Buying a used vehicle is an art form of its own. To get a good deal, you first have to know how to spot one. This means being able to overlook the tire shine and focus on the nuts and bolts that keep the rig together. We understand that not everyone is a Jeep savant, but that doesn’t mean you should get hosed when purchasing a used 4x4.
We’ve bought a lot (and we mean a lot) of used Jeeps over the years. Sometimes, we get a great deal just by knowing more than the buyer, but we have also gotten our share of bamboozling as well. One of the most popular and sought-after used Jeeps is the ’97-’06 Jeep Wrangler TJ. This generation Wrangler marked not only the return to the round headlight but a technological leap with a multilink coil-sprung suspension.
The 4.0L inline-six engine has a reputation for being reliable but leaky.
Since Wranglers are oddly similar to motorcycles (you never get your money back out of them), you can stand to get a good deal on a modified TJ. In fact, often times modified ones tend to offer a better value than the ones that are mostly stock. While asking prices for the TJ can vary from dirt cheap to “you got to be kidding me!”, the more you know about what you are looking at, the better deal you can get.
The list we’ve put together here is meant to be in addition to all of the normal used vehicle checks. You know, things like checking the fluids to see/smell if they are in good shape, driving the vehicle, inspecting the paint, and so on. The good deals are out there. We’ll give you the things to look for. You’re on your own when it comes time to negotiating a good price!
Step By Step
Nearly every staffer that has worked at Jp has owned a four-cylinder Wrangler at some point. Both the early (’97-’02) 2.5L and late (’03-’06) DOHC 2.4L engines are pretty reliable but feel painfully underpowered. If you add lots of weight and oversized tires, it only gets worse. If you have high expectations of driving on the freeway and using any sort of overdrive gear, skip the four-cylinder. Also, if you think that you can just swap in an inline-six for cheap later down the road, think again. You’ll have just as much time, and nearly as much money, as laying down for a V-8. For our money, we’d hold out for the 4.0L inline-six engine.
If the Jeep is being sold as a running and driving vehicle, tell the buyer that you are coming in from an hour or so away and see if they will meet you half way. The goal here is to see if there are any leaks that have been wiped up. The specific seal you are looking to see if it is dripping is the rear main. On the 4.0L, the rear-main is two-piece seal. You can actually swap it out without removing the transmission. This is another DIY project for those wrench-savvy enthusiasts. Expect to pay a few hundred bucks if you have to farm the job out.
The 4.0L inline-six engine has a reputation for being reliable but leaky. A very common leak, which is sometimes misdiagnosed for a rear main seal leak, comes from the crank case vents on top of the valve cover. This, in combination with a slightly leaking valve cover, can cause oil to run down the back of the block. Replacing the valve cover gasket, along with the breathers and grommets, will cost you around $40.
Steering-rod ends and joints are wear items. When you add larger tires, wheeling, and high mileage to the mix, you are bound to have one or two worn parts. However, the most common front end joint failure isn’t in the steering system, but more likely the track bar. In a stock TJ application, the culprit is often the joint on the frame end of the bar. You can pick up a replacement track bar assembly from your local parts store for around $60.
If you are looking at a lifted Wrangler and the front end feels a little shaky, we would eye the track bar mount at the axle. The bolt could simply be loose, but we’ve also seen the bolt holes deform into an oblong mess. This will require upping the track bar bolt size (along with a new joint) or replacing the bracket altogether. Another culprit is the bushing or rod end being worn. Have a friend rotate the steering wheel from left and right while you look closely at the track bar bushing. If you noticed the bar is moving or plunging significantly, it’s likely the bushing is bad.
Despite a fairly stout boxed frame, TJs are notorious for rust near the rear portion of the frame/tub. Some companies offer frame repair kits, and you can even purchase the back portion of the frame from Jeep-specific wrecking yards. Just know this won’t be a dirt-cheap fix. A large amount of rust is usually a good sign to walk away.
