history of the jeep is long and winding and has been covered many times by historians and car enthusiasts alike. From the Willys to the newest, most tech-heavy, leather-clad JL models, when were Jeep Wranglers the most Jeep-y?
In 1986, Chrysler bought AMC Jeep and began to lay the groundwork for the first model under their ownership and the pinnacle of the Jeeping world.
Chrysler takes over
The Willys MB, CJ-5, CJ-7, and YJ all preceded the TJ. Even though most of the YJ production was under Chrysler ownership, the TJ was the first real Chrysler wrangler. Chrysler debuts this new Wrangler for 1997, which shares the same wheelbase and the legendary 4.0-liter straight-six motor.
The YJ fitted the ’80s and early ’90s perfectly, featuring square everything. Hagerty reports the TJ was a return to the CJ style with round headlights and rounded door frames. It managed to capture a more playful and less self-serious attitude. The Jeep Wrangler TJ didn’t stop with round headlights and soft edges. Hagerty goes on to say that Chrysler took the four-link suspension off the Cherokee and eventually fit the TJ with an overdrive transmission and even a six-speed.
Jeep Wrangler packages
CJs had set a precedent for having a wide range of graphics and interior trim packages. The YJs continued that tradition with a few decal options and some varied upholstery options, as well. The TJ is the first to offer real performance options that dramatically affected the truck’s capability.
The TJ was the first to do the Rubicon trim. It featured selectable front and rear locking diffs and Dana 44 axles with a unique transfer case offering a 4:1 low-range gear. The need to modify your Wrangler for better off-road capabilities was gone. I mean, people still did it, but only cause they wanted to.
The famous straight-six
The beating heart that keeps the TJs and their drivers moving down the trail after 20 years is the AMC 4.0-liter straight-six motor. It was a holdover from the YJ model that proves the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Not all YJs nor all TJs had this motor. There was a four-cylinder motor for the base models, but we don’t need to talk about that. It is sad, slow, and weak, and I choose to not recognize that motor any further.
The AMC 4.0 was the perfect motor for the Wrangler. What makes the YJ and TJ Wrangler special in the off-road world is that it has the ideal wheelbase for being nimble off-road while still long enough to remain stable on the highway.
The AMC 4.0 was still small and light enough to fit the truck’s mountain-goat-like approach to the trails. The motor also had enough torque to handle hills, rocks, and mud, without feeling overpowered and unsafe for the road. Not to mention, it has these motors commonly hit 275,000 miles and counting, without significant issues. Its everything an off-road truck should be built around. Long live the AMC 4.0.
(Note: I drove a 2000 model TJ for 11 years of hard, everyday use and serious off-roading, clocked 158,000 miles, and only ever changed the oil and replaced the battery and starter.)
The TJ still came in a variety of aesthetic packages too. Some of the special editions were silly pop culture references like the “Tomb Raider” model that came with forged steel wheels, light rack, diamond plate bumper, and a slew of specialty badges. Jeep packages like the Sahara 60th Anniversary and Unlimted all featured different color interiors, roof color options, and unique decals. The TJ was still a thoroughly goofy Jeep from the ’70s and a serious, dependable, and powerful off-road machine.
Cash is king
The part that really sets the TJ apart from the later, more equipped models like the JK and JL, are the prices. Looking at the median year of production, 2000, the price for a new Wrangler ranged from the Wrangler SE $14,460 to the top trim Wrangler Sahara at $20,665.
If that feels expensive for something without and screens, Bluetooth, or leather, understand that you can still sell a well-maintained Wrangler of the same make and model for nearly the same money. It has been 20 years, and they still cost almost the same used as they did new. The newest batch of Wranglers, the JL, might have the same value retention as the TJ, but only time will tell. Not to mention, the barrier to entry into Wrangler-dom is almost 50 percent higher than the top trim TJ for the bottom trim JL. The base JL starts at $28,295, and the equivalent trim package, the 2020 Sahara two-door, sits at $38,645.