Normally when I put together one of these staff-compilation stories I do so with the iron fist of an evil dictator. I enforc my will upon the contributions of Cappa and Trasborg, tossing their opinions to the wayside when they don't jive with mine and substituting my own reality when applicable. But for this story I took a decidedly more democratic slant, allowing each staffer his say. In the end, the top ten winners were the Jeeps that garnered the most votes staff-wide-not just in Hazel's little world where the sky is green, the stars are marshmallow, and it rains Dr. Pepper every Saturday afternoon. And remember, we're judging them in stock, as-delivered trim, so don't tell us about how your favorite model is better than what we picked if you only swap in a this or modify a that. So here they are in no particular order-your 10 best Jeeps of all time.
'72-'75 CJ-5 and CJ-6
It's the last of the real Jeeps that didn't come polluted with an automatic transmission option and miles of needless smog equipment. Some staffers don't really like the CJ-5 body lines, but these years have other good qualities. With a wheelbase stretched to 84- or 104-inches (CJ-5 or CJ-6) to accommodate the longer AMC six-cylinder, all CJ models came with the 232 as the base engine. Optional upgrades were the torquey 258 inline six or a 150hp 304 V-8. Durable T-14A or T-15 three-speed or T-18 four-speed manual truck transmissions and Dana 20 T-cases were better fare than previous years. All of them had admirable open-knuckle Dana 30 (front) and flanged (and centered) Dana 44 (rear) axles. Add to the mix larger 11-inch drum brakes with a power brake option, a much-improved steering system, and stronger frames and they're a natural for this list.
'74-'79 J10 Shortbed
They got heavy-duty fullsize truck drivetrain stuffed between the framerails of a midsized truck. They came with a 360 or way-bad 401 V-8, a T-18 or TH400 transmission, and Dana 44 axles (front and rear) from the factory. This is the kind of stuff people spend a lot of time and money swapping into other vehicles. They also have easily-modified suspension that works pretty good on- and off-road. Make it a short bed model and you'll be able to haul all your camping and recovery gear while still being able to turn and maneuver through some fairly tight and twisty trails.
By this point, Jeep had its CJ model all figured out. The run of AMC car-based Model 20 rear ends had dried up, so a 30-spline Dana 44 with an optional Trac-Lok diff brings up the rear of the swan song CJ-7. Sure, the V-8 option of earlier CJs was gone, but the 258 inline six was durable and somewhat-reliable. Add a wide-track, open knuckle Dana 30 front with disc brakes for some more mechanical niceties and the option of a hard top and A/C and you've got a very nice mix of vintage Jeep looks, old-world performance, and modern-age comfort and convenience.
'06-'10 SRT8 WK
Come on, the 420hp 6.1L Hemi V-8 makes it the most powerful Jeep ever produced. It cranks quarter mile times in the low 13s, burns a faster 0-60 than a $100,000 Porsche Cayenne Turbo, romps and stops 0-100-0 in the low 19-second range, and is a skid pad (cornering) equivalent of the $130,000 Porsche 911 Turbo. And you get all this for less than $50,000. We can't afford one, but if we could, this is the 5,000-pound SUV we would smoke most sports cars with while hauling three other people and some beach toys. It's also a good way to land in jail or dead at the bottom of a cliff-but what a trip it'll be getting there.
Chrysler originally planned on killing off the XJ for the '02 model year, but then pushed the plunger a year earlier than what dealerships were telling us. The impromptu lethal injection sent a ton of people scrambling to buy the last-ever XJ. Drivability, off-roadability, power, room, comfort, capability, you name it, the XJ has it. All the bugs were worked out of an already-reliable platform, with coil-on-plug ignition, a durable drivetrain backing the 4.0L, and very good Chrysler 8.25 rear and Dana 30 front axles. Sure, the factory ran out of the high-pinion XJ axles mid-way through '01 and started using low-pinion TJ axles to fill the build orders, but in stock trim, it's hard to beat one of these little off-road sport machines.
'05-'06 TJ Unlimited Rubicon
Trasborg's girlfriend owns one, but we don't think that's the only reason he voted for it. Many times a TJ is just too small for two people to take camping for a weekend-unless of course you want to haul your crap outside the Jeep in a rack. But if you want a useful-sized interior and a longer wheelbase for stable climbing, the LJ is your goat. Enjoying much of the standard TJ's replacement part and aftermarket support and laden with top-flight drivetrain components, off-road-friendly lockers, and armor where it counts, the Rubicon Unlimited TJ is an off-road warrior you can live with on a daily basis.
Okay, hold that thought, 'cause it's gotta be the Sport model with a 4.0L, NV3550 five-speed manual, and the optional Dana 44 rear axle. The drivetrain is as reliable as an anvil in stock form. It's civilized enough to drive everyday and capable enough to hit fairly tough trails. And don't forget they're kinda the VW Beetle of the Jeep kingdom, meaning that replacement parts can be found in most dark corners of the globe and the aftermarket makes everything and more for 'em.
'98 5.9L ZJ Unlimited
During a hair-raising test drive in the passenger seat, Cappa's then-boss called it an all-wheel-drive Corvette. It had just rained and they were towing an empty 18-foot car hauler while drifting corners like an import racer through an intersection. That made for a pretty fun Jeep. It could go off-road, tow a trail rig, and was civilized and comfortable enough to drive cross-country or take on a date. Not that the latter ever happens much. Keep in mind the H.O. 5.9L engine put out a fairly underrated 245hp and 345lb-ft of torque to an upgraded 46RE four-speed automatic, and you can see why the four-wheel disc brakes, four-corner-coil suspension, and full-time T-case got a workout whether carving corners through Malibu or playing prerunner in Borrego Springs.
Why the CJ-3A over the other flatfender models? Well, we love the grille and military accessories on the MB/GPW, but not enough to accept the weak T-84 tranny, Spicer 18 with a 3/4-inch intermediate shaft, and the smallish and obscure Dana 23 floater rear axle. The early CJ-2As have kinda spindly front frame horns and we hate the factory boxy CJ-2A windshield. The Dana 41 rear axle in many CJ-2As is also a bummer. We'd never own a CJ-3B, the hood and grille are just plain ugly. So for these reasons the CJ-3A is the best of all the flatties ever built. We like the CJ-3A windshield frame, it's easy to swap on an MB/GPW grille, it has a tailgate, a T-90 tranny, a good Spicer 18 transfer case with a 11/8-inch intermediate shaft, an okay Dana 25 front axle, and a decent Dana 44 rear axle. On top of all that the frames aren't too bad if you can find a clean one. We only wish it had tool indents in the side of the body.
Any '07-present JK
The two-doors are easier to snake through super-tight trails and the four-doors make most climbs and ledge-filled trails look like child's play. Point is, no matter what your JK proclivity, you can't really go wrong as long as you bypass the 2WD models. There haven't been any significant changes since '07. The Rubicons add a Dana 44 front, a 4:1 T-case and a few other rockcrawl-friendly options, but even the most pedestrian 4WD base model will take you places most vintage Jeeps never could. Build it up or leave it stock, drive it daily or turn it into a trail rig. It's the most versatile Jeep ever built.