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Wrangling - Buy The Best Jeep Ever

Posted in Features on May 1, 2013
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Photographers: JP Staff

When the YJ Wrangler first hit dealer showrooms in 1986, it was the Jeep that many CJ owners loved to hate. Ourselves included. But once we got over ourselves, the square headlights, and the lack of “CJ” in the model name, we found a fairly capable Jeep underneath.

YJ 1987-1995

More than 25 years later, Jeep is still making Wranglers, and we’ve lived the whole thing. Now if you are new to Jeeps, or just looking to buy your first, it is hard to go wrong with a Wrangler. But with over two decades of them to choose from, the pros and cons of each could take you forever to figure out. And asking a car salesman is akin to talking to a politician: they are just going to tell you what they think you want to hear…and ultimately, what best suits them, not you.

Unlike our school years, we actually paid attention to the years of Wranglers and have amassed a lot of information about them. Not only that, but we’ve owned a whole passel of them as well. So who better to help you unravel the mysteries of the Wranglers than us? Read on, intrepid shopper.

YJ (1987-1995)
The YJ Wrangler was the first of the bunch and despite some really good upgrades from the CJs it replaced, it was off to a rough start thanks to some really horrible parts. We’d like to blame Chrysler for this, but the reality of it is that the first Wrangler was actually brought out under the AMC badge. Chrysler bought Jeep that first year and so is often mistakenly blamed for a lot of the issues the early Wranglers had. But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t see Chrysler’s influence until the ’90s, when it began fixing many of the AMC-design shortcomings.

Early YJ
We split the YJ up into sections because between the early YJ (1987-1990) and the late YJ (1991-1995), there are quite a few differences. The easiest way to tell the early YJ from the late YJ is the rollbar, but the rollbar doesn’t tell the whole story since it didn’t go from a triangular to a squared-off style until 1992—so you will have to keep your eyes peeled. Generally, the early YJ Wrangler came with a 258ci inline-six with a Carter 2bbl computer-controlled carburetor, your choice of three-speed automatic or five-speed manual transmissions, an NP231 T-case, and front high-pinion Dana 30 with Center Axle Disconnect (CAD) and rear Dana 35 axles without C-clips. The four-cylinder was a throttle-body-injected unit and made more power reliably than the same AMC four-cylinder it replaced with a different induction system.

The ’87 model year was a rough year for the Wrangler. The T-case started out with a less-than-desirable NP207 and the manual transmission choice for the six-cylinder was the craptastic Peugeot BA10/5 which can be identified by its clamshell-like case. That is, there is a left and right case half and they are bolted together at the top and bottom. Many of these have been swapped out, but keep an eye out for the clams and either avoid them, or bargain the price downward if the Jeep has one. The four-cylinder engine was backed by an AX5. A four-speed AX4 is said to have been the base transmission, but we’ve never actually even seen one. The three-speed auto was a TF904 behind the four-cylinder or a TF999 behind the six. Also unique for 1987 was the fact that the side mirrors mounted to the windshield for the half-door models, and the half doors were available without a lock or key.

’87-’91 rollbar

By 1988 the NP231 was the T-case of choice, but the Peugeot BA10/5 was still plaguing the six-cylinder. Half-door-equipped Jeeps came with door locks and both full- and half-hard door mirrors were moved to the doors. The Islander package also debuted this year, which featured stripes and stylized suns on the sides and hood of the Jeep. Functional benefits of the package included an up-rated alternator and battery and a larger 20-gallon fuel tank.

The ’89 model year started off with the Peugeot transmission, but by the end of the model year, the manual transmission was a much-improved AX15. All the other drivetrain components carried over unchanged from the previous year.

The last year you could get the venerable torque-monster 258ci inline-six in a Jeep turned out to be the ’90 model year. We have heard of people saying they had a 4.0L in their ’90 Jeep, but we’ve never seen it. Sure, maybe the Jeep was made in 1990, but the ’90 model year actually included Jeeps built from about August 1989 through July 1990. If it was built later, it was most likely sold as a ’91 model year Jeep. Drivetrain stayed the same as the late ’89s.

Late YJ
The later YJ or ’91-’95 Wrangler (there was no ’96 model year) became more standardized, and there were fewer major changes to the drivetrain. The 4.0L HO six-cylinder was multi-port-injected and backed by either an AX15 or the TF999 while the four-cylinder also got multi-port injection and was backed by an AX5 or TF909 automatic. The NP231, front Dana 30, and rear Dana 35 all soldiered on, but the Dana 35 rear was now equipped with C-clips to retain the rear axleshafts. There was no ’96 model year YJ because by federal law for ’96, all vehicles had to adhere to the OBD2 engine-control protocol and it made no sense for Jeep to rework the YJ with the TJ so close on the horizon.

