When the TJ rolled out in the summer of 1996, it got bashed for its “Volvo-like” interior, thinner sheetmetal, goofy seats, and coil springs. The world soon realized though that this Wrangler was way better than the one that came before it and lots of people started ditching their old Jeeps to climb on the TJ bandwagon. We were there right at the beginning, and having played with TJs now for 17 years, we’ve got a pretty good idea of what is needed to make one work in any given situation. We also know which parts came from the factory that don’t work well for long. So no matter what your flavor of wheeling, here are some tips and tricks for how to build a better TJ.
If mud is in your Jeep’s future, the factory inline-six engine is only middling for the sloppy stuff. While you can bounce that four-cylinder off the rev limiter like no one’s business they just don’t do well in the muck. If you are determined to keep the factory inline-six, you better hope you have a factory manual transmission behind it because all of the factory automatics have vents that are too low to deal with water and you will end up killing them quickly in the mud. If you don’t do much street driving, Super Swamper Boggers could work for you, but if your Jeep does see the street, some Dick Cepek Crushers will last you a lot longer.
You will be much better off dropping a late-model fuel-injected V-8 between the framerails in the long run. And, while some think it looks goofy, whether you keep the factory engine or swap it, a snorkel is good insurance to keep that engine healthy. While you are swapping engines, pick an automatic that can be vented way up high and you’ll be good to go. Lift height in the 4- to 6-inch area is the key here and cut to fit the biggest tires you can.
In the rocks, either factory engine works fine, run what you brung and gear it appropriately. Since all of these Jeeps rolled out with multiport fuel injection, off-camber, and steep climbs aren’t a problem. The AX5 behind the four-cylinder is kind of weak and we’ve had issues with the NSG370 in long-term usage but the AX15 and NV3550 are good transmissions to have. As far as autos, the three-speeds are all decent, but the 42RLE four-speed in the later Jeeps is no good in the rocks. You’ve gotta rev the engine over 2,000 rpm to get the Jeep to climb, even in low range, and the pickup can easily come uncovered in off-camber and climbing/descending scenarios.
The NV231 is a great T-case and in the rocks, it is good behind an automatic, but in big rocks you might want a 4:1 low range. The six-cylinders can handle the 2.72:1 with some clutch slipping, but a 4:1 is really nice to have for the four-cylinder Jeeps. Whether that means swapping in a NV241OR Rock-Trac from a Rubicon, or putting in something like a TeraLow kit is up to you, either is a great option. You can fit 35s with as little as 3 inches of lift with factory fenders, and if you go with some aftermarket hi-line fenders you can go bigger than that.
Aluminum armor is a great idea to keep your power-to-weight ratio, but stick with steel for things that get into the rocks frequently such as the belly pan, rocker guards, and gas tank skid. While you can run aluminum for those parts you will find that you will be replacing them more than you would steel parts. And you won’t regret upgrading your control arms to some heavy-duty tubular units.
You can have a lot of fun in the sand in a stock Jeep with a locker and aggressive tires, but it is more fun with a V-8. In general, any of the factory automatic options will work well here and will likely be more fun than the manuals will unless you are some stick-shifting rain man. If sand is all you are doing, avoid the heavy corner guards and armor in general, just use the stock belly pan and gas tank skid. Lighter is better here. You might even want to just leave your hard top at home.
A four-cylinder usually has no overheating problems in the dunes, but with a six-cylinder you might find yourself needing more radiator to keep things cool. Speaking of four-cylinders, just put it in low range and forget it. If you have to lift the Jeep, keep it as low as you can to clear the tire you are trying to clear. The lower it is the better it can pull a U-turn at the top of that dune that you just barely didn’t make it to the top of.