My 1996 Jeep Wrangler, or TJ as it is known to enthusiasts’ world (USA) wide, is a complete departure for me. As an avid car enthusiast I have owned a dozen cars in my twenty-something years long life and they have been varied and dissimilar with the only common feature being that they must entertain me. Some have been fast, some have handled beautifully, and some have simply been good honest cars.
The Jeep is none of those things.
Yet, I have already become very attached to it.
1996 marked the first year of the TJ series Wrangler which stretched into the early 2000s, changing lightly in those years. Mine is a soft-top, 3 (!) speed automatic, 4.0-litre straight-six. It does not have ABS, it does not have rear disc brakes, it does not have air-conditioning.
It is not a car. It is a Jeep.
For me the Wrangler TJ is the best of all Jeeps. Here in Australia I don’t believe we ever had Wranglers prior to the TJ, not did this generation come with any engine but the 4.0-litre. This is a good thing as the TJ series was the first Wrangler to come with coil spring suspension making it much more road drive-able than previous Wranglers while still maintaining its simple core.
Later Chrysler Jeeps, in my mind, are not much of a step in the right direction as they become larger and feature more car-like amenities. The newest Jeeps today even feature shared FCA Fiat/Chrysler turbo engines and million speed automatics etc. They also now need to be ‘Trailrated’ and other marketing spins that were not necessary on older (my) models. Enough rambling, let me now break down my Jeep.
Performance and Economy
Well… performance is a mixed bag. On one hand, the engine is gruff, loud, and not especially powerful. Delivering something around 130kW and 290Nm, and this really is enough for the Jeep. It enables highway speeds and pulls reasonably up hills both on- and off-road.
What it lacks in smoothness it makes up for in a sort of donkey-like toughness. In a very American way, it delivers but rather crudely so. As for economy it achieves around 14L/100km with a delicate foot during commuting duties.
Cabin Space and Comfort
Yet again we find a mixed bag here. The front seat occupants have decent head-, shoulder- and legroom (I’m 183cm) and it is worth mentioning that by removing the top half of the doors, you can perfectly rest your elbow as you gaze out on the range, or rather Northern Tablelands of NSW.
The passenger also has a somewhat secured grab handle jutting out at them from the dash from which they may hold on and wonder as to why it is necessary, but that will come later under ride and handling. The rear seat is decidedly less appealing in a bench configuration with lap belts for two, no headrests and plastic removable side windows flapping by their ears. There is scant legroom compounding their issues.
This is countered however by the large roll bar which can be used (off-road on private property driving slowly) very entertainingly to hold onto and stand up with the soft-top lowered allowing the individual to pretend they are in an adventure safari or Jurassic Park with the wind in their hair spotting exotic creatures from afar.
As for comfort, there is some as the seats are as soft as an old sofa and feature lovely pueblo fabric and tan vinyl on my beauty. Far better than the oft seen black on black on grey interiors most common nowadays.
Technology and Connectivity
Well, okay, a radio.
Price and Features
I paid a very reasonable sum for this Jeep, especially when you compare it against other off-road legends. Four-wheel drives are not cheap and they do not depreciate like many cars would. Features are limited indeed, and are all visible and apparent.
Ride and Handling
Oh boy. The ride is much like being on a trailer towed behind a ute on some hobby farm. It is bouncy, and jarring. The seats help somewhat in cushioning the occupants but it is not civilised at all and feels about the same on and off-road. This is not a car to sooth your brow after a tough day.
As for handling, I describe it as “needs attention” and dangerous at all speeds. These can roll. They have a high centre of gravity often not helped by outrageous lifts (not on mine). The Jeep pitches under braking and hunkers down under acceleration. Entertaining but NOT confidence inspiring. Add to that the vague steering feel and significant power and you could easily get yourself into trouble entering a corner.
Now then. If all this has put you off then please consider it in another way. Subjective and not objective. Throw numbers out the window.
The TJ Wrangler is such a fun machine, and it brings a smile to my face every day. Once you lower the somewhat shoddy soft-top, remove the half-doors, and feel the wind, sun and the branches of trees entering the cabin you become alive. It feels so fast and free both on- and off-road.
It is also the blue jeans of vehicles, everyone loves it. Kids love its toy-like qualities and the convertible roof, the elderly give a wizened nod as they remember the war and the Jeep’s iconic nature, gym bros try to turn their necks, fail, and turn their entire bodies and admire the fender flares, big wheels, and square-jawed looks. The Jeep also appeals to uni students, artists, photographers, grizzled adventurers, dog owners, and the clinically insane alike.
Vehicle of the people. Drive one.