The ’91 model year can be easily identified by the triangular shape of the rear of the rollbar and the 4.0L High Output sticker on the rear of the tub. It was the only Jeep to leave the factory with this combination of parts. For 1991, Jeep also went from a cable-driven speedometer to an electronic speedometer, and it was the only year that the sending unit used only two wires. The addition of the HO engine was celebrated by bringing back the venerable “Renegade” edition Jeep. However, the celebration must have included some heavy-duty drugs because the fiberglass front and rear bumpers as well as fender coverings and flares just don’t lend themselves well to actual wheeling. The heater blower motor also got an increase in both size and power, resulting in better heat from the factory.

’91-’95 rollbar

A few changes showed up for the ’92 model year, with the most notable being the rollbar. Gone was the triangular-shaped rear downtubes that all Jeeps before had, replaced by a square shape. This was done so that rear seat passengers could have three-point shoulder harnesses. This is also the only year that the square rollbar showed up without a high-mount third brake light. The speedometer sending unit used three wires, and gone was the dash-mounted factory clock. Instead the fifth gauge location in the center of the dash ended up with a big 4WD indicator light.

The ’93 model year picked right up where the ’92 year left off drivetrain-wise, with the only addition being a standard high-mount third brake light, which was standard on Wranglers going forward. Many of these have hit the scrap pile by now, but if you are trying to ID that square-caged YJ, check to see if the factory spare tire mount has holes drilled in the top. Antilock brakes showed up as an option, but they are horrible off-road, so either avoid a YJ with ABS, or plan on removing the system.

The ’94 model year saw no major changes in the drivetrain. One minor change which makes life a lot nicer is that the pesky hydraulic clutch throwout bearing was thrown out in favor of a more-reliable master/slave cylinder configuration with the slave cylinder being mounted on the outside of the bellhousing on the driver’s side. The full steel door Jeeps went from tiny unusable mirrors to the same mirrors that Jeep had been installing on the half steel doors since ’88 models.

By the 1995 model year, Jeep had basically figured it out and changed nothing. You can tell some later ’95 YJs apart by their hoods, however. Most YJs had two upside-down U-shaped rests for the windshield to rest on when folded down. These were accompanied by a metal footman loop. Some late ’95s ended up with hardware we associate as TJ parts—that is, the upside-down U’s were replaced by rubber bumpers, and some of the metal footman loops were replaced by larger plastic-covered units.

TJ (1997-2006)
It might sound weird, but the TJ Wrangler was the first Jeep that Chrysler designed. Weird, because it didn’t come out until 10 years after Chrysler had bought Jeep. The overall dimensions were basically the same as the YJ and CJ-7 that came before it, but the TJ Wrangler caught a ton of heat for its plastic car-like dashboard. Fortunately, round headlights came back and the suspension was the best yet in a Jeep. It out-handled and out-performed every open-top Jeep that came before it, and for the first time, 30-inch tires were available from the factory.

TJ 1997-2006

The TJ was also the first short-wheelbase Jeep that the windshield wipers weren’t in direct line of site when parked. Instead, they rest on the bottom edge of the windshield. The soft top is much easier to put down than any Jeep before and while the hardtop lost a few pounds, making it easier to remove, the full steel doors gained a few pounds for an overall wash when topless weather rolls around. It is also the last Jeep with a steel grille.

The introductory year saw several running changes, many of them having to do with the wiring which can sometimes make tuner compatibility a problem. The four-cylinder was backed by the AX5 manual or 30RH three-speed auto and the six-cylinder backed by an AX15 manual or a 32RH three-speed auto. Like the YJ before, the automatics aren’t bad transmissions. The new transmissions had a lock-up torque converter to help drop engine rpms, but with no real Overdrive gear the engine revs higher on the freeway than the manual transmission models. From there, power went out through an NV231 to a low-pinion, non-CAD Dana 30 front axle and a Dana 35 rear axle. A Dana 44 was available on the order sheet, but due to manufacturer’s availability issues you won’t see a lot of ’97s with rear Dana 44s. This was also the only year that the cowl had three sets of vents for the heater intake. Inside, heater controls were two sliders and a twist knob for blower motor speed and many steering wheels got one-piece airbag covers.