If the Jeep’s rear axle looks like the one in this photo, you’re going to want to find a replacement axle eventually. We simply can’t get behind spending money on a Dana 35 axle. When you consider other available rear axle options, it’s better to replace. The fact we know the Dana 35 is far less desirable than the Dana 44 you hope is actually out back won’t always be an easy negotiation point. Don’t let a Dana 35 rear axle stop you from getting the Jeep. Just remember to budget for a rear axle upgrade.
Inline engines are hard on exhaust manifolds. Pre-’00 Wranglers equipped with the 4.0L engine are known to develop an exhaust manifold crack, while the cracks on the redesigned manifold for the ’00-’06 are less common. The cracks are sometimes hard to see but easy to hear. There is a small contingent of Jeep owners who choose to ignore the exhaust leak and chalk it up to “a Jeep thing”—Don’t get caught up in that nonsense. If it’s cracked, fix it. It’s a labor-intensive job, but it isn’t all that difficult.
The rubber bushings on the TJ’s stock control arms are actually incredibly durable. If the Jeep is stock, chances are they are probably fine. We’ve actually seen more rapid joint failure with cheap poly bushings (common on budget lift kits). Basic suspension neglect can cause an otherwise solid Jeep to drive and sound terrible. Suspension joints and even complete systems are pretty inexpensive these days for the TJ. Use the previous owner’s neglect to make your dollar go farther.
We love rowing gears. For six-cylinder Jeeps, the AX-15 five-speed manual transmission was standard issue until 2000, when it was replaced by the NV3550. The last manual that appeared behind the 4.0L was the NSG370 six-speed, which actually has a lower torque rating than its five-speed predecessors. The AX-15 is known for synchro issues, so be sure to give it a good row on your test drive.
Manual or automatic is largely a personal preference, but we find automatics tend to be a greater draw for those daily driving their Wranglers. Pre-’02 TJs will have the 32RH three-speed automatic, which makes the engine rev a little higher on the freeway but is known to be more durable that the later-model 42RE four-speed overdrive transmission. It’s hard to kill the 32RH, but lack of proper differential gearing in accordance to tire size can do a number on it. Heat is the enemy of the 42RE (or any automatic transmission for that matter), so a large transmission cooler will be worth the investment.
People love their hardtops and will ask a premium if their Jeep has one. If the Jeep has been wheeled with the hardtop on, look closely for cracks. The type of damage shown here can even occur from storing it improperly. Soft tops are relatively cheap and easy to get, so don’t let one in bad shape deter you.
If you are going to daily drive the TJ, do yourself a favor and purchase one with full hard doors. Aftermarket half doors for those summer days are easy to come by, but even on the used market, a pair of used full doors can set you back a grand. If the Jeep does have half doors, be sure to check the frame of the upper soft portion to see if it’s a rusty mess (it’s a common issue).
Look at the top of the radiator closely. From the factory, TJs use an aluminum radiator with clamped-on plastic tank caps. These are commonly known to separate and leak. Typically, you’ll need to replace the entire radiator when this happens.
Every TJ, with the exception of the Rubicon, used a low-pinion Dana 30 front axle. Common issues on higher-mileage or wheeled Jeeps tend to be worn axleshaft U-joints and a leaky pinion seal. Both are relatively easy fixes.
High mileage on the 4.0L isn’t something we would be terribly afraid of. So long as the engine has been taken care of, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to easily squeeze 250,000 (or more) miles out of it. Beyond looking for leaks, listen for excessive knocking or loud valve chatter. If the engine sounds rough but the price is right, it might be worth going for. There are a plenty 4.0Ls in wrecking yards.
The Rubicon Equation
In 2003, Jeep launched the Rubicon edition. Fit with Dana 44 axles, selectable lockers, a 4:1 transfer case ratio, and a few other off-road-centric goodies, the ’03-’06 Rubicon has become a staple for people looking for a turn-key wheeler. The Rubicon package also demands a significantly higher price in the used market. Before throwing down for a Rubicon, be sure to weigh all of your options. In many cases, the bells and whistles fit with the Rubicon might not be what you really need or want. If you are dead-set on a Rubi’, check to make sure the lockers (and air compressor) are working properly.