Although the Wrangler's lineage can be traced back to the World War II Willys Jeep, the vehicles actually named Wrangler are only in their third generation. The second gen is what we're showcasing here. It's code-named TJ and ran from 1997 to 2006. As well as going from square to round headlights and adding front airbags, Gen TJ brought a coil-spring, live-axle suspension, plus several special editions. It came in hardtop, convertible, and long-wheelbase forms. Approach angle is 42.2 degrees, and departure is 31.5. Ground clearance is about 9 inches, and a TJ can wade in water up to its headlights. (Rubicon versions have better numbers.) Trim levels are SE, X (2002-2006), Sport, and Sahara (1997-2004). The Rubicon came in 2003, packing a Dana 44 rear axle, locking diffs, 4.0:1 transfer case, four-wheel discs, and off-roading accessories.

The SE started out with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, but upgraded in 2003 to a more efficient 2.4-liter. The X was introduced as a budget model that offered a six-cylinder engine. The 4.0-liter straight-six in the Wrangler range received an update in 2000. Although never praised for its fuel economy, the 4.0 is respected for its toughness. Just check the exhaust manifold, a traditional weak spot. Automatic versions initially had a three-speed transmission, but clicked up to a four-speeder in 2003. The preferred option among Wranglerphiles is to go manual -- a five-speed stickshift was superseded by a six-speed unit in 2005. The four-cylinder engines aren't not much better with fuel than the six -- and they're underpowered. A 2000-2003 with the 4.0 and manual five-speed is a prime purchase, tough enough to handle life away from the pavement.

The only downside is the less-than-bulletproof Dana 35 rear axle in some examples. Many were optioned up to the more desirable Dana 44. These can be identified by a diff cover shaped like a stop sign. Sport and X trims are also prized. The SE is too basic, and the Sahara adds too much weight. The Rubicon is, naturally, ideal for off-roading. Some maintenance is required, especially when straying from the beaten path. Trips to the gas station will be frequent, noise levels will be high, and comfort levels low. But this is a specialized machine that does what it's designed to do really, really well.

Things to watch out for: Check underneath to make sure previous owners haven't been too ambitious in their rock-climbing goals and gotten the vehicle all bent out of shape. If it's modded, was it done by someone who planned and chose wisely? Check the tailgate and spare wheel carrier, because a bigger and heavier tire might put strain on the bracket. Look for signs of water damage in the footwells. Check the steering for excessive play, and make sure all the electrics work.

Always inspect how worn the soft top's zippers and fasteners are and how well the removable hardtop (if there is one) will couple with the body. There's a "death wobble" linked to 2005-on models. It's a steering shimmy that usually comes from having larger-than-stock tires and/or any kind of aftermarket messing with the front suspension. It will come in at some arbitrary speed, maybe 55 or 65 mph. A specialist shop should know how to eradicate it. NHTSA issued several recalls throughout the TJ's lifecycle, covering a perplexing number and range of problems.

There's nothing else quite like the Wrangler, but perhaps the Land Rover Discovery II and Nissan Xterra come close. A 4WD 2002 Jeep Wrangler Sport in good condition with average mileage is valued at $6700. A similar 2002 Land Rover Discovery II SE checks in at $5496, and a 2002 Nissan Xterra SE at $3857.


1997-2006 Jeep Wrangler
Body type: 2-door SUV
Drivetrain Front engine, RWD/4WD
Airbags Driver, front passenger
Engines 2.5L/130-hp SOHC I-4; 2.4L/147-hp DOHC I-4; 4.0L/190-hp OHV I-6
Brakes, f/r Disc/drum, ABS
Price range, whlsl/retail (KBB) $2075/$3125 (1997 4WD SE 2-dr 2.5 I-4), $11,950/$14,215 (2006 4WD Rubicon 4.0 I-6)
Recalls Too many to list; see motortrend.com
NHTSA frontal impact rating, driver/fr pass 4 stars/5 stars