An American Icon
There are few vehicles on the road today as instantly recognizable as a Jeep. We're not talking about one of those fancy Grand Cherokees. We're talking about the direct descendent from the original Willys Jeep of World War II -- the Wrangler. In fact, the only other motor vehicle we know of that comes close to the Wrangler's recognition quotient is the direct descendant from another WWII era vehicle - the Volkswagen Beetle.
The Wrangler is probably the last "pure" sport utility vehicle marketed in the US. - more at home really, off road than on. This review covers the first version that carried the Wrangler name, and the last to be engineered by AMC before being purchased by Chrysler -- the 1987-1995 models.
It is instantly recognizable from it's predecessor the CJ7 by its two square headlights. That concession to style was an abomination to purists when the Wrangler was introduced, but most of them got over it. It's notable, however, that Chrysler brought back the round headlights for the newly redesigned 1997 model (there was no '96 model). We can't help but wonder what will happen to future versions now that the Germans have got their hand on the tiller -- probably try to over-engineer it! Poor Ike must be turning over in his grave.
Although these vehicles deliver more character, personality and fun per dollar than any vehicle we can think of, they are definitely not for everyone. But if you posses a certain sense of adventure and you're looking for "cool", the hip Wrangler makes everyone's short list.
You would think that covering a model run of nine years would be difficult. Not for this vehicle. There is only one body style, outfitted with a hardtop or a soft top. Despite the long 9-year production run, there are relatively few trim levels and they didn't change all that much -- the base model and a few fancier editions such as the Islander, Laredo, Renegade, Sahara and Rio Grande.
Powertrain choices are equally simple. An overhead cam four or an overhead valve six, coupled to a 5-speed or a 3-speed automatic. All versions have a basic part-time four-wheel drive system.
The Wrangler looks exactly as you would expect it to: stark, functional and rugged. There is no chrome, and hinges and latches are exposed, complementing the Wrangler's execution of the no-nonsense look. Paradoxically, by not succumbing to modern design practices, the Wrangler (and the CJs before it) has managed to become a design statement.
It looks best, of course, with the top down, the padded roll bar out in plain view, and the frameless low profile "half" doors. Better yet, take the doors off completely! Try that in your RAV4.
Stark, functional and rugged. Sound familiar? The heater ductwork hangs in plain view, metal surfaces are left exposed and there's a general unfinished look to the whole cabin. But it's for a purpose. The Wrangler interior is water friendly. As any serious off-roader will tell you, sometimes those streams you choose to cross are a little deeper than you thought. Not to worry, the floor is equipped with drain holes and the carpet is designed to be easily removed. After a long day on the trail, simply hose the interior down, dry out the carpet and you're ready for another day.
The dash is, ah, (we're wearing this word out) functional. A tachometer and speedometer sit directly ahead of the driver and a row of gauges monitoring temp, fuel, oil pressure and voltage sweeps out to the right.
Fit and finish is a difficult item to judge in a Wrangler, mainly because so much is intentionally left without a finished look. Overall we'd have to say that given the vehicle, it's acceptable.
The glove box is small, but the optional center console can hold a bunch of stuff. Sahara editions add additional storage with door pocket and on the back of the front seatbacks, "saddle bags".
Trying to work the radio and cassette player is an exercise in frustration. The buttons are both tiny and haphazardly placed.
Room & Comfort
The Wrangler is strictly a four-passenger vehicle. The front bucket seats are reasonably comfortable, but somewhat soft and thinly padded. Worse, until '91 their seatbacks were non- adjustable. Backaches will accompany you on long trips.
On the plus side, there is plenty of fore and aft travel to the drivers seat and you sit up high with an excellent view. The optional tilt wheel makes a finding a comfortable driving position pretty easy.
There are no power seats, mirrors, windows or locks available and if you have been paying attention, you probably weren't expecting them! Cruise control also never made the option list. However, all Wranglers are equipped with power brakes, and although power steering was an option, most have it.
Rear seat passengers fare much worse. The seat is quite narrow, offering little room between occupants. Padding is very skimpy, and coupled with low seatback offers little support for anyone other than children. Leg room is OK, so adults will fit back there.
With the rear seatback folded down and the entire seat pivoted forward, there's a fair amount of cargo space. With the seat in its normal position, there's very little.
Noise levels are off the charts. With the soft top and half doors installed highway driving is obtrusive. There is no cabin sound protection or insulation (remember that hose down capability?) and wind engine and road noise mix in a deafening roar at speed. By the way, the half doors do not have windows. Instead, you get plastic side curtains with zippers.
With the hardtop installed, complete with proper full frame doors and roll up windows, noise levels improve somewhat, but it's still loud.
The Wrangler's heater is up to any task you can ask of it. We drove a soft top model in zero degree weather, and the cabin stayed warm and toasty.
The ride is terrible. The Wrangler is short, with a short wheelbase and a crude, stiff leaf spring solid axle suspension. You'll feel every bump, every dip and every road imperfection. You'll be bounced around pretty good. So if a smooth ride is high on your priority list, you might as well stop here.
Handling is adequate. On smooth roads the stiff suspension actually imparts a sense of control, a sense you'll immediately lose once the road deteriorates. Steering is rather vague with some play on center, but its really not too bad.
