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Jeep Wrangler Through the Years

Stephen Rivers

Here’s how Jeep and its Wrangler overcame every obstacle over 80 years to become not just the face of off-roading but also a premium SUV brand.

From Warrior to Rock Crawler

Jeep Willys MB and Wrangler - fcanorthamerica.com

Jeep Willys MB and Wrangler – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep on Carsforsale.com

The Jeep nameplate has always been synonymous with off-roading prowess and performance but in recent decades it’s come to be known as a lifestyle brand. Here’s how Jeep managed to gain a new generation of fans without losing its way.

First Generation (1941-1945) Willys MB

1942 Jeep Willys MB - fcanorthamerica.com

1942 Jeep Willys MB – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep Willys on Carsforsale.com

  • There’s no sidestepping the fact that the original Willys set the standard for the brand. It was a key part of the successful campaign America and the Allies led during World War II.
  • Unlike anything before it, this four-wheel-drive vehicle managed to successfully overcome almost any terrain.
  • The name Jeep comes from two main sources. First, it’s the slang for “GP”, the Ford branded all-wheel-drive military vehicle of the time.
  • It’s also the name of a cartoon character from Popeye The Sailor Man that was a cat/dog hybrid that was capable of going anywhere.
  • As the war came to an end, MB trademarked the name “Jeep” and the legend has carried that name ever since.

Second Generation (1945-1985) CJ

1973 Jeep CJ-5 - fcanorthamerica.com

1973 Jeep CJ-5 – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep CJ-5 on Carsforsale.com

  • This generation was dubbed the “CJ” in development because these were the first “Civilian Jeeps” available to the general public.
  • The 1945 CJ-2A is the first use of the now-iconic 7-slot grille. Military units of the time continued to use 9-slots.
  • Kaiser Motors takes over Jeep and creates the CJ-5 in 1953. It’s a more refined Jeep that spawns many variants all based on the same overall design and structure.
  • The CJ-6 is also born as a longer version of the CJ-5 with more cargo space.
1977 Jeep CJ-7 Renegade - fcanorthamerica.com

1977 Jeep CJ-7 – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep CJ-7 on Carsforsale.com

  • Further adjustments are made in 1976 as the CJ-7 is born and then the CJ-8 in 1985 finishes off the generation before the first complete overhaul happens in 1987.
  • The need for more fuel-efficient vehicles and the smash success of the Cherokee XJ results in the end of the line for the historic CJ line.
  • In 1980, a 60 Minutes segment seemed to indicate that the CJ was inclined to roll over and popular opinion of the car diminished.
  • It was later found that in over 400 trials, the CJ rolled over in only 8 of them. Half were attributed to a single vehicle in the test which further discredited the validity of the study.

Third Generation (1987-1995) YJ

1987 Jeep Wrangler - fcanorthamerica.com

1987 Jeep Wrangler – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep Wrangler on Carsforsale.com

  • This generation is the first to formally be known as the Wrangler. The YJ label is no longer an acronym, it’s simply a generational designation.
  • Jeep consults with Goodyear to ensure there would be no issue with its use of the name despite Goodyears popular Wrangler tire lineup.
  • They do not approach Wrangler Jeans and thusly end up entrenched in legal battles over the name.
  • The suit was finally dropped after a new head was appointed at the jean company and the overall battle became too ridiculous to continue.
  • 1987 is the year that Chrysler takes over as the parent company of Jeep, the same role they still fill today.
  • The YJ is easy to spot and differentiate thanks to the squared headlamps at the forefront of the vehicle.
1990 Jeep Wrangler - fcanorthamerica.com
1990 Jeep Wrangler - fcanorthamerica.com
  • The overall goal of this Jeep was to add on-road comfort and performance without sacrificing off-roading skill and it was largely a goal that Jeep achieved.
  • In 1991, the historically bulletproof fuel injected 4.0-liter inline-six engine becomes a mainstay of the brand adding power and performance never before seen in a wrangler.
  • The same year Jeep released the Wrangler Renegade, which featured huge fender flares and bodywork to appeal to a sportier crowd.
  • Jeep actually sent the vehicle to another company called ASC who installed the Renegade packaged parts and then shipped them to dealers.
  • In 1993, Wrangler adds safety as it gets anti-lock brakes as an optional extra.
  • In 1994, the 4-cylinder variant gets an automatic transmission option for the first time.