’97-only steering wheel
PhotosView Slideshow

Under the hood and body there wasn’t much of a mechanical change for the ’98 and ’99 model years. Outside, the cowl vent stamping was reduced to one vent opening because owners of ’97s were having issues with water coming into the cab. While identification can be made on the cowl panel, don’t bet your last dollar on it because unlike all other Jeeps, this piece of sheetmetal is removable and can be swapped from year to year. The only notable difference inside the Jeep came for the ’99 model year, where the heater controls went from two sliders and a knob to three twist knobs.

Only minor mechanical changes were made for the ’00 through ’02 models, with the easiest to see being the deletion of the distributor in the inline-six cylinder-equipped Jeeps. Instead, there was a sensor and a coil pack rail. It was intended to provide more accurate spark firing, but the early ones are known for sporadically throwing misfire codes. As a bonus, no distributor cap to get wet meant the engine could run in deeper water crossings than ever before.

A change that isn’t so noticeable until you drive it, is that the AX15 was gone in favor of an NV3550 which featured a lower first gear and was supposed to be a stronger transmission overall. In practice, however, we’ve found the AX15 to be a quieter and more reliable transmission. Automatic transmission options and four-cylinder drivetrains were the same as previous years. Wiring for these years is greatly simplified compared to the ’97-’99 models and much cleaner under the dash and hood.

In 2002 the HVAC heater box was changed, and the blower motor no longer poked through the firewall. Instead, like older CJs, the blower motor was in the passenger compartment by the passenger’s feet.

For ’03 models, a 2.4L inline four-cylinder replaced the 2.5L that dated back to the AMC days and gone were the three-speed automatic transmissions, replaced with a four-speed 42RLE. The 42RLE solved the high RPMs on the highway but the torque converter is too loose for low-range crawling which means that once again we prefer the manual transmission, which was still the NV3550 behind the six-cylinder, but behind the four-cylinder you will find a new five-speed NV1500. The factory transmission skidplate also grew to accommodate the larger transmission and optional larger T-case. Read: now drags on more stuff.

’03-and-up side view mirror

Inside the center dash pod changed to accommodate four switches and the rectangular stereo opening was rounded out as compared to previous years. The optional rear sound bar of previous years became sound pods. Front seats were redesigned and resulted in a 1-to-2-inch lower seating position, more plastic was added around the windshield frame, the rollbar padding got thicker, and the rear fold-and-tumble rear seat was the easiest yet to fold-and-tumble. However, that easy folding and tumbling came with a weight penalty, and the newer seat is a pain to get out of the Jeep. The fastest way to differentiate an ’03-’06 Wrangler from a ’97-’02 TJ is by way of the door mirrors. Early TJs used the hand-me-down cast metal YJ mirrors, while later TJs featured plastic mirrors. We normally hate plastic replacing metal, but the newer mirrors stay aimed much better.

But the big news for 2003 was the Rubicon Package. Checking that box on the order form got you a six-cylinder engine and your choice of transmission. But downstream of the transmission all the drivetrain changed. An NV241OR with a bigger chain, stronger case, factory slip-yoke eliminator, and 4:1 low-range was included in the package. The bigger T-case handed power off to front and rear Dana 44 axles with 4.10 gears and air-actuated lockers controlled by in-dash switches. Aluminum rocker guards, wider fender flares, 31-inch Goodyear MT/R tires on 16-inch wheels, and Rubicon badging rounded out the package. Used Rubicons tend to fall into one of two categories: either beat to hell, or owned by a soccer mom and never wheeled. Try to find the latter one.

There wasn’t much of a change in the drivetrain, body, or interior for 2004. Oh, wait, except for the introduction of an Unlimited model. The Unlimited quickly became a newer generation CJ-8 in terms of used prices which are stupidly high. The wheelbase was extended 10 inches and the body grew 15 inches leaving a nicer on-road ride and way more interior space. The Unlimited was dubbed LJ by the press at the time, but the actual internal model designation is TJ-L. Checking the Unlimited box meant you got a six-cylinder (no four-cylinder Unlimiteds), and a rear Dana 44 with disc brakes and a limited slip differential. Otherwise, the T-case and front axle, as well as the lockers with the Rubicon package, were the same as the shorter TJs. The LJ actually showed up early in 2003, making it a mid-model-year introduction but most just say it was an ’04 introduction.

Mock-up of where the door mirror hit the cowl on early models.

While there was a manual transmission on the books (NV3550) available behind the six-cylinder, in practice they were hard to find on dealer lots and might be rarer today in the used market. The four-cylinder still had the NV1500 behind it.

