- Post-2012 JK-generation Jeeps, which have the 285-hp 3.6-liter V-6, a five-speed automatic and a nicer interior.
- An original 2004-2006 Unlimited (long-wheelbase, but two-door).
- A 2018 or newer JL with the 270-hp 2.0-liter turbo, if the price is right.
- The three-speed automatic transmission (final year: 2002).
- The last of the 202-hp 3.8-liter V-6/old interior JK years. There’s a big difference between a 2010 and a 2012.
- Anything so new that you may as well get a new one.
So, you want to buy a Jeep Wrangler but the new ones are just too pricey? We feel you. Wranglers seem like they should be inherently affordable, given that they’re the closest thing to a street-legal dune buggy that you can buy. But feature creep means that a new JL, while unquestionably the best Wrangler ever, starts at $29,790 and can get way more expensive from there, topping $60,000 for a loaded diesel model. So the used market is always busy, propped up in part by the iconic Jeep’s stylistic consistency—a 2000 model doesn’t really look dated because a 2021 still looks fundamentally the same. The driving experience and features are going to be far different, though, and that’s where you might need some advice. So indulge us this primer in preowned Wrangler wrangling, in which we endeavor to steer you to a Jeep that’s used, but not used up.
1986-1995: The Square-Headlight One
OK, we know this generation (known as the YJ) has its fans, but we’d confine our Wrangler hunt to newer models. The YJ, the first with the Wrangler name, has solid front and rear axles like the current Wrangler, but what it didn’t have was coil springs. Like the CJ and all its predecessors dating back to World War II, the YJ Wrangler rode on leaf springs, front and rear. And if you can avoid driving a short-wheelbase, body-on-frame, solid-axle, leaf-sprung vehicle, you should.
The One To Get: The next one that followed the YJ, the coil-sprung TJ. But if you must, go with the 180-horsepower 4.0-liter inline-six that showed up in the 1991 YJ. If you don’t, you’ll have to live with the earlier 112-hp 4.2-liter inline-six. A C/D test of a 1990 Wrangler Sahara with that engine yielded a 15.4-second time to 60 and a top speed of 81 mph.
1997-2006: The Modern Template
Wait, what happened to the 1996 Wrangler? Did Jeep get really into grunge and surfing America Online and forget to build it? Nope, it just got caught between generations, such that by the time Jeep switched production from the YJ to the new TJ, it was already 1996. So they went directly from selling the 1995 YJ to the 1997 TJ. If you find a 1996 Wrangler, you can park it next to our 1983 Corvette.
Anyway, the TJ represented a revolution, in addition to the 4.0-liter inline-six gaining one horsepower bringing the total to 181, it brought four-wheel coil-spring suspension to the game. (It’s possible Jeep got ahold of some ’90s North American Spec Land Rover Defenders and realized that they should at least be as technologically advanced as that.) So the TJ not only rides better than its predecessor, but it tends to be better off-road, too, with excellent articulation. The interior took a big step forward, as well. Or at least, it took a step from the rectilinear 80s into the softer 90s.
And of course: round headlights. Which means that a TJ looks reasonably contemporary, even now. This is also the generation when Jeep realized that some Wrangler buyers wanted more room, so in 2004 they rolled out a stretched wheelbase version called the Unlimited. It was still a two-door (the name was later applied to the four-door models) but gained 15 inches of length, 10 of which went to the wheelbase. Back seat passengers got some extra legroom, and cargo space doubled. And if you’re into towing, the Unlimited rating was 3500 pounds, well above the standard Wrangler’s 2000 pounds. This sought-after derivative is known by its devotees as the LJ.
The Rubicon model debuted in 2003 with the same basic ingredients it has now: heavier-duty axles (Dana 44s front and rear), locking front and rear differentials and bigger tires. Expect to pay more for one of those, with the LJ Rubicon flexing a resale value that might cause you to look for something newer that might well be less expensive.
The One To Get: A 2005-2006 Unlimited Rubicon with the 4.0-liter six and a six-speed manual transmission.
2007-2019: The Popular One
By 2007, Jeep figured out that the Wrangler could go mainstream if it was less painful to live with and drive. To that end, the biggest revelation was the four-door Unlimited model, which finally made the Wrangler viable family transportation. Jeep had shown a four-door Wrangler concept in the ’90s, but it took them until 2007 to build it. Sales numbers took off— 2,165,678 were built—and the Wrangler transitioned from a niche off-roader to the ubiquitous sight that it is today.
Inasmuch as there’s such thing as a Wrangler bargain, it’s to be found in the 2007-2010 JKs, which had different (read: not as desirable) powertrains and interiors. In the transition from the TJ to the JK, Jeep killed the ancient but beloved 4.0-liter inline-six and installed whatever was handy, which happened to be a nearly as old 3.8-liter V-6 borrowed from Chrysler’s minivans. It was resolutely adequate, making 202 horsepower and 237 lb-ft of torque. And the interior in those early JKs was also best described as adequate. But hey, you still got the essential Jeep goodness—drop the top and remove the doors, and who cares what’s under the hood?
For 2011 the JK got the new, much modernized interior but still had the sad 3.8-liter. In 2012, the pushrod 3.8 V-6 was replaced by the 285-hp DOHC 24-valve 3.6-liter V-6 that’s still in use today—which not only produced a lot more power and made cruising at freeway speeds less of a chore, but is considered significantly more reliable. Compounding the advantage, automatic 3.6-liter engine came with a five-speed automatic, while the 3.8 made do with a four-speed auto.
The JK was such a hit that they kept building it for a couple years even after it was replaced by the current Wrangler, the JL. As a second-hand-Jeep shopper, the main thing to be wary of with JKs is stupid pricing, which gets stupider the newer they are. We found a used 2017 JK Rubicon with 16,000 miles with an asking price of $39,000. Meanwhile, new 2021 JL Rubicons start at about $42,000. Don’t be penny wise and Rubicon foolish.
2018-Now: The JL Era
The JL was an uncharacteristically huge leap for the Wrangler, with Jeep fine-tuning the fun while retaining the Wrangler’s essential appeal. The doors got lighter and easier to remove and the tops and the soft tops are less of a struggle, with zipper-less windows. The automatic transmission gained three more gears (for eight) and a new 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder and 3.0-liter diesel joined the lineup. If you’re looking at a late JK versus a similar (but maybe less decked-out JL) for the same money, we’d vote for the JL. But again, if you’re looking at a used JL, make sure its price makes sense compared to a new one. The new ones tend to have incentives and financing deals. Used ones, probably not. A $32,000 car financed for 60 months at 6.5 percent is going to add up to about the same total outlay as a $35,000 one at 2.9 percent. Pay attention to the total numbers, and it might turn out the best used Wrangler is a new one.
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