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75 Years of Jeep Part 6: The Chrysler Years (1987-1998)

Posted in Features on May 10, 2016
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Photographers: Courtesy of the manufactures

There is sad irony knowing that the assassination of a Renault CEO by anarchists in 1986 had a major impact on Jeep history. Whether Jeep was for the better or worse afterwards will never be known, but the impact on Georges Besse's family was profoundly bad. Besse had been the prime mover for keeping AMC Jeep under the Renault banner. Many on the Renault board opposed this and wanted to divest of AMC Jeep, seeing it as a money pit. They were right. It had taken significant resources to pull the brand back from the brink, but it was on the uptrend. Jeep was in the black again and more great Jeeps were on the way. The AMC car lines were also adapting to a new market. Besse saw this and knew there was money to be made in the American market and thought Jeep had great potential in markets outside the USA. With Besse's death, the Renault board was free to accept an offer for AMC Jeep from Chrysler Corporation.

Chrysler Corporation's haggling with Renault started in February 1987, and by August 6, 1987, they had Renault's majority share of AMC and all other remaining shares. AMC Jeep became Jeep/Eagle, a wholly owned Chrysler subsidiary. Again, Jeep had been lucky and landed in a good situation, but so had Chrysler, for it was not long out of its own crisis. The plums in the Jeep pudding were the XJ and a new project called the ZJ that was in development.

1987-96: Wrangler YJ—No Respect!


"I ain't no stinkin' CJ!" The Sport Decor Group was the middle trim level YJ and screamed "Wrangler" in block letters. This is the package that Jeep marketing plastered all over the media to disassociate it from the previous CJ bad press. This package lasted through ’88 and included the decals, 215/75R15 Goodyear tires, AM/FM radio, and the Convenience Group. The Sport alloy rims were extra.

The Laredo was the first-generation Wrangler's top dog for several years. It delivered a plush carpeted, sound-deadened interior with high-grade vinyl trim. On the outside, it got a chrome grill, color-keyed fender flares, the decal kit, alloy wheels, the "big" Goodyear Wrangler ATs, and more.


The YJ story goes back to 1982. Jeep planners wanted new safety and daily driver features to make it more mainstream without losing trail credentials or essential "Jeepness." You can decide if square headlights are "Jeepy" or not, but keep in mind that the SJ, now a hot item on the vintage Jeep market, has square headlights too. It was hoped the "Wrangler" name would help break the connection to the negative press of previous years over CJ safety. In Canada, it was to be marketed as the "YJ," but the names were soon blended by Jeepdom.

YJs and CJs shared a few parts and a general look, but the YJ had started on a clean sheet of paper. The design was largely complete in 1983, and preproduction Wranglers emerged in 1984. CJ production at Toledo stopped in January 1986 with enough on hand to carry the dealers over the transition period. The YJ line was built at Jeep's Brampton, Ontario, Canada, plant, and production of the ’87 YJ started in March 1986. The intro hoopla started in February, the magazines got to test the YJ early in the year, and sales began in May. You could see both ’86 CJs and ’87 YJs on the Jeep dealer lots for the rest of the ’86 model year.

The standard 2.5L four and 4.2L six from the CJ transferred to the YJ, but the 2.5L was updated with throttle-body fuel injection. The four was backed up by the familiar Aisin Warner five-speed AX-5 and the six by a "stronger" Peugeot BA-10 five-speed. A Chrysler Torqueflite 999 was optional, and the NP-207 Command Trac part-time chain-drive transfer case from the XJ backed up all the trans options. The NP-207 was upgraded in all Jeeps for ’88 with the better and stronger NP-231.


The ’88-’95 Sahara was one of the more popular packages for the YJ. It was both sporty and off-roady but with many of the creature comforts the average person wanted in a daily driver. Though YJs are often shown topless or with ragtops—both of which were at extra cost—the full fiberglass top was very popular.

The YJ Rubicon is generally considered a Jeep "what were they thinking?" moment. To each beholder, it is either butt ugly or butt beautiful. It didn't offer anything in the performance department, as did the later TJ Rubicon. This is actually one of the Renegade prototype workups from 1989. The package included the 4.0L and choice of the AX-15 or automatic, the Convenience Group, fullsized spare, 20-gallon fuel tank, all the Renegade visual accoutrements, tilt steering column, alloy wheels, and the full sound deadening package.


