One of America's icons, the Jeep Wrangler is the brand's most significant homage to the Willys-Jeep, itself noteworthy for being an instrument of World War II starting in 1941.
Since 1987, the Wrangler has served as Jeep's most faithful interpretation of the original model, even though the brand has passed through a string of ownership and expanded with popular models like the Grand Cherokee and Wagoneer. Introduced to replace the Jeep CJ line that had a direct lineage to the 1940s-era vehicle, the Wrangler merged the historic styling with modern conveniences as customers demanded more comfort to go along with the off-road looks that often didn't go on anything more adventurous than a gravel driveway.
Despite that, the Jeep Wrangler remains one of the most capable off-roaders around, to the point that only the Ford Bronco and Land Rover Defender — both reborn in the 2020s — can keep up with it long after the pavement ends. And while those new rivals might be more civilized on the road, for many people, there's only one Jeep.
2018 - Present Jeep Wrangler (JL 4th Generation)
The JL-series Wrangler arrived in 2018 and capitalized on the popularity of what was once a niche vehicle. While it continued on a modified version of the third-generation Wrangler's platform, several modifications broadened the vehicle's appeal and price range.
The 285-horsepower 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 continued but was now attached to either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic from other Fiat Chrysler (now Stellantis) applications. Soon after launch, a new 270-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder was added, which came only with the automatic and a mild-hybrid system for slightly better fuel economy.
As before, two-door Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited versions were available in a string of trim levels, but the standard Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon models remained. Numerous improvements also make it easier to convert hard and soft-top versions without doors, windows, or a roof or to fold the windshield down. Doors were lighter and easier to remove, and a new fixed-roof version of the Unlimited offered a Sky One-Touch power-retractable canvas roof for the easiest open-air experience.
There were more significant technology and safety feature upgrades, such as curtain and side airbags for both rows, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning, backup camera and available front-mounted off-road camera, and automatic emergency braking.
All models used a version of the UConnect infotainment system, ranging from a 5-inch touchscreen to an 8.4-inch unit. At the same time, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility were new, as were front and rear USB charging ports.
A separate model directly replaced the Scrambler pickup truck dropped with the CJ-7 in 1986. The 2019 Jeep Gladiator was heavily derived from the Wrangler Unlimited JL with the addition of a bed on the back but offering similar roof options, removable doors, and the same dashboard and engine options. In addition, a 260-horsepower, 3.0-liter "EcoDiesel" turbodiesel V6 joined the line for 2020, mated only to the automatic.
Two other engine options arrived for 2021. The Wrangler Unlimited 4xe was the first plug-in Jeep, using the 2.0-liter turbo and an electric motor tied to a 17 kWh battery pack. It was Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-rated at 22 miles on a full charge and offered a combined output of 375 horsepower on Sahara and Rubicon models.
At the other end of the fuel economy spectrum, the Unlimited Rubicon 392 had the 470-horsepower, 6.4-liter Hemi V8 shoehorned in from the Dodge Charger R/T Scat Pack. The first V8-powered Wrangler was estimated to make the 0-60 mph in 4.2 seconds and return 14 mpg in more moderate city and highway driving. The base price was also a cool $75,000.
2007 - 2017 Jeep Wrangler (JK 3rd Generation)
Despite its advancing years and only sporadic updates, the Wrangler was increasingly popular and profitable for now-ailing DaimlerChrysler. The automaker then gave Wrangler its first all-new platform with the third-generation JK, released in 2007.
Among the significant changes, the longer Wrangler Unlimited gained even more length and now had four doors, soon becoming the most popular format. In addition, there were other new features for two and four-door Wranglers, including standard stability control and anti-lock brakes, optional electronic limited-slip differential and disconnecting sway bars, power windows and locks, remote keyless entry, and a navigation system with built-in audio storage. A soft-top continued to be standard, with full doors and a detachable hard top also offered.
Another shift from Wrangler tradition was a new engine, as the previous four and six-cylinder engines were dropped for a Chrysler-designed 202-horsepower, 3.8-liter V6. A six-speed manual and four-speed automatic were still offered, but a two-wheel-drive was now standard on the base Unlimited X (later Sport) model. Sahara and Rubicon models continued with part-time four-wheel- drive.
DaimlerChrysler was broken up later in 2007. Chrysler was spun off into a new company that quickly ran into financial problems before entering into a government-orchestrated Chapter 11 bankruptcy and marriage with Italy-based Fiat in 2009. During this time, there were few changes to the Wrangler, one of the few bright spots for the automaker.
