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A Short History of the Jeep Wrangler 1987-2018

From just after World War II until the end of 1986, American truck buyers were served up a variant of the classic CJ (Civilian Jeep). First came the Willys-Overland Jeep CJ-2A of 1944, then the Kaiser/Willys Jeeps, and finally the American Motors (AMC) Jeep CJ-7 of the seventies and eighties.

For the 1987 model year, it was time for a radical update of the CJ, produced by an all-new incarnation of Jeep owned by the Chrysler Corporation (who would go through a couple of re-incarnations of its own in the next couple of decades). The new version of this American icon had only an indirect connection to the previous CJ but maintained the real off-road abilities Jeep was known for.

Here is a short history of three generations of Jeep Wrangler, covering 1987 through 2017, but all found in Chilton Manual 40650.

Jeep YJ Wrangler (1986-1995)

Wrangler YJDesigned in the waning days of the American Motor Company in the early 1980s, the Jeep YJ Wrangler debuted at the Chicago Auto Show in February 1986, entered production in March, and arrived at dealers on May 13, as a 1987 model. The YJ was designed with attracting more daily drivers as a goal. Wider leaf springs, trackbar suspension links, anti-sway bars, and lower ground clearance were pulled together to make for a more comfortable, safer, on road ride. Research indicated owners interested in serious off-road use installed a lift kit almost immediately, even on the old CJ-7, so the factory felt this was a wise direction.

This generation would be the only Wrangler to wear square headlamps, which fit the 1980s well but made enthusiasts wonder if designers had rolled their Jeeps over on the Rubicon one time too many. The rest of the YJ did have some interchangeability of parts with the previous CJ but was otherwise a brand-new beast from the larger windshield to the wiper blades resting upon it. Available trim levels included the base model, the mid-range Laredo, and the top-end Sahara.

Over the life of the YJ, power under the hood came from three engines: The 2.5 liter (150 ci) AMC four-cylinder (based on the straight six), the long-serving 4.2 liter (258 ci) AMC straight six, and an updated 4.0 liter straight six which debuted in 1991. The power was sent to all corners (wearing Goodyear Wrangler tires, of course) via the three-speed Torqueflite 909 or 999 automatic transmissions, AX-5 or AX-15 five-speed Aisin manuals, or the less durable Peugeot BA-10/5 manual gearbox.

In 1991, the fuel-injected 4.0 liter replaced the old carbureted 258, providing the YJ Wrangler with 180 horses and 220 lb-ft of torque, towering over the outgoing motor’s 114-hp/210 lb-ft output. The same year also introduced the even more on-road focused Wrangler Renegade, which had body-color fender extensions and unique bodywork to give the YJ an IMSA/SCCA Trans-Am-esque sporty appearance. Rear shoulder belts on the roll cage came in 1992, and anti-lock brakes finally arrived in 1993. Surprisingly, an automatic transmission option wasn’t given to four-cylinder YJs until 1994.

Jeep TJ Wrangler (1997-2006)

Wrangler TJIntroduced in January 1996 for the 1997 model year (the 1996 model year was skipped), the TJ Wrangler would be the last to still have AMC parts throughout the vehicle, from the 4.0 liter AMC  six to the door handles. Gone were the square headlamps, replaced with the classic round units so beloved by enthusiasts. The TJ received a top-to-bottom update design-wise, with only the door panels from the YJ carrying over.  Underneath, the new Wrangler adopted the XJ Cherokee’s coil-spring suspension, which gave much-improved ride quality on pavement and a seven-inch increase in suspension articulation for the solid front and rear axles off-road.

Trim levels available included the (base model) SE, the Sport, the Sahara, the Rubicon (introduced in 2002), and a handful of special editions, from the Tomb Raider Edition to the Willys Edition. For the 2004 model year there was a big introduction, as the Unlimited brought back the long-wheelbase variant last seen 18 years earlier in the CJ-6 and Scrambler.

Under the TJ Wrangler’s more aerodynamic hood, the updated 2.5 liter (formerly the AMC 150) powered entry-level models, until it was replaced in 2003 by the 2.4 liter DOHC PowerTech four found in the Chrysler PT Cruiser. The 4.0 liter six (still based on the AMC 242) provided optional oomph and torque for the entirety of the TJ era. The power went to the transfer case through TorqueFlight 30RH or 32RH three-speed autos (not replaced by a four-speed with overdrive Ultradrive 42RLE until the 2003 model year), or the returning Aisin five-speed manuals. The 2000 model year brought a heavier duty New Venture NV3550 five-speed to the 4.0 liter, and 2003 brought the NV1500 to the base motor until the six-speed Chrysler NSG370 manual unit (actually designed by Mercedes) replaced booth for 2005.

Of all the variations this generation Jeep had, the Rubicon variants were the ones that give the Wrangler serious off-road cred from the factory. Named for the famed Rubicon Trail in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this Wrangler had front and rear air-actuated locking Dana 44 axles connected to a Rock-Trac NV241 transfer case with 4:1 low range. Diamond plate rocker panels and 16-inch alloys wrapped in 31-inch Goodyear all-terrain tires rounded-out the rest of the Rubicon trim. All of these features also were used in the Sahara Edition Unlimited Rubicon and Tomb Raider Edition models, made to promote the films Sahara (2005) and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003).

Jeep JK Wrangler (2007-2018)

Wrangler JKThe JK Wrangler bowed at the 2006 Detroit Auto Show, followed by the stretched, four-door Unlimited at the 2006 New York Auto Show. Both would hit showrooms in August 2006 for the 2007 model year, where buyers found quite a few changes compared to the previous TJ.

The new Wrangler had a 3.4-inch wider track than the previous model, while the Unlimited variant became the first of its kind to boast four doors. A soft-top was standard, while those needing a sturdier option could opt for a modular three-piece hardtop, which allowed removal of just panels over the seats or the whole top. The majority of vehicle functions in the JK were integrated into the computer, which led to a few safety recalls for software fixes early on. Stability control, anti-lock brakes (designed to handle off-road conditions), and a traction control system with electronic limited-slip differential all helped keep the rubber on the road (or dirt). Both standard and Unlimited models came in X, Sahara and Rubicon trims.

Under the hood, the 4.0 liter was replaced with a more modern 3.8 liter V6, good for 202 horses and 237 lb-ft of torque. This iron block pushrod engine, originally introduced in Chrysler’s minivans in 1991, was the base engine from 2007 to 2011. In 2012 the 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, with DOHC, 24-valves, and all aluminum construction upped output to 285 horses and 260 lb-ft. The power was originally carried via four-speed automatic, or six-speed manual transmissions carried over from the previous generations, with a Mercedes W5A580 five-speed auto following the introduction of the Pentastar.

Though the JK Wrangler was made for the modern day, you can still remove the doors, fold down the windshield, and take the top off for off-road madness under the sun, just like the CJs of yesteryear. While the basic vehicle may have been optimized for better on-road use, the factory options and Rubicon model still let buyers rule the trails right from the showroom.

See this manual and other Jeep repair manuals at the Chilton site.

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