The traditional CJ Dana 44 rear axle was downgraded to the notorious Dana 35, with or without a limited slip. Up front, a high-pinion Dana 30 debuted with live wheel ends and a vacuum-operated center disconnect. With wider track axles, a much stronger chassis, longer springs, track rods, and anti-sway bars, the stock YJ had less axle travel versus the CJ but a better ride and more predictable street handling. Stock for stock, the new Wrangler was way ahead of the CJ on the highway and generally equal to the CJ on the trail. Freed of the track and anti-sway bars by enthusiasts, the YJ became a great trail flexer.

Debuting with a Base model, the Sport Decor Group, and the Laredo, the YJ later had an "S" model emerge as an even more bare-bones model than the Base. The upscale/sporty Sahara debuted for 1988 and would prove to be extremely popular. For ’89, the Islander Package replaced the Sport Decor Group, and the dreaded BA-10 was replaced by the lauded AX-15. There were big doings in 1991 when the new multiport-injected 4.0L six replaced the anemic 4.2L and the 2.5L four got multiport injection. Yes, it was Renix injection, but it was great when it worked. Wrangler production moved from Brampton to Toledo for ’92, and the Renegade package entered the fray and lasted into 1994, while the long-running Laredo left after the ’93 model year. In 1994, the SE package replaced the Base after marketing realized "SE" sounded better than "Base." That same year, the Rio Grande Decor package became available as a cosmetic upgrade for the S line.

Wrangler YJ production cranked up in the last half of 1995 and into the early part of 1996, then was stopped to clear the line for the big changeover to TJ Wranglers. The last YJs had some unusual features including larger front axle U-joints, a galvanized chassis, and small body changes that would later appear in the new TJ. The YJ is remembered mostly as that "other" Jeep—an orphan link between the legendary CJ and the magnificent TJ. It probably deserves a better epitaph than that.

1987-91: Grand Wagoneer—Into the Sunset


Older, but still good looking and popular, the Grand Wagoneer was kind of like John Wayne about the time he did The Shootist. After 1988, the Grand Wagoneer had no similar models, and it was the only Jeep in which the AMC V-8 was still used. On reflection, it was almost a miracle it lasted to ’91 but Jeep had nothing to replace it's plush, burly utility. Those lucky few who bought last year Grand Wagoneers got a "Final Edition" badge and those SJs are highly collectible today. For some reason, the Hunter Green Final Edition GWs are the most highly prized.


The Grand Wagoneer was 25 years old when Chrysler took over. It was still looking good for its age and a popular choice with the upper-crust demographic. It was also a production headache due to a lot of unique parts. Early on, Chrysler computed the Grand Wagoneer buyer's average income at $102,000. This is not a demographic to take lightly, especially when you don't have a comparable model to fill the gap. The "Grand Wagoneer" version of the ZJ for ’93 was intended to do that, but by most accounts, the country club set sneered in disgust and turned away. Jeep didn't cry as the last Grand Wagoneer SJ rolled off the line on June 21, 1991—one of only about 1,500 built—but there was open weeping at equestrian events. The end of the Grand Wagoneer spawned a cottage industry supplying restored or refurbished Grand Wagoneer SJs, and that industry has done nothing but grow since.

1987-1998: XJ Cherokee and Wagoneer—Into the Stratosphere


The XJ line was the shining star of the Jeep line when Chrysler sealed the deal in ’87. The Pioneer was the popular lower-middle level offering that year and was newly upgraded with the legendary 4.0L/AW-4 automatic combo. More than 87,000 four-doors were sold for ’87, many of them with 4.0L.

A year after the ’97 refresh, Jeep ditched the Country model, replaced it with the Classic, and put the Limited (shown) in as the top end. It had just about every goodie offered in the XJ line as a standard feature, including the 4.0L and Selec-Trac.