Fourth Generation (1997-2006) TJ

1997 Jeep Wrangler Sport - fcanorthamerica.com

1997 Jeep Wrangler Sport – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep Wrangler Sport on Carsforsale.com

  • The TJ generation of Wrangler made huge advancements in strength, quality, and comfort.
  • The round headlights returned at the request of many customers and haven’t left since.
  • The Quadra-Coil system was introduced to Wrangler after earlier debuting in the Cherokee.
  • This addition allowed for seven more inches of overall travel for the suspension which helped the Jeep maintain its off-road reputation.
  • The combination of improvements made this Jeep the best to drive on and off-road by far.
  • The 2.5-liter 4-cylinder and 4.0-liter six-cylinder engines from the YJ are carried over and unchanged.
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2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon - fcanorthamerica.com
2003 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon - fcanorthamerica.com
  • In 2003, the Rubicon is introduced as the new top of the line off-roader among the Wrangler lineup.
  • 31-inch tires, front and rear locking differentials and a 4:1 gear ratio are all parts of the Rubicon package.
  • The TJ-L is sold as a long-wheelbase version of the Wrangler, it offered more space for cargo and passengers and was a foreshadowing of things to come.

Fifth Generation (2007- 2018) JK

2007 Jeep Wrangler Sahara - fcanorthamerica.com

2007 Jeep Wrangler Sahara – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep Wrangler JK on Carsforsale.com

  • The JK was a completely redesigned Wrangler that for the first time offered a full four-door variant.
  • Today, nearly 75% of all Wranglers sold are of the four-door variety. This change sparks a boom in sales and brand awareness for Jeep.
  • Engine changes are regular through this generation as the 4.0-liter six-cylinder is no longer an option in favor of a 3.8 V6.
  • The Wrangler gots more than 5 inches added to the overall width of the vehicle adding to on-road handling confidence.
  • Soon after, it’s also dropped for a 3.6 V6 with 285 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque.
  • Perhaps this is the first fully modern drivetrain for the Wrangler as it can be optioned with a 5-speed auto or 6-speed manual.
2007 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon - fcanorthamerica.com
2007 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon - fcanorthamerica.com
  • While the wheelbase of the Jeep is longer, the overall length is shorter, so approach and departure angles are improved.
  • While advancing in terms of ride comfort, off-roading prowess, and technology, the Wrangler maintains its major brand identity with removable panels and legacy styling.
  • Interior creature comforts are like that of any modern SUV including blind-spot monitoring, parking sensors, and heated seats.

Sixth Generation (2019-Current) JL

2019 Jeep Wrangler Sahara - fcanorthamerica.com

2019 Jeep Wrangler Sahara – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop Jeep Wrangler on Carsforsale.com

  • No Jeep has ever been as capable as the JL. Many advancements in efficiency and performance make it so.
  • The 6-speed manual continues on, but a new 8-speed automatic is now offered.
  • The off-roading experience improves with an easier fold-flat windshield, easier to remove all-aluminum doors, and a zipperless soft-top.
  • A new 8.4-inch touchscreen infotainment system is now offered to improves the in-cabin experience.
  • A diesel engine is offered for the first time in the Wrangler in the form of the 3-liter EcoDiesel with 442lb-ft of torque.
2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe - fcanorthamerica.com
2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon 4xe - fcanorthamerica.com
  • Jeep announces the plug-in hybrid “4xe Wrangler” for 2021 set to appear with up to 25 miles of electric-only range.
  • That electric power when combined with the 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder provides up to 400 miles on a single tank of fuel.
  • The 4xe will also provide some 378 horsepower and 470 lb-ft of torque. This isn’t a gutless hybrid by any means.
  • Rock-Trac equipped vehicles come with a 4:1 gear ratio and the ability to automatically switch between 2 and 4-wheel drive modes.
  • This Wrangler also has push-button sway-bar disconnects to ensure maximum suspension articulation on the harshest of trails.
2021 Jeep Wrangler Sahara - jeep.com

2021 Jeep Wrangler Sahara – fcanorthamerica.com  |  Shop new Jeep Wrangler on Carsforsale.com

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2016 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

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Stephen Rivers
Stephen Rivers

Stephen is a car enthusiast who loves all things built with passion. In his free time, he’s usually at a hockey rink, walking his dogs, or on a road bike. His automotive tastes lean towards cars that oftentimes seem to take a pound of flesh for the ethereal pleasure they provide: things like the Lamborghini Diablo, TVR Cerbera, and a C4 Corvette turned into a street-legal go-kart. He drives his Bugeye Subaru WRX in Autocross, Rallycross, and track day competitions throughout the year and daily drives a twin-turbo BMW 535i.

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