The Jeep Wrangler TJ model is by far the most popular Wrangler Jeep has ever produced. Over the course of the TJ's nine-year lifespan, several improvements were implemented that significantly impacted the Jeep image and brand as a whole. The changes to the chassis, suspension, and axle greatly improved the Wrangler's off-road capability, making it a top-of-the-line off-road vehicle capable of climbing, maneuvering, and dominating the off-road scene.
The Jeep Wrangler TJ was the successor to the Jeep Wrangler YJ, and was in production from 1997-2006. The new TJ edition of the Wrangler line gave the exterior, interior, and suspension a much-needed update. This update focused on every aspect of the vehicle, inside and out. For example, it enhanced the Jeep Wrangler's exterior by redesigning the headlights, body shape, and overall style. Jeep also improved the interior trim, including the dash, door knobs, handles, controls, and – most significantly – the engine, drivetrain, and suspension.
The Jeep Wrangler is a smaller off-road vehicle, unable to compete with the horsepower and torque of larger engine vehicles and full-size pickup trucks. However, the overall off-road capability and maneuverability of the Jeep Wrangler was much greater than competing off-road vehicles, due to its size and the surprisingly decent engine power output. The Wrangler TJ ranged from 3,000 to 3,800 pounds, falling on the lighter side of the spectrum, as some off-road vehicles can approach 5,000 pounds. The combination of impressive power, light weight, and compact design allowed the TJ to traverse the rugged terrain much easier than other types of off-road vehicles.
The Wrangler TJ was a much needed update to the Wrangler brand. The new TJ model used the 4.0-liter, AMC 242 six-cylinder that produced 190 horsepower and 225 lb-ft of torque from 1996-2001, with an increase of 10 lb-ft of torque to the 2001-2006 engines. This 4.0-liter AMC engine was discontinued in 2006, when the TJ model was in its last year of production. The 2006 model also offered a four-cylinder 2.4-liter PowerTech engine that produced 150 horsepower and 165 lb-ft of torque. In 1999, the fuel tank standard switched to 19 gallons, but additional changes in 2002 and 2003 made it difficult to swap out parts from different TJ model years.
The Rubicon was the most popular, and also the most capable, model in Jeep Wrangler production history. The Rubicon also included heavy-duty drive-shafts, electronic locking front and rear axles with Dana 44 front and rear differentials, electronic sway bar disconnects, and factory-installed rocker rails. The factory Wrangler also came with 31-inch tires, a suspension lift, and undercarriage skid plates for additional off-road protection.
2003 was a significant year for the Wrangler TJ, as it marks the year that the Rubicon trim was first released. From 1997 to 2002, the side door mirrors were metal framed that were painted black; 2003 to 2006 models switched to plastic materials. In 2003, the three-speed automatic transmission was replaced with a four-speed automatic that included an overdrive, essentially making it a five-speed transmission. The 2003 model also included slightly different hard and soft tops, as well as new color options. The standard Wrangler skid plate was also changed in 2003 to fit the larger transfer case the Rubicon was given, the NV2410R.
This version of Wrangler also marked the last edition that would feature signature AMC parts, as the AMC four-cylinder engine was retired after the 2002 model. From 2003 to 2006, there were only two engines offered by Jeep. The first was a 2.4-liter PowerTech engine with either a four-speed automatic transmission or a five- or six-speed manual transmission. The second was the 4.0-liter, AMC six-cylinder engine with a four-speed automatic transmission. A five-speed manual transmission was offered from 2000 to 2004, and a six-speed manual was offered from 2005 to 2006.
Wrangler offered over a dozen editions of the Wrangler TJ, frequently updating trims and accents. The SE ran from 1997 to 2006, and was fitted with the 2.5-liter AMC four-cylinder engine from 1997 to 2002 and the 2.4-liter PowerTech from 2003 to 2006. The 4.0-liter AMC six-cylinder engine was offered as an option from 2005 to 2006. The X model was available from 2002 to 2006, and came with the 4.0-liter engine; however, the Dana 44 rear axle was not an option for this model.
The Sport model was offered from 1997 to 2006 and came standard with the 4.0-liter engine. Unlike the X model, the Sport featured a Dana 35 rear axle, 3.73 gears, and 30-inch wheels as available options. Those who chose one of the six-cylinder engines could also upgrade to the Dana 44 axle, which featured 4.10 gears and a limited slip differential.