A funny thing, too. Despite the above, these things are actually fun to drive. It's difficult to explain why, but cruising around in one puts a smile on your face. You sit high and look over a hood that looks like it came out the early fifties. Or perhaps it's because so many new cars are just so perfect and refined. The Wrangler can lay claim to leadership of the automotive anti-refinement camp.
Off-road it's a different story entirely. Here the Wrangler really comes into its element. With it's small size, stiff suspension and flexible powertrains, it feels surefooted and confident, always placing a tire in the right place. The four wheel drive system is your basic part time unit, with a two speed transfer case. The low range is a real stump puller, and you'll get the famous Jeep crawl by simply letting out the clutch and staying off the gas. It's amazing where the Wrangler will go in that mode. A traction-loc differential was available for the rear axle, and is a plus in poor traction situations.
Conversations with "Jeep guys" have uncovered a simple truth about purchasing a Wrangler: get the 4.0L six available from '91 on. It's smooth, durable, reliable, and delivers gobs of low-end torque. The four does the job quite well off-road, but always seemed to be working hard putting up with everyday traffic (where it's driven most), and the strain and stress will show up as the miles mount. Conversely, the 4.0 just loafs along. And when you need to dip into the throttle -- it really scoots!
All Wranglers are equipped with a standard front disc/rear drum setup, with power assist. Braking distances are short and without drama. We did notice a tendency on two non-ABS equipped examples to prematurely lock the rear drums during heavy braking. This could've been due to incorrect brake service, but check for it in your test drives.
There are no air bags or other passive restraint system on Wranglers. The belts are non-height adjustable, but seemed to fit different size bodies reasonably well. ABS was added to the option list in '93.
Without airbags, the Wrangler did not perform very well protecting the driver in a frontal crash in government tests, receiving only two stars, or "fair" rating. Probably due to the lack of a steering wheel the front passenger fared far better, receiving a four star or "very good" rating.
The Wrangler is often unfairly criticized for poor reliability. We dispute this, particularly with the later models. It is a tough, durable and yes, reliable vehicle. Given proper care, its powertrain - especially the six - will last an easy 150,000 miles.
We think part of the reason many sources question the reliability of the Wrangler is that so many of them actually go off-road with regular frequency -- where conditions are far tougher on mechanicals than public roads.
Potential trouble spots: the carburetor on the earlier sixes always seems to cause problems with fuel delivery and driveability. Assume that you'll have to replace it, and that it will give you trouble from time to time. Suspension components can be subjected to severe stress and/or submersion water during off-roading. Check for wear and tear. While your there, look carefully for corrosion. You'll see lots of Wranglers cruising the beach on both coasts, and nothing will eat metal and/or mechanical components like a frequent salt bath. Finally, listen to the transmission and differentials for mechanical noises such as clunking or gear whine. It's probably a sign of poor maintenance, imminent failure of one or more parts, or both.
The Wrangler shares most mechanical components with the Cherokee. The design is simple and uncluttered, allowing easy access to components. Parts costs are low. If you resist the temptation to go exploring in the really rough stuff, you'll see maintenance and service intervals no different from an average passenger car.
Frequent trips off-road trips will increase this of course. For instance, despite a claim of "sealed differentials", a service manager we spoke to strongly recommended that the differential fluid be changed promptly after burying the axles in water for any amount of time. Seasoned off-roaders know this, novices do not.
There is a whole industry built around aftermarket parts for the Wrangler, so you can choose from factory parts or a myriad of replacement and upgrade parts from many reputable parts suppliers.
Ideally, buy a Wrangler as a toy, and drive your primary car vehicle to work everyday. It's best suited for play and fun, not the everyday grind of a commute. It will hold up fine, it's yourself that you should be concerned with!
In areas with significant season changes, the best time to buy is during the fall or winter months. The market tends to get soft. Conversely, by May good, reasonably priced examples get snatched up pretty quickly. One thing you can be sure of -- the Wrangler's exceptional resale value. It's among the best of any vehicle on the road.
The most desirable model is a '91 - '95 model equipped with the fuel-injected six-cylinder engine. Both the manual and automatic transmission are strong and reliable, so take your pick here.
If you intend on keeping a Wrangler for a long period and live in the snow belt, it's probably a good idea to find an example with both tops and the two sets of doors. You can get by fine with the soft top in the winter months, but those zipper windows can be a hassle. And that noise.
You'll have to deal with many idiosyncrasies and inconveniences with a Wrangler. Cargo space is tight (although there are all kinds of aftermarket solutions that address this), the soft-top is a bear to manage, the ride stinks, it's noisy. Shall we go on? But all that misses the point. On a warm sunny day, with the top down and the doors off, we can't think of a more satisfying ride. Besides, can you name another vehicle that lets you fold down the windshield?
Finally, we couldn't help but notice that Wrangler drivers are a close-knit group. Over half waved to us whenever we passed. They must know something the rest of us don't.
Note: Pricing comes from dealers, wholesale mail-order companies and independent parts stores. Average labor rate computed at $50/hr. Pricing can vary widely - shop around.
*Brakes include turning rotors
(C) Copyright 2000 VMR International, Inc. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the Summer 1999 issue of Used Cars.
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