There were only minor trim and appearance changes — such as an easier-to-fold soft-top, trailer sway control, and a hill-start assist system — until 2011. The Wrangler received a new interior design with the updated UConnect infotainment system, new climate controls and window switches, and leather upholstery and heated front seats joined the options list. And four-wheel-drive was also reinstated on the standard equipment list.
The following year, a 285-horsepower, 3.6-liter V6 from the Jeep Grand Cherokee and many other applications replaced the old 3.8, significantly boosting power and efficiency with a newly available five-speed automatic. New special versions, the Call of Duty: MW3 and Altitude editions, also joined the line for one year.
New trim packages and reshuffled equipment levels finished the JK line until the redesigned Wrangler JL showed up in 2018. But the Wrangler JK lived on for a few more months as a lower-cost alternative — and to help the Toledo, Ohio factory keep pace with feverish demand for the vehicle.
1997 - 2006 Jeep Wrangler (TJ 2nd Generation)
The TJ was the second generation of Wrangler. Arriving in early 1996 as a 1997 model, it was a heavily revamped version of the YJ that benefitted from numerous upgrades bestowed on the also-reworked Cherokee, including a more modern interior that dumped much of the original AMC/Renault design for Chrysler pieces.
The most noticeable exterior change on the Jeep Wrangler TJ was the return of the round headlights, long a distinctive feature on the CJs. In addition, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 4.0-liter six-cylinder engines returned with a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic, albeit with some modifications. And while the wheelbase was unchanged, the leaf springs were ditched for coil springs front and rear for better on-road ride and handling.
SE, Sport, and Sahara were the standard trim levels through the TJ's 10-year run apart from the sporadic special edition, such as one in 2001 to commemorate Jeep's 60th anniversary, and a right-hand-drive version was introduced to specific markets, as well as the U.S. Postal Service. But the Wrangler was left mostly untouched as a niche model while its new parent DaimlerChrysler tried to get some ducks in a row.
The TJ finally got some attention in 2003 with the first new Jeep bodystyle in 15 years. The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited used a roughly 10-inch longer wheelbase, adding somewhat usable rear seats and a meaningful cargo area to the otherwise very compact SUV and only nominally affecting off-road performance. At the same time, the new Rubicon model included beefed-up axles, a more robust transfer case, and off-road tires with 16-inch alloy wheels.
Other changes ushered in for 2003 included a 150-horsepower, 2.4-liter four-cylinder from the Chrysler PT Cruiser to replace the old AMC-designed 2.5-liter four, along with a four-speed automatic option replacing the old three-speed. New seats and new audio systems were also phased in at this time, while for 2005, a six-speed manual supplanted the old five-speed unit.
1987 - 1995 Jeep Wrangler (YJ 1st Generation)
The 1987 Wrangler, designated the YJ, was introduced in mid-1986 during a significant overhaul of the Jeep lineup by then-owners Renault and American Motors just before being purchased by Chrysler. It replaced the Jeep CJ-5 and CJ-7 models directly linked to the original civilian Jeep designed for use in World War II. And while that vehicle was highly successful, safety concerns and advancing technology rendered it a relic from another time.
The YJ had less ground clearance but better stability and handling than the CJ-7. In addition, adding trackbar suspension links to the leaf-spring design, a wider track, and anti-roll bars improved safety over the CJ-7, which was already the subject of a "60 Minutes" exposé. Despite this, the YJ used the same wheelbase as the CJ-7 and retained trademarks like the ability to remove the doors, lower the windshield, and really use the vehicle off-road.
The 117-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder, designed by AMC and first used on the 1984 Jeep Cherokee XJ, was the base engine, paired only with a five-speed manual transmission. A 112-horsepower, 4.2-liter six-cylinder was carried over from the CJ-7 and could be equipped with either a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic. Of course, part-time four-wheel-drive with low range as standard.
And like the CJ, the Wrangler YJ carried forward with numerous trim packages, wheel options, half-door and full-door frames, and soft and hard roofs that could be removed for a near-convertible experience. Apart from the square headlamps instead of trademark round ones, it could be tough to tell a YJ from a CJ from certain angles.
Trim packages made up the bulk of changes to the Wrangler over the next nine years. The long-running, upscale Sahara model was introduced in 1988, as was the colorful Islander that lasted through 1993. And the 1991-94 Renegade added a monochromatic body kit with large fender flares and alloy wheels.
More substantial changes started in 1991 with the introduction of the modern, fuel-injected 4.0-liter six-cylinder option lifted from the Cherokee that boosted power by 78 horsepower to 190. Anti-lock brakes became an option the following year, and rear-seat shoulder belts were added. And an automatic transmission was made available on four-cylinder Wranglers beginning in 1994.
The YJ was discontinued after 1995. Apart from a Wrangler hiatus until early 1996, a new model was waiting in the wings.
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