The Jeep Wrangler is a vehicle that epitomizes what it means to be “American” across generations. Sure, the F-150 will always stir images of blue-collar patriotism, but not everybody needs a crew cab and towing capacity. Mustangs and Corvettes still lead a pack of muscle-headed domestic powerhouses that look and sound like the definition of freedom. Try packing a family of four in one for an overlanding trip anywhere from sea to shining sea and imagine just how free that cramped back seat feels. Cadillac is a national symbol of success shipped with pride straight from our nation’s Heartland for years. But its price tag isn’t for everyone. Plus, the vibe it emits skews decