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Jeep Wrangler TJ Buyers Guide - Mr. Popularity

Mr. Popularity

TJ: The best used Jeep deal ever!
Yeah, das right; we went there. Uh-huh, girlfriend. We're not going out on a limb when we call the '97-'06 TJ Wrangler the most popular Jeep of our time. Hit any major off-roading event and the trails will be lousy with them. Your local mall parking lot will have at least a half-dozen equipped with lifts and upgraded tires. And any Internet classifieds, used car lot, or corner garage is sure to have dozens of great candidates for sale at incredible deals.

When you look at the CJs of yore or even the YJs that preceded them, TJ Wranglers could possibly represent the best build fodder the off-road enthusiast was ever presented. Unlike the YJs there were no awkward early years with undesirable drivetrains. Right out of the gate in '97 until the model was discontinued in 2006, Jeep's venerable and ubiquitous 4.0L six-cylinder was offered with very little change. Beginning in 2000 Jeep ditched the simple, but crack-prone tubular exhaust manifold for one with integrated, twin catalytic converters, which makes header upgrades somewhat more expensive. Also in 2000, all Jeep 4.0L engines went to a coil-on-plug ignition system, thus doing away with the distributor and plug wires, and then in 2005 the 4.0L got a revised throttle body. Otherwise through the model run, power and torque numbers on the 4.0Ls are similar, with no significant changes. Four-cylinder engines were the sturdy and almost-adequate 2.5L until Jeep's new DOHC 2.4L appeared in 2003, upping the base engine's available power from 120hp/181lb-ft to 147hp/190lb-ft. Regardless, either four-cylinder is disappointing once a lift and tires are added, so it's still best to hold out for a 4.0L model if you plan on bigger tires, adding armor, and doing more than rock crawling with your TJ.

Check When Purchasing:
•Cracked exhaust manifolds
•Plugged or rattling catalytic converters
•Leaky plastic-tank radiators
•Oil leaks at the rear main seal or harmonic balancer
•Any excessive knocking from valvetrain or bottom end when running
•Dented or crushed oil pan or exhaust components

For the most part, behind the engines Jeep wised up and did away with lackluster transmissions. Aside from the mealy AX-5 ('97-'02) or the NV1500 ('03-'06) five-speed manual tranny found behind the four-cylinder engines, any TJ transmission could be considered a keeper even with a mild V-8 swap. The AX-15 five-speed was used behind the 4.0L up through 2000 when it was phased out for the studly NV3550 five-speed. The NSG 370 six-speed tranny that appeared in 2005 behind the 4.0L has a lower torque rating than either five-speed that preceded it, so just because there's one extra gear, don't automatically assume it's one better than the AX-15 or NV3550. And speaking of automatically, if you prefer to let the tranny do the shifting, you're stuck without an overdrive up through the 2002 model year, because the three-speed Chrysler 32RH was the only game in town until the overdrive four-speed 42RLE came to town in 2003.

Check When Purchasing:
•Fluid level and condition if automatic
•Clutch fluid reservoir level and condition if manual
•Leaking fluid
•Bashed skidplate, abrasions, or cracks on bellhousing or tranny case
•Wobbly or loose-feeling shifter

T-Case, Axles, & Steering
The T-case in any standard TJ is going to be the excellent NV231J with 2.72:1 Low, which like the TJ itself, enjoys an arsenal of aftermarket support. Axles in standard TJs are low-pinion Dana 30s in the front with no center axle disconnect and 3.07, 3.55, or 3.73 gears for six-cylinder or 4.10 cogs for the four-cylinders. Out back, all four-cylinder models got the Dana 35, while the Dana 44 with 30-spline shafts was available on six-cylinder Sahara and some Wrangler X trim levels. The Dana 44 is a real boon and can same you a lot of money on a mildly-build vehicle. The low-pinion TJ Dana 30 can be replaced with a high-pinion Dana 30 from an XJ for a little more strength since it's a bolt-in swap. All TJs run the same steering setup that employs a J-bend at the passenger-side tie rod to clear the knuckle at full-turn. This is a very common problem spot, so check for a previously-bent and straightened links if the vehicle you're looking at looks like it's been wheeled hard.

Check When Purchasing:
•T-case slip yoke output seal leaking
•T-case linkage shifts smoothly and without binding
•Leaking at axle tube ends, pinion seals, diff covers
•Smashed front diff cover
•Peeled back rear diff cover
•Any excessive slop or play from the rear axle (especially Dana 35 models)
•Bent, broken, worn steering linkages

The biggest departure from the Jeep's CJ and YJ utility vehicles in the past was the introduction of coil springs at each corner. The axles are located with a four-link control arm arrangement that uses track bars front and rear. They can be easily lifted with coil spring spacers or longer coils, upgraded with long-arm suspension links, and converted for use with coilovers depending on how gnarly you want to get with your project. Although most coils don't offer a progressive spring rate like leafs, any TJ will seem like you're wheeling on a pink, fluffy cloud. The factory control arms have rubber bushings that can wear out and get a little sloppy over time, but most of the better short arm aftermarket lift kits include new adjustable arms at least on the upper or lower side.

Check When Purchasing:
•Bent, broken, damaged control arms
•Worn, sloppy bushings
•Movement or slop at the track bar when turning the wheel
•Clunking when driving

Rubicon & Other Trim Levels
In 2003 the Rubicon model was introduced and turned the enthusiast market on its ear. The Rubicon offered Dana 44 axles front and rear with 4.10 gears and pneumatically-operated lockers (open/locked front; limited slip/locked rear), 31-inch diameter 245/75R16 MT/R, and a NV241OR T-case with a burly 4.0:1 Low and a fixed yoke on the rear. Additionally, the Rubicon offered diamond plate rocker protection, slightly larger and wider fender flares, and overall more options and amenities than the standard Wrangler or Wrangler X models.

Another cool Wrangler came on the scene in 2004 1/2 as the 103.5-inch wheelbase Wrangler Unlimited. The LJs, as they've been dubbed, featured the same drivetrains as the TJs, but were only available in 4.0L models with auto transmissions for 20041/2. In 2005 you could get the auto or manual, as well as the a Rubicon LJ for the first time. The standard LJs got the Dana 30 front and Dana 44 rear, while the Rubicon LJs naturally got the same locking Dana 44s as the TJ Rubicons.

Otherwise, Wranglers could be optioned with any number of trim level, top and door configurations, and amenities. The four-cylinder models are considered base SE models and could be had with A/C, but mostly they're going to be lower-end vehicles with more Spartan interiors and austere exterior features. The Sport and later the Wrangler X models piled some popular options onto the SE platform without going all gonzo like the blinged-out Sahara models, which offered every option under the sun, plus exterior stuff like color-matched fender flares, side steps, A/C, intermittent wipers, cruise, and on hardtop models things like rear wiper and defrost options. Nowadays these extra options just add a bunch of weight and the potential for something to not work right, so savvy shoppers looking for a buildup project may smartly save some coin with the SE, Sport, or X models and skip the Sahara.

As for tops and door options, know what you want before you start shopping, because even used top and door assemblies fetch a premium. Hardtop models are nice if you do a lot of road driving, but they're difficult to remove by yourself and take up a lot of room to store. Soft tops are a better option if you plan on open-air wheeling. Many TJs have hard half doors with soft, removable uppers, but the full hard doors with roll-up windows offer a higher level of quiet and convenience, yet are still easily removed for open-air driving.

Check When Purchasing:
•Faded or broken black plastic fender flares
•A/C and HVAC works
•Top rips and zipper door/window functions
•Signs of water damage under carpet or rust on floorboards in early models