Look, we understand that the '76-'86 era of CJ's doesn't encompass all of the civilian short-wheelbase Jeeps out there. It doesn't even encompass all of the AMC-era CJs. But face it, if we lumped the intermediate '72-'75 CJ-5s in with the '76-and-later CJ-5, -7, and -8s, there is really no comparison.
Now before you intermediate guys get your panties in a bunch, hear us out. From '72-'79, the CJ-5 really saw no improvements. It sported either really narrow Dana 44 or AMC 20 rear axles, and the T150/Dana 20 combination was it for getting power out to the axles. But since 1976 was the first year for the CJ-7, we've opted to lump the later series of CJs together and leave the AMC-era intermediates to the oddballs category that can be found elsewhere in this issue (page 24).
This author has owned a Jeep from seven of the 10 years covered here and liked them all, so picking a favorite was difficult. After no small amount of introspection and a hard look at the components that the Jeeps of the era came with, it became an easy task. Before we give you what we came up with, let's go through the thinking it took to get to that conclusion.
In 1976, AMC updated the CJ-5 and rolled out the CJ-7. With wheelbases of 83 1/2 inches and 93 1/2 inches, respectively, there was little difference beyond a measurement and door-opening size. The CJ-7 was touted as more civilized by adding an optional automatic for the first time in the Universal Jeep's 30-year run that also featured a full-time four-wheel drive. There were two engine choices: an inline-six and a V-8. The six-cylinder was available with an optional T-18 transmission, which is our favorite manual transmission of the era.
There were minor trim changes from '76-'79. Likewise, other little things were changed. Just one example is in 1976 and part of 1977; for some reason, the frame wasn't fully boxed. The welded-together C-channels stopped about 3 feet from the rear crossmember. Front disc brakes became standard in 1977.
The '80 model year rolled around and brought with it the advent of the Dana 300 transfer case. It featured a lower Low range of 2.62:1, a modern construction that featured self-contained oil (no longer would a blown transmission dump metal chunks into the transfer case), all while maintaining the compact size of the Dana 20.
Sometime in the '80 model year, AMC went to a dual-wall door opening on the body tub, which greatly increased stiffness over the angle supports that were previously used.
The '81 model year brought a few significant changes: the death of the 304 V-8, and thanks to stricter fuel-economy standards, the reintroduction of a four-cylinder engine; the advent of the CJ-8 with the availability of full- and half-cab models; barn-door-style door handles were replaced with levers; and toward the end of the year, the track width increased to 58 inches.
The CJ-5 was killed off in 1983 and not much else changed until the supply of AMC 20 rear axles ran out in 1986, and Dana 44s found their way back under the rear of the Jeep.
In the end, we are going to go with just one model year of Jeep: the '80 CJ-5 or CJ-7. The reason for this is the availability of the V-8 and the Dana 300. We aren't picky about the wheelbase difference because both lengths have advantages and disadvantages. If you have never driven a V-8-powered CJ, you owe it to yourself to do so. Sure, the 258 inline-six is a solid engine, but it's just not as enjoyable as the 304 overall, and the presence of the Dana 300 transfer case just plain makes us happy.
The T-176 four-speed manual transmission that was typically coupled behind the V-8 in 1980 left little to be desired; we'd much rather have the T-18, but it wasn't offered behind the V-8. And, of course, there are the two-piece axleshafts in the AMC 20 rear (common to the era), but other than those two complaints, the '80 is on top of the AMC-era Jeep food chain.