Jeep Wrangler: How it transformed over the years

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Civilian Jeep


Vehicles in the Jeep lineup, more so than those of many other manufacturers, have always been symbols of something. From the military-use vehicles of World War II, which represented the “go anywhere, do anything” mentality of soldiers, to their balanced crossovers of today, indicative of modern drivers’ desire to have a little bit of everything, these vehicles over time have always meant something to those who drive them.

The Jeep Wrangler is arguably the most recognizable vehicle, and symbol, within the Jeep brand. That is not only because of what it represents, a ruggedness that can be tamed when necessary, but also because the automaker has remained loyal to drivers of the Wrangler and other models by offering a diverse lineup of vehicles rather than compromising on features, as many automakers do. This is how the Wrangler has transformed over the years.

Pre-History: The CJ, or Civilian Jeep

Most Jeep enthusiasts know that the brand got its start in the 1940’s, at the start of the Second World War. The first Jeeps, procured by the American military, were designed exclusively to transport soldiers amid conditions that were often dangerous and unexpected. It was rugged and uncomfortable, but because of its body design (the frame and body were crafted from separate pieces of metal, unlike most vehicles on the road today that employ the “unibody” design) and other features, the first Jeeps were capable of handling most of anything thrown their way. In other words, they were extremely good at what they did.

Once the war ended, Jeep shifted its focus toward manufacturing vehicles for daily use at home, and so the CJ or Civilian Jeep was born in 1946. Designed to be more comfortable than their military counterparts, the CJ maintained steady sales into the 1980’s and was popular especially amongst veterans and outdoor enthusiasts. Still, as many brands began to introduce vehicles that were more comfortable despite their ruggedness and capability, Jeep decided on a revamp of the CJ, and the Jeep Wrangler was born.

Generation One: The Jeep Wrangler YJ

The original Jeep Wrangler, introduced in 1986 and available for a decade after that, retained aspects of the Civilian Jeep, specifically the way in which the body was designed, while making the ride significantly more comfortable. The steering, transmission, and even the interior features were revamped for this purpose, ultimately for the benefit of the driver whose daily commute was made in a Jeep. The ride was still stiff and at times uncomfortable, but compared with the CJ, the first Wranglers represented a shift toward drivability in a military-style vehicle.

One distinguishing feature of the early Jeep Wrangler, and something that sparked some debate, was the rectangular design of the headlights. Some Jeep loyalists saw this as a shift toward designs employed by other automakers at the time, and Jeep would struggle with future iterations to get this design feature just right for its drivers.

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First generation Jeep Wrangler

Generation Two: The Jeep Wrangler TJ

It is now 1996, and round headlights are back in the Jeep Wrangler! This pleased many enthusiasts, but was not the most significant change made to the model in its first true revamp.

Even at a time when Jeep offered vehicles more comfortable and feature-laden than the Wrangler, the second generation continued to move in this very direction. The TJ offered a smoother ride, employing springs and shock absorbers at the expense of extreme off-roading capability. Drivers were also treated to creature comforts like more advanced temperature controls and entertainment packages. Certain trim levels even had cruise control, unseen in the first generation Wrangler.

These decisions, some argue, are indicative of why Jeep as a brand has done so well over the decades. Many automakers around this time, recognizing a desire for more comfort even in a vehicle that could handle more than what might be asked of it, might direct its customers toward other models, essentially consolidating its lineup. Jeep, recognizing that many of its drivers were loyal to the Wrangler brand, introduced changes to the Wrangler instead of directing its customers toward models like the Cherokee, and sales have benefitted for it.

Generation Three: The Jeep Wrangler JK

The JK, introduced in 2007, is fondly remembered largely in part for one feature- the introduction of four doors. Essentially, Wrangler enthusiasts could now go off-roading with their friends! But why wasn’t a four-door Wrangler offered in the previous two decades? The consensus is that it had to do with performance. Four doors make for a longer vehicle that is slightly more difficult to maneuver. Still, judging by the sales of four-door models compared with their two-door counterparts, Wrangler drivers have largely embraced the added seating capacity. And if a driver preferred the tighter performance of a two-door Wrangler, they would still have that option available to them.

With the issue of the Wrangler JK, Jeep kept the frame and body setup and other essential features that have always made the Wrangler a capable off-roading vehicle. The JK was also marked by increased customizability- drivers could opt for features like the soft top, roll bars, and wheel packages and end up with Wranglers that were exactly suited for their individual needs.

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Third generation Jeep Wrangler

Generation Four: The Jeep Wrangler JL

Relatively new, the fourth generation Wrangler has been largely successful because of advances in design and technology that have allowed for an even more capable vehicle despite a more comfortable ride on paved roads. How was this accomplished?

A range of four-wheel drive modes and options, and advanced traction controls, means that the new Wrangler is better suited for tricky weather conditions, something that has always been an important consideration for drivers. The YJ offers a more responsive ride than its predecessor, as well as more modern entertainment and opportunities to “sync”. After all, who doesn’t like Bluetooth? Jeep even began to offer a diesel option for the Wrangler, and it is worth mentioning that the JL marked a return to the rounded headlamp design of the very early CJ and Wrangler models, which pleased many longtime enthusiasts of the brand.

In total, the Wrangler has been so iconic over the years for two reasons- Jeep’s commitment to offering vehicles that drivers can personally connect to, even in nostalgic ways, and a similar commitment to continued improvement. For these reasons, we assume that Wranglers will remain popular on roads and trails for decades to come.

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Fourth generation Jeep Wrangler

Categories: History
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