The biggest functional change for the ’05 and ’06 model years was the introduction of a six-speed manual transmission. The new NSG370 could be found behind both the four- and six-cylinder engines. T-case and axle options were the same as earlier years. However, the engine management system changed with additional O2 sensors and an additional air intake sensor. That means that some tuners, headers, and air intakes are specific to these model years. It isn’t uncommon for these Jeeps to kick codes for upstream or downstream O2 sensor issues unless they are babied all the time.

JK (’07-present)
When the JK was introduced, it was the first universal Jeep offered from the factory with four doors in addition to the regular two-door model. The only available engine in the U.S. was a 202 hp 3.8L V-6 with your choice of a six-speed NSG370 manual or four-speed 42RLE automatic. The standard T-case again was an NV231 with the NV241OR as an option in the Rubicon. Both ’cases are bigger and stronger than what came previously. The Rubicon package found its way back with the same 4:1 ratio in the T-case and 4.10 gears in the front and rear Dana 44 axles. The Rubicon models were tweaked with lockers that are now electronically actuated and front sway bars that have an electronic disconnect feature.

JK 2007-present

For the first time the speedometer doesn’t take a signal from the T-case, but rather from speed sensors at the wheels. Also, many of the vital systems are computer-controlled for your safety. ESP (Electronic Stability Program) and TPM (Tire Pressure Monitor) both make modifications more difficult. No longer is there a throttle cable, but rather the throttle body butterfly is opened by an electronic stepper motor and the gas pedal is attached only to a wire. While this eliminates surging when off-road on uneven terrain it also leads to a feel of a delay between pressing the gas and the Jeep moving.

The first year of the JK Wrangler had some teething issues. Some owners report electronic malfunctions. We’ve heard of everything from the ESP freaking out and stopping the vehicle from running to wheel sensors misreporting speed. There were actually several TSBs for the ’07 Wranglers and if you are looking at one, run the VIN past your local dealer to see if it needs work done. The Dana 35 was put in the JK but didn’t last too long with most of them ending up with a Dana 44 in the rear. Also, the Dana 44 itself changed towards the end of the year which means early ’07 parts might not work in later Dana 44s.

We’ve had quite a few shops tell us horror stories about oiling issues in the early 3.8L engines and having to rebuild relatively low-mileage engines because of it.

There were some issues early on with hardtops leaking and with mirrors denting the cowl. Between the functional and cosmetic issues, we’d advise you to stay away from the ’07 Wrangler in the used market. Our ’07 hasn’t had a lot of electronic spaz-outs, and the mirrors don’t hit the cowl, but our engine is hurting and might be in need of a rebuild.

The next couple of years of the JK mellowed out a bit with less problems overall. The drivetrain was the same as originally offered, and the interior and exterior didn’t change aside from some color and sticker options. The ’09 models had HSA (Hill Start Assist) and TSC (Trailer Sway Control) available as options.

For this model year, the drivetrain soldiered on pretty much unmolested as did the body and interior. Again, some color options changed. The soft top was redesigned to be easier to fold down and the sunvisors were different than previous years.

We think of this year as a prep year. The drivetrain stayed the same as previous years, but the interior and some exterior items were redesigned. A new steering wheel, seats, center stack, windshield, and dash and seat fabrics and plastics made the ’11 Wrangler much more refined than anything that came before. The fit and finish seemed better, and these Jeeps just seemed better put together overall. We think of it as a prep year because while it is a better Jeep than before, it didn’t solve our one gripe with the platform. We think Jeep was just prepping for what was to come.

The big news here is the engine and automatic transmission. Gone is the 3.8L, replaced by a 3.6L Pentastar V-6, which was rated at 285hp and 260 lb-ft, blowing all previous six-cylinders out of the water. The six-speed NSG370 manual transmission returned, but the bigger story in our book was the five-speed automatic (W5A580). It shifts well without big gaps between gears, doesn’t do the Jeep-hunt on the freeway, and is decent off-road in low-range. The Jeep-hunt is something any Jeep owner with an overdrive automatic is probably used to. That is, the transmission constantly shifting in and out of overdrive on the highway as though hunting for the right gear.

Besides the engine and new transmission, T-case and axle options were the same as previous years. As we go to press, one significant change in the option packages is the Moab edition for 2013. Sure, you aren’t likely to find it used anytime soon after you read this, but a rear locker with an NV231 T-case is worth mentioning.

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