Avoid: For reasons of fun only, the 4.0L six-cylinder-equipped versions.
Ideal Candidate: While a '98 5.9L Limited would be nice, for under $4,000 its condition would be hammered. We'd keep our eyes peeled for a more affordable '96 5.2L Laredo version with the lockable NV249 T-case.
Expect to Pay: About $3,500-$3,999 for a 120K-mile V-8-powered Limited or Laredo ZJ.
'87-'00 Wrangler YJ/TJ - The new LegendFor some reason, we think the YJ sort of got passed over in the overall scheme of things. Everyone and their brother were building CJs, then overnight the trend shifted to building TJs. We don't know why because the leaf-sprung YJ makes one heck of a trail machine and daily driver when built properly. Although we can see why people like the coil-sprung TJs for comfort and capability, their cost is still pretty high. We'll include them here just because we're starting to see some four-cylinder models in poor condition going for just under $4,000.
Look For: The '87-'90 four-cylinder engines have a throttle-body injection system that's OK, while the later versions have a multipoint injection system that's better. Either one is good off-road. The pricier '91-and-up 4.0L engines make great power for use with bigger tires. There aren't many options, in that manual vehicles will have either the AX-4 ('87-'90) or AX-5 ('91-and-up) behind the four-cylinder engine or the AX-15 behind the '89-and-up 4.0Ls.
Avoid: The '87-'90 4.2L six engines have a troublesome electronic carburetor that doesn't like to be taken off-road and an equally crappy Peugeot BA-10 tranny. All '87 Jeeps came with the obscure and forgettable NP207 T-case with 2.6:1 low. Don't bother. The 999 auto tranny is a good unit, but you shouldn't even consider running one behind a four-cylinder.
Ideal Candidate: The four-cylinder models are more affordable, but they're maddeningly underpowered. We'd look for a '91-'94 4.0L Wrangler with a manual tranny and power steering.
Expect to Pay: Most decent 4.0Ls hover right at the $3,999 mark, with very good 2.5L four-cylinder models anywhere from $2,500 to $3,999.
And Now A Word AboutBuying Someone's Unfinished Project:While it may seem like you can get a screaming deal picking up the shattered pieces of someone else's dream, getting into a half-baked project will usually just suck up more time and money than if you started your own project from scratch. We look at it this way: Although there are always exceptions, most of the time you'll wind up changing half the stuff the previous owner did and spend frustrating hours trying to figure out how to unscrew what they screwed up. Also, don't be lured by seemingly expensive trinkets and widgets that aren't all there. There's usually a reason that you're just getting a shortened front housing with no shafts, no steering components, and knuckles welded on all crooked and goofy.
Ideally, we'd rather get a running and driving vehicle, have fun with it stock, then build it up as our time, budget, and skills allow. Otherwise, you could be looking at a garage ornament that won't move for over a year.
Buying A Totaled-Parts Vehicle For Your Project:Buying a totaled-parts vehicle can be a good way of getting a bunch of parts for less than the sum of their costs. Plus, you'll have a source for all those little items that may be worn or missing from your rig. Just be careful when inspecting the parts donor. If it's been rolled or hit really hard, there could be bent stuff like axlehousings, suspension links, or springs, and damaged steering components. Using parts from the rear of a vehicle that's been hit in the front or vice versa can be a good idea, but if the vehicle you're considering buying for its axles and suspension system looks like the one in the photo, you may be better off walking away.