The XJ was newly upgraded with the 4.0L and the available Aisin Warner 30-40LE four-speed automatic when Chrysler jumped in. The lineup consisted of the Base, Pioneer, Chief, Laredo, base Wagoneer, and Wagoneer Limited. Mid-year, a Limited model was added, replacing the base Wagoneer. For ’88, a Sport model appeared, positioned above the Base but below the Pioneer. The Chief died after ’88. A Briarwood model appeared in ’91, and the Wagoneer Limited died in '92, just in time for the Grand Cherokee ZJ and the Grand Wagoneer ZJ for ’93. With the introduction of the Grand Cherokee ZJ in April 1992, the Cherokee XJ was no longer the fair-haired boy in the Jeep lineup, but neither was it the redheaded stepchild.

AMC had planned to phase the XJ out after the ZJ debut. Chrysler decided to keep it on, and it was doing well enough to warrant a $215 million refresh that debuted for the ’97 model year. The angular body was smoothed a little and featured integral bumpers as well as new side mouldings and grille. A new dash and interior were added with an airbag system. The model lineup was reduced to three, the base SE (two door only), mid-level Sport and top-line Country, but 4x2 models remained available. It would actually outlast the ZJ by three model years, and that's a fitting memorial for a model that saved the brand.

1987-1992: MJ Comanche—Outlived Usefulness


Jeep got a lot of mileage from the Chief trademark: first with the SJ Cherokee, then the XJ Cherokee, and finally with the Comanche. For the MJ trucks, it only came on the 113 inch wheelbase and only for '87 and '88.

The 1992 model year was the last time you got to see "Jeep" on a new pickup's tailgate. This '92 was one of the last built and has often been seen in Jeep history displays. It was decked out by the factory with OEM and aftermarket goodies. It's believed to be in the historical collection at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.


The Comanche started life in November 1980 when the concept was approved for development as a ’85 model. It was called the XJ pickup at first, with "Comanche" coming in about a year before launch and "MJ" even later. Production was slated to start in October 1984 but was delayed a year. It emerged under the AMC banner with the Custom, Comanche X, and top-dog XLS, all available as two- or four-wheel-drive models on a 119.6-inch wheelbase with a 7-foot bed. There were two payload options: 1,200 pounds (4,001-pound GVWR) and "Metric-Ton" 2,205 pounds (6,001-pound GVWR). The TBI version of the 2.5L AMC four was standard with the GM 2.8L V-6 optional (the last year for it), as well as the 2.1L Renault Turbo Diesel. A four-speed AX-4 manual gearbox was standard, with the Peugeot BA-10 five-speed or Chrysler 904 three-speed automatic optional. The NP-207 Command Trac transfer case came with the manuals, but the Selec-Trac NP-228 part/full-time unit was optional with the automatic. The standard GVWR trucks used a Dana 35 rear axle, and the Metric-Ton used an AMC-23 axle (AMC-20 with one piece axle shafts).

For ’87, a 113.3-inch short wheelbase model debuted with a 6-foot bed and a 4,001-pound GVWR. The first-generation 4.0L inline and AW-4 automatic replaced the V-6 and Torqueflite as well. A Dana 44 replaced the out-of-production AMC-23 as the Metric-Ton rear axle. The NP-207 was replaced by the NP-231 transfer case. The SporTruck (base, SWB only), Pioneer and Laredo (short or long versions) replaced the original packages. A sporty Comanche Chief package was also available for the SWB truck. Despite it being Chrysler's first full year at the helm, the ’88 models were largely the same, with the addition of a 4x2 Eliminator model. The ’89 model year saw the elimination of the Chief and Laredo, and the Eliminator became the top model, available in two- or four-wheel drive. The ’90 models were about the same, but the dastardly Peugeot BA-10 five-speed was gone and replaced by the AX-15. The following year there were few changes other than the 2.5L four being given multiport injection.

By the end of 1990, the MJ was on the bubble. Sales were low and Jeep corporate wanted to know why. Dealers claimed Jeep buyers identified more with SUVs than trucks and said the Comanche was just another midsized truck in a big market. The decision was made in 1992 to end production, and they stopped rolling off the line in Toledo in June of that year with only about 3,500 built. Just more than 190,000 were built total. The MJ was the last production Jeep pickup.

