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Jeep Wrangler YJ Buyers Guide - Wronged Wrangler

Posted in Project Vehicles on January 1, 2010 Comment (0)
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Starting A Dynasty In 1986, AMC debuted a radical departure from the CJ. The company was going for a new look to accompany this new Jeep that did everything better than the old one. It was more comfortable on- and off-road, it flexed better (once you pulled the sway bar and track bars), and it had a quieter, more reliable, easier-to-use transfer case. The Wrangler got a better frame, wider springs, and better rust-proofing than the '86 CJ did. The soft top sealed better, the wipers actually worked well in snow, and the defroster defrosted more than two triangles of the windshield.

That said, it is almost as if AMC didn't want it to succeed. The company killed the long-storied "CJ" family lineage in favor of things like "YJ" and "Wrangler." It got rid of the iconic round headlights in favor of rectangles, the Jeep was lower to the ground, and in place of a simple steel dash was a plastic-covered thing that everyone was convinced was going to rattle and squeak within a year. Then Big Brother threw a monkey wrench into things with CAFE and emissions standards, which translated into a TBI-injected four-cylinder that, if something went wrong, was not easy to fix. The computer-controlled carburetor on the 4.2L engine (that featured more linear feet of vacuum line than many parts stores even have in stock )was a feeble attempt to meet government regulations.

To this day, the YJ Wrangler still carries a stigma, and it isn't as popular as the CJ that preceded it or the TJ that came after it. It is still a great Jeep and a good platform to start off with, and because most other people are looking at CJs or TJs, it often means you can score the Jeep that started the twenty-plus years of the Wrangler's reign as the best off-road production vehicle for half the price of a similar condition CJ or TJ. So follow along and we'll give you a crash course in what to look for in a YJ Wrangler.

'87
The '87 Wrangler was an odd bird. It got steel half doors, but no locks on them. It got windshield-mounted mirrors that were different than the CJ's, but only lasted a year. It was the only year the top used snaps at the steel door, so unless you convert, you can't use tops from other years. The 4.2L was bulletproof, but it was bolted to the Peugot BA 10/5, which was a waste of good alloy. It was also saddled with a computer-controlled Carter carburetor, which many times did not run well when it initially left the factory. The 2.5L got a throttle-body injection system and was bolted to the AX-5 transmission. No matter which engine you opt for, you'll end up with the internal hydraulic slave cylinder. It can be problematic, and when it goes out, you need to pull the transmission and T-case to get to it. Then Jeep threw an NP207 into the mix, again the only year for that T-case to grace a Wrangler. Basically, the '87 YJ is only a bargain if you are planning on replacing the drivetrain anyway.

'88-'90
Things got a bit more uniform after that initial year was over. All the bodies were galvanized, most of the steel half doors got door locks, the soft tops were the same as the later years, and mirrors were moved to the doors for both the half-door and full-door Jeeps. Both the carbureted six-cylinder and the TBI four-cylinder received the NP231 T-case, which were around until the end of YJ production. During the '89 model year, as with the Cherokee, we started to see the AX-15 installed in order to get rid of the Peugot transmission.

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'91-'96
The '91 model year saw the introduction of the High Output 4.0L engine, and gone were miles of vacuum line. This motor is reliable as an anvil, puts down decent power, and the fuel injection system has proven itself to be largely trouble-free, proving all the fears of the computer-controlled system unfounded. Meanwhile, the four-cylinder also benefitted from multi-port fuel injection and a resultant bump in the power department. An unfortunate side note to the '91 model year is the Renegade, which was basically a $5,000 tree-and-rock grabbing fiberglass fender and bumper package.

With the introduction of a more powerful six-cylinder, the Jeep group decided to bring back a name from the past: Renegade. Back in the early 1970s, AMC offered a Renegade package that got you a V-8 in the CJ-5. In Jeep people's heads it lived on as the rip-snorting fast-as-hell Jeep that was almost scary to drive because of its low curb weight and the V-8. Well, today, the Renegade name is forever tarnished, thanks to this YJ (not to mention the laughable KJ Renegade). Under the fiberglass is largely a normal YJ with a few more holes in the sheet metal, so all is not lost. If it's in great shape and a good price, nab it and strip the fiberglass off of it.

Crash standards for the '92 model year meant that the triangular roll cage that had carried over from the CJ-era was modified and squared-off so that the rear-seat passengers also received three-point seatbelts. Also gone was the center-dash analog clock; instead, a 4WD shift indicator light showed up to stay, and the cable-driven speedometer took a bow in favor of an electronic speedo. In 1993, more government involvement led to a high-mounted third brake light. Drivers who forgot what following distances were led to Jeep offering an optional ABS system on a Wrangler for the first time.

By the time 1994 rolled around, Chrysler finally addressed one of the problems that plagued both six- and four-cylinder YJ owners through the years: that dang hydraulic throwout bearing. Finally, the Wrangler got an external master/slave clutch setup like it should have had from the beginning. Another bright thing about the '94 model year is that due to staggeringly low sales, the Renegade made its last appearance in the options list.

Some will argue that 1995 was the last year for the YJ, some will argue 1996; we've never seen a titled '96. Though the TJ came out in late 1996, all were titled as '97 models. Regardless of splitting the year hair, the last YJs off the line are arguably the best. Many of them benefitted from the larger 297x size front axle U-joint. Some of the last YJs got the TJ-style rubber windshield rests instead of the U-shaped style that ran for 40-some years, and the later YJs off the line got what many refer to as heavy-duty cast aluminum tailgate hinges instead of the stamped steel hinges that were on YJs from the first. While less likely to bend, the aluminum hinges have been known to lock up in rusty climates and become very difficult to open. We have even heard of some of the very last YJs getting TJ-like rear bumpers, and while it is entirely possible thanks to both models sharing rear crossmember stampings, we haven't personally seen it.

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