1997-2006 Jeep Wrangler (TJ): Future Classic

Sure, YJ wore the nameplate first, but there’s a reason we never went back to square headlamps, OK? Do what you will with a Jeep’s front end, but the seven slots and two circles are non-negotiable. Yes, your author is firmly in the camp that believes “TJ” is short for “True Jeep.”  Huey Lewis said it was hip to be square; but rectangular headlights are a residual rad fad that I could just as soon do without.

OK, so it’s the Millennial Jeep. Coils replaced leafs and the sharper corners were sanded down, but it still packed the old AMC inline engines under the hood; the stalwart 4.0-liter I6 survived the TJ’s entire lifespan; the “AMC 150” 2.5-liter inline-four however made way for an overhead-cam, 2.4-liter mill that was pejoratively referred to as “the Neon engine” by more than a few of the Jeep faithful.

Jeep’s identity is so intertwined with America’s that it would be impossible to separate them, and no car is more emblematic of that symbiosis than the Wrangler. From niche toy to mainstream icon, Jeep’s namesake 4×4 has, through the sheer will of its diehard fanbase, defined a segment that is now overflowing with compelling options. And while the brand may owe it all to the little Willys CJ, the TJ was first truly modern Jeep Wrangler.

Why is the Jeep Wrangler TJ a Future Classic?

Despite being produced during one of Chrysler’s more underwhelming quality control regimes, the TJ soldiers on in the hearts of Jeep enthusiasts on the strength of its solid platform and indefatigable inline-six. Moreover, the model that replaced it, dubbed JK, landed with a bit of a “thud,” leading some to wonder whether the Internet-generation humor implied by its chassis code was perhaps deliberate. So while modernized and better-suited to everyday life than the YJ it replaced, it retains many of the key components that made its predecessor so sought-after.

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What is the ideal example of a TJ Wrangler?

Jeep ownership is an adventure one should embark on individually. The way you plan to drive your Jeep will factor heavily into your purchase decision. Will this be a rock crawler or a summertime drop-top with added foul-weather utility? No matter your answer, we can say this for certain: spring for the Inline-6 if you’re able. The four cylinder was neither light nor efficient enough to be worthwhile. If you don’t believe me, just ask the EPA.

Apart from that, we’d recommend avoiding the early model years for the usual teething reasons. 1997 was the first; by 2000 or 2001, most of the kinks in the early models had been ironed out. Those who want an out-of-the-box rock crawler should start their search with 2003, when the Rubicon model was first introduced to the Wrangler lineup. It’s now old enough to drink.

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The TJ was also the first generation of Wrangler (and first soft-top Jeep since the CJ) to be offered in more than one wheelbase. The LJ (Long Jeep is long) was called the Unlimited commercially, and while that nomenclature carries on, this early example still had just two doors; long-wheelbase JK and JL Wranglers (known as JKU and JLU — “U” for “Unlimited”) both come exclusively with four, making the LJ the odd one out, but like the CJ-6 which it spiritually succeeded, it offered a great deal more rear-seat legroom.

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Are there any good alternatives to the TJ Wrangler?

Other Wranglers, for starters. If you don’t care about the TJ’s coil-sprung suspension or other quality-of-life improvements, the YJ Wrangler would be a good option, especially since it was offered with the same coveted I6. If you prefer something more supple, the JK and JL Wrangler Sahara models make excellent sunset cruisers. Hey, you do you; just make sure you’re honest with yourself about what you want from your ownership experience, as choosing the wrong Jeep for your lifestyle can lead to an unpleasant ownership experience. 35-inch tire life ain’t for everybody.

Looking elsewhere, the TJ had several contemporary competitors. The Nissan Xterra and Toyota 4Runner both offer sheetmetal-clad alternatives to the soft-top Jeep, offering a quieter cabin in exchange for, well, a quieter cabin. The TJ also briefly overlapped the Toyota FJ Cruiser, which was essentially a Tacoma re-bodied to look like a modern Land Cruiser. Stop us if you’ve heard that one.

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