1993-1998: ZJ Grand Cherokee and Grand Wagoneer


We got a hint of the ZJ in 1989 when this "Concept 1" prototype made the rounds of shows and the media. It was a running, driving vehicle that mounted P295/55R17 Goodyears, mostly for show. Under the skin it was a mix of Cherokee XJ and prototype ZJ stuff. It was seen first at the 1989 Detroit Auto Show and reputedly is still in the collection at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum.

The Grand Cherokee Laredo would be the most popular model of the ZJ line and carried on through the entire run. It was the just right trim level for many buyers. Chrysler records show 1,191,979 Grand Cherokee ZJ 4x4s built from 1993 to 1998, with a few listed in 1999. Over that same period, 53,116 4x2 ZJs were constructed. That's success by any standard.

This ’94 was a bit of an anomaly when some of the old Petersen's 4-Wheel & Off-Road crew tested it. It had the Limited exterior paint without the badge and it has the Laredo wheels with Wrangler ATs. Anyone who wheeled a ZJ knew it was top notch in its class and nobody really minded the creature comforts. Even if they wouldn't admit it.


Development of a Cherokee XJ replacement began shortly after it debuted. Working toward a late ’80s intro, the AMC codename for it was ZJ. X, Y, and Z—get it? After Jeep began operating under Chrysler, it became known as the Grand Cherokee. Much of the engineering was done by AMC, but Chrysler wanted some late-breaking changes. The biggie was a Chrysler 5.2L V-8 option. Another was a complete redo of the interior. That set back the introduction timeframe more than a year, but most agreed the results were worth it.

The Grand Cherokee debuted April 19, 1992, as a ’93 model. It was almost immediately heralded as a new SUV standard. The Ford Explorer was dominating the market, and the Range Rover had established itself as the queen of the rich and famous, but the ZJ had the requisite qualities to equal or exceed them. The Quadra-Coil suspension offered a great ride, good street performance, and surprisingly good trail performance. The 4.0L was mated to the AW-4 automatic, and a manual transmission was available, but for only a short while. By September 1992, the 5.2L V-8 ZJ was available, and that's when people got excited. The V-8 delivered an 8-second 0-60 time and a class-leading 6,500-pound tow rating. Fuel economy was on par with other V-8s in the market.

Initially there were three models, Base, Laredo, and Limited. A very high-end Grand Wagoneer ZJ also debuted, replacing the SJ, and was marketed almost as a separate model. It mimicked the retired SJ line with wood-grain side appliqués and plush leather interior, but it flopped with the "in-crowd" and only lasted through ’93. For ’94 models, the Base became the SE with some extra standard equipment, and the Laredo and Limited carried on. The Limited was available only with a full-time Selec-Trac four-wheel-drive system and so was any ZJ with a V-8. The ’94 ZJ was the last in which you could order the five-speed with the 4.0L, and they were only available for a limited time after January 1994.


No Range Rover envy here! The Limited offered supreme plushness that included leather seats, overhead console, a Luxury Group of accessories, a memory system for seat and mirror settings, a premium stereo cassette system with an equalizer, and the option of a preferred package group that added heat to the seats, a sunroof, and an even higher-end Premium Infinity Gold sound system with a CD player. You had the choice of the 4.0L or the 5.2L V-8, but you got the full Quadra-Trac system with street-oriented P225/70R16 Eagle LS tires on alloy rims. You could order the Trac-Lok LSD in back, fog lamps and the Class III or Class IV trailer tow package.

Some would say Jeep saved the best ZJ for last with the ’98 Grand Cherokee 5.9 Limited. Who wouldn't like a 245hp 5.9L in a ZJ? While the package was street oriented, especially the Goodyear Wrangler HP tires, it could still wheel. And a tire swap was easy.

AMC had no serious V-8 plans for the ZJ, but once Chrysler was in charge, those plans changed. Chrysler's 5.2L V-8 was newly upgraded with multiport fuel injection and cranked out an honest 220 hp. It was a tight squeeze, but it fit. The old AMC V-8 was of similar dimensions and perhaps a little lighter. Would an AMC 304 or 360 have fit? Maybe. A TBI setup might have worked on those, but few will argue that the 5.2L A-Block Chrysler was a good choice.


