Review and road test of the Jeep Wrangler (1996 - 2008)
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
The word icon has become a hackneyed expression. In an age of disposable celebrity and transient success, icons, legends and classics are manufactured overnight. At Jeep, however, they see things differently. Back in 1938, the original brief for a 'light reconnaissance vehicle' resulted in the development of the Willys Jeep, with 368,000 being built during World War 2. General George C Marshall described it as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare". The spiritual successor to the Willys Jeep is today's Jeep Wrangler. It's bloodline can be traced directly back through various guises, through the CJ series, right back to its illustrious military forebear. But does what makes sense in a theatre of war make a sensible used buy in more sophisticated times?
The Jeep Wrangler is in every sense a throwback from another era. Despite a range of improvements, the emphasis is still on low speed acceleration, manoeuvrability and ruggedness. Refinement and, surprisingly, all round practicality aren't high on the Wrangler's list of priorities.
2/3dr 4x4 hard/soft top: 2.5, 4.0 petrol [Sport, Sahara]
Given such a long and complicated history, this test aims to make 1996 to all intents and purposes Year 0. It was in this year that Chrysler Jeep introduced a heavily revised Wrangler to replace the Series YJ model. Many Jeep enthusiasts had railed at the fact that the YJ was too modern looking, and had strayed from its roots too far. At Jeep gatherings, tee shirts began to sell with the slogan "Real Jeeps don't have square headlamps."
1996's TJ series aimed to not only provide a traditional Jeep look, but to build in a range of modern features that would attract a whole new generation of Jeep customers. Just as the Cherokee had become a 'must-have' vehicle, Chrysler Jeep aimed to make the Wrangler a fashionable buy. It's debatable whether they have succeeded. Wranglers aren't a common sight on British roads, their outrageously macho image often proving too much for the modest British sensibility. This is a shame, because as a low mileage, fun vehicle, the Wrangler holds a great deal more appeal than its more politically correct rivals.
In 2001, Jeep launched the Wrangler 60th Anniversary, a limited edition with bigger wheel arches, wider wheels and a bit of extra interior frippery.
What You Get
Designed for a young crowd, the Wrangler isn't laden down with creature comforts. What you get is basically a bouncy, noisy, fun to drive jeep powered by gutsy engines. The development of the TJ series saw an acknowledgement that whilst Jeep owners wanted the image, they also wanted some niceties to make life more bearable. The interior of the Wrangler received a makeover which made it look more car-like. Airbags for both driver and passenger was probably the key change made, as well as an integrated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
A lockable glove box was also introduced, with new high back rear seats. Access to the rear bench was still very awkward, requiring a degree of contortionism to effect an exit. The bench was made wider than before, as the new suspension system intruded less into the passenger compartment. The key difference between trim levels was the Sahara's standard removable hardtop. This is a heavy but well-engineered unit, with glass side and rear windows, heated rear screen and rear wash wipe. Available as an option on Sport models, don't expect to remove it whilst sitting at traffic lights, Mercedes SLK style. The Sahara also gained trailcloth seat fabric, leather covered tilt adjustable steering wheel, intermittent windscreen wipe and a rear seat saddlebag for extra stowage space.
Standard features on Sport models include the soft top with removable 'soft' side and rear windows, radio/cassette, auxiliary power socket, black wheelarch mouldings, and tailgate mounted spare with Jeep wheel cover.
What to Look For
More than half a century of ongoing development has engineered a degree of toughness into the Wrangler. Able to make a Cherokee look vaguely limp wristed when the going gets really rough, the Wrangler is a hardy companion. Faults are few and far between. As with all serious off-roaders, check for damage to wheels and suspension. The underbody and wheelarch liners should be unsullied, and intrusive transmission whine can mean a new differential. Check the steering for play and also check all oil seals.
On soft-top models, check for rips, tears or holes in the canvas, and also check the rear screen for evidence of fogging. Hard tops should be fitted and removed, as they can warp if left off the vehicle in direct sunlight.
(Estimated prices, based on a 1998 2.5 Sport) They like things big in America, and the same applies to parts prices. Gung-ho off-roading can become a costly pastime. A clutch assembly is around £280 and a full exhaust system around £700, including catalyst. Front brake pads are around £40 a throw, and a broken front radiator will be £360. Expect to budget around £320 for a new alternator, and the price of those retro round headlamps? £280 each unit.
On the Road
When you get into a Wrangler, you'll either buy into the Jack Daniels, John Wayne and Dirty Dozen image or you won't, there's not normally a great deal of middle ground. For those that do, what can you expect? Firstly, the Wrangler corresponds to all of these stereotypes. Never happier than when crashed into first gear and squealed away from a standing start, it's not big on subtlety. Driven at speed, the thrumming of the tyres, bellow of the engine and acoustic deficiencies of whichever top are chosen make it a very vocal partner. The soft tops tend to flap somewhat, and the hardtops drum at motorway speeds, but whoever chooses a Wrangler as a motorway car will probably lull themselves to sleep with Metallica.
There are two distinct and often opposing sets of requirements which make a good off road vehicle and one which is composed on the blacktop. The Wrangler's bias is firmly towards the former. Acceleration in the 4.0 litre models is vivid with 60mph reached in 8.5 seconds, and it's entirely possible to arrive at corners carrying more speed than the Wrangler is equipped to deal with. The 2.5 litre model is more sedate, and it's even spread of torque makes it a more satisfying tool off road.
The suspension on all models is, despite the improvements, somewhat bouncy. Females choosing Wranglers should invest in a good sports brassiere and avoid short skirts, as a dignified exit from such a height is tricky. Despite their utilitarian antecedents, Wranglers are not particularly practical vehicles. The interior is tight, and the load area is very small. Four passengers and their luggage is not a viable option. Fuel consumption is high too, with an official combined figure of 25mpg for the 2.5 and 222 for the 4.0. Exuberant urban or off road use will see a 4.0 Wrangler returning less than 15mpg.
It would be sacrilegious in a way to refer to any of the Wrangler's characteristics as faults. Having been in production for over half a century, the Wrangler has reached that stage in life where it doesn't have to try too hard to win new friends. Best to think of the Wrangler as a fun motorised toy, in the same vein as a jetski or a hyper-sports motorbike to be used at weekends, and not as basic transportation. In this light, its characteristics become part of the Jeep charm
Jeep Wrangler (1996 - 2008) review by ANDY ENRIGHT