The Jeep Wrangler is as American and iconic as the Old West. But with the new hybrid-electric JL is already reaching eager patrons around the US, it’s clear that while cowboys weren’t here to stay, Jeep’s era never ended.
As it evolved and improved steadily to reach its current iteration, the Wrangler went through many practical and cosmetic changes. And though it may look very similar to its ancestors, at least to the untrained eye; the current Hurricane 2-litre straight-four and its accompanying electric motor are clearly worlds apart from the AMC 4-litre straight-four that came standard with the first YJs coming off the line in 1987.
So what else has changed? And what do all the Wrangler acronyms actually mean?
Table of Contents
Where the Modern Jeep Began | The CJ
Willys-Overland was the company responsible for designing and producing most of the original Jeeps from the Second World War. When they saw that the war was winding to a close, they decided that the civilian market would be their next target once their military contracts expired. This would be a tough ask; passenger cars were the norm, and the jeep was less comfortable and lacked prestige.
The first “Civilian Jeeps”- CJ, for short; were envisioned as agricultural vehicles to help people tend the land. The CJ-2A was the first-ever Jeep to be sold to civilians, which, after going through multiple cycles of production over the next three decades, finally heralded the CJ-7. The CJ-7 was the closest thing the 70s had to the first “true” Wrangler that would come out in the late 80s. It featured a wheelbase that was roughly 13 inches longer than the first CJ-2As, a 5-speed manual or 3-speed auto transmission (the first jeep to have an automatic transmission), and a body that was more similar in dimension to its successor, the YJ.
The Birth of the Wrangler | The YJ (1987-1996)
The Jeep YJ was the first vehicle to be marketed under the “Wrangler” name. It featured an updated drive-train coupled with an AMC l4 stock engine. Though the wheelbase was the same length, the jump from the CJ-7 to the YJ saw a more comfort and design-focused approach. In fact, the most identifiable feature of the Jeep YJ was the rectangular set headlights that are still unique to the model. It was the only generation of the Jeep Wrangler to feature non-circular headlights.
The ground clearance was lowered to improve stability and ride comfort, while the vehicle itself came with more options for creature comforts than the original CJ-7 and CJ-5. Widened leaf springs also made for a less jittery ride and more dampened shock absorption.
All-in-all, the YJ was arguably the most road-friendly Wrangler. It saw a shift towards making the Wrangler more practical for the average city driver, though at this point it is mostly remembered for its controversial headlights.
Other notable milestones of the YJ include it being the first Wrangler to feature Fuel-injection via a 4-Litre straight-six that added 68 horsepower. Later in its run, it also went on to become the first 4×4 to feature anti-lock brakes, which; coupled with improved roll-cages and the lowered ride height, made for a safer, more comfortable ride than earlier Wranglers.
The Jeep YJ was also the first Wrangler to initiate a tradition of having no formal Nomenclature for the model name. Where “Jeep” began as a phonetic truncation of “GP”(General Purpose) and CJ stood for “Civilian Jeep”, Jeep never confirmed the meaning of the abbreviation YJ and used it only as engineering code. Dubbed the “Yuppie Jeep” and the “Wrangler” by enthusiasts, that name eventually stuck and remains as a quip at the YJs controversial rectangular headlights.
Returning to its roots | The TJ (1997-2006)
The Jeep TJ was the second official Wrangler to be introduced and marked a return to the original CJ-7s design. Jeep did away with the rectangular headlights and the wipers that would sit on the windscreen and returned to the tried and true circular lights that have since been a mainstay in the Wranglers design.
Other than visual elements the Jeep TJ was mostly the same as the later YJ models under the hood. It initially featured the same options for the engine and the transmission, though the wheelbase was slightly longer. The Ride height was increased to improve off-road capabilities but this would’ve meant sacrificing comfort and stability. It would’ve, if not for the most significant change introduced with the TJ – coil springs.
Jeeps had historically had leaf springs up till the point when the YJ was introduced. However, during the YJs life cycle, Jeep would go on to launch the Grand Cherokee, which was the first Jeep vehicle to experiment with coil springs. Leaf springs were simpler in design than coil springs and had better load-bearing capabilities, but they were also much harder, and prone to degradation. Coil springs, on the other hand, led to a more dampened, comfortable drive, and were generally easier on consumers since they didn’t require any form of upkeep.
Another notable introduction during the TJ’s final few years was the Rubicon; a more expensive, off-road focused trim that was built to outperform the standard Wrangler on trails and terrain. The Rubicon was a great commercial success for Jeep, and every Wrangler since then has had a Rubicon variant come out to acclaim and praise in the market.
The TJ was dubbed the “Trendy Jeep” for its return to preferable design elements. Again, no official sources would confirm what TJ actually stood for.
The advent of the 4-door | The JK (02006-2018)
The JK Wrangler was noticeably larger than the TJ (The 2-door variant was about 10 inches longer). It updated the TJ front grille, giving it a wide, stockier look. Grille decals came to prominence with the JK, while aftermarket bumpers were also popular since the JK was the first Wrangler to feature plastic bumpers, a change that was not popular among Jeepsters, especially because it meant the stock vehicle was not towable.
The first of the JK Wrangler’s two biggest changes came in the form of the new transmission options and most importantly, a new engine. The Jeep JK was the first Wrangler to move to an EGH V6 engine, a move that was not popular amongst fans of the series. While it generated slightly more horsepower and greater torque, the larger JK was heavier than its predecessor and this meant a lower power to weight ratio.
The larger body and the underpowered engine combined made for a much poorer off-road experience for early adopters of the JK Wrangler. While some of these issues were addressed with the introduction of a more powerful Pentastar V6 engine and the Rubicon later in the JKs life cycle, others still remained and required aftermarket solutions to fix.
The second big change came with the introduction of a 4-door variant. All Wranglers up till this point had only 2-door variants; even the TJ’s Unlimited (Longer wheelbase) version was the same. The 4-door version offered more convenience to families and the greater ride comfort generally meant more encouragement for daily drivers.
Looking to the future | The JL (2018-present)
The JL Wrangler is the most recent and currently serving, model of the series. While still early in its product cycle, the JL has already introduced several improvements to the JK. These include the introduction of a turbocharged 2-liter straight-four engine, which generates more torque, and weight reduction practices. Keeping with series tradition, the JL also has a Rubicon and Unlimited variant.
The series also launched the first PHEV (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle) in 2021.