Maybe one of these days we'll understand why the YJ Wrangler hasn't enjoyed a larger following. We understand that CJ guys were disgruntled in 1986 when it was announced, because it was lower than the CJ, more streetable, and-gasp!-had square headlights. But really, the YJ is a solid platform, and we feel it has been unnecessarily dismissed .
There are those of us who actually like wheeling a Jeep with leaf springs. While they might not flex like their later coil-spring brethren, they feel solid, don't have weird mannerisms when you disconnect the sway bar, and are an all-around very predictable setup.
The '87 debut YJ was the worst year from a component point of view. The six-cylinder got the crappy computer-controlled Carter carburetor that never seems to run correctly, the unreliable Peugot BA 10/5 transmission, and a marginal NP207 transfer case. But once that year was over, things started looking up for the YJ.
The YJ frame was a one-piece rectangular tube-gone was the rust- and rot-prone C-channel welded together. The YJ frame is lighter than the CJ it replaced, it's also stronger, and doesn't rust out as easily. The body (for the first time in Jeep ) got galvanization, another big factor in rust prevention. The front springs were wider at 2 1/2 inches, and front and rear springs were flatter with a lower spring rate that transferred into better on-road manners and off-road flexing.
Inside the YJ, the unigauge of the CJ was replaced with seven individual gauges: tachometer, speedometer, fuel level, water temperature, clock, oil pressure, and volts now had their own much-easier-to-read gauges. The heater controls got the same treatment with easy-to-figure-out-and-remember slide controls.
Let's cut to the chase. If you are looking to buy a YJ, for whatever reason, buy a '91-'95 with a manual transmission and the inline-six.
We aren't saying all other YJs are junk, we are just telling you to save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run and get the good stuff up front-a multiport, fuel-injected 4.0L engine coupled to an AX-15 with an NP231, better heater, and it's less likely to be hacked up or rusted out. All of these components make for a nicer Jeep.
We get tons of questions from readers who want to know about converting four-cylinder YJs over to six-cylinders, and here's the answer: Unless you've been given a six-cylinder Jeep, it will cost more to convert than it will to just buy a six-cylinder to start with.
As for the automatic transmission, if you want something akin to mid-'70s technology with none of the beefy components, then by all means go with an auto. Really, if you've got an attention problem and shouldn't be driving a stick, that's fine. But the autos that came in these Jeeps are laughable. Buy one only if you are going to be swapping it for something else; the AW4 out of an XJ or MJ is a good choice.
The '90-and-earlier four-cylinders had a throttle-body fuel-injection system on them, and while it's better than the carb that cursed the 258, it still isn't ideal. The '91-and-later units got multiport injection and a half-horsepower (or so) increase. If you think we're being unnecessarily hard on the four-cylinder, we really aren't. We've had three of them on staff now, and unless you leave them bone stock, they will be dogs. With 33s, you can expect the same-if not worse-mileage than the six-cylinder counterpart while enjoying about half the power.
Once the six-cylinder-powered YJs got rid of the Peugot transmission sometime in the '88 model year, it became a decent overall package. The Peugot can be easily identified by the clamshell-style case that has a left and right half. If, by chance, you stumbled across a mid-year or so '88-'90 YJ with the 4.2L, 258-cid I-6 and it was a screaming deal, first check the transmission, then add in the price of a Howell throttle-body fuel-injection kit (around $1,200) and see if it's still worth it.
We've run the Howell kit on an '89 before, and the driveability was great. Power was a little bit lower than the later H.O. engines, but it still worked out well for us. So if you found one with comparable mileage and a much lower asking price, it might-just might-be worth it.
As for models from mid-'88 on, the six-cylinders included: Laredo, Islander, Sahara, SE, and Renegade. The Renegade had some funky-looking fiberglass body cladding, which didn't lend itself well to wheeling at all. The Islander was available in some, shall we say, "alternative" colors such as teal, turquoise, and bright yellow with an interesting stripe job and a stylized sun on the hood and doors. The Laredo is most commonly seen in white or black with a pinstriper's dream applied down the side of the Jeep. The Sahara featured bland-tan and putrid-green colors, while some years were "graced" with color-matching wheels-and all were cursed with ugly tan-and-green interior and seats.