For ’95, Jeep added a third drivetrain choice, the new NVG-249 Quadra-Trac. It was a full-time system with a viscous coupling for more seamless operation. The aluminum "Super" Dana 44 also made its appearance along with standard four-wheel discs and ABS on all models. A new "luxo-sporty" trim level was added: the Orvis edition. For ’96, the ZJ dropped to only two models: the Laredo and the Limited. It also got some mild external facelifting, including a new grille and enhancements to the interior. The suspension and steering were retuned, and some bling and technology was added to the features list. The Orvis came back for ’97.

Thing got very interesting in the last year of the Grand Cherokee ZJ, 1998. The line moved up to four models. The Laredo was the base with a new street-sporty TSi splitting the features gap between the Laredo and the Limited. The Limited was at the high end but no longer was leader of the pack. To end the ZJ with a bang, Jeep offered up the 5.9 Limited, stuffing a 245hp, 345–lb-ft 5.9L V-8 into the Grand along with a suitably beefed-up drivetrain. This delivered a blistering 6.8 second trip to 60 mph and a quarter mile time near 15 seconds at 90 mph. The stock all-season tires didn't make it great for the trail, but the 5.9 Limited allowed the ZJ to go out with a flourish. Like the XJ before it, the ZJ set new benchmarks for the SUV industry and twisted competitor's tails in the process.

1997-1998: Wrangler TJ- A New Badass


This 1991 rendering by then-Design Director Trevor Creed shows a TJ concept at it's earliest stage. Note the round headlights. The designers took the slogan, "Real Jeeps Have Round Headlights" seriously and some of the design studio people actually quoted it in their interviews at the TJ launch.

Some called this a "full circle" shot the first and the best. Jeep would sell more than 100,000 TJs that first extra-long ’96 into ’97 model year.


Brainstorming for a YJ replacement started in 1990. The biggest upgrade on the "to-do" list was the suspension. Three options were considered. The one with the lowest development costs used an improved leaf-spring suspension. The middle option was adapting the ZJ's Quadra Coil setup to the SWB chassis. The last was a fully independent setup. It appears test prototypes were built to try all three ideas, but the middle option offered the most bang for the buck, and the execs signed off on it in 1992. Preproduction units were built in December 1995, and series production started in January 1996. Jeep was happy with only $260 million required to get it into production.

The Wrangler TJ was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1996, and they started trickling into showrooms in April. It was a hit with old and new Jeepers alike. The magazines couldn't shut up about them (still can't) and the aftermarket went berserk developing new product. The coil-spring suspension offered the best street ride and handling of any SWB Jeep combined with the best stock trail performance ever seen from a Jeep. The interior was the best combo of utility and comfort seen to that time. It could easily be called the longest evolutionary leap taken by the SWB Jeep.

The TJ emerged with three models, SE, Sport and Sahara. Most of you can cite TJ specs in your sleep but one of the big upgrades was an optional Dana 44. This wasn't available until July of '96 but it had hearts aflutter in the Jeep world. Not many changes for '98, except for standard power steering on all models and a drop in the standard axle ratio for the sixes from 3.55:1 to 3.73:1. If anything, the TJ got hotter and better after '98 but that's a subject for the next, and last, installment of this 75 Years of Jeep celebration. Stay tuned!

This was the key to the kingdom. The Quadra-Coil suspension adapted nicely to the Wrangler TJ and proved to be a very cost-effective, bang-for-your-buck upgrade.

The ever-popular Sahara made the transition from YJ to TJ and more or less had the same level of accoutrements. It came standard with the 4.0L, but you had the choice of a five-speed manual or automatic. If you ordered the Dana 44-3 rear axle, you got a Trac-Lok limited slip, 3.73:1 axle ratios, and a full-sized spare. If you had a six, you could order a 30-inch tire and wheel package that included 30x9.50-15 tires on alloy rims.

The mid-level ’97 TJ Sport had was nicely appointed, this one with the optional automatic transmission. These Pueblo Cloth seats were standard in the Sahara but optional in the Sport. It also had the optional AM/FM cassette stereo and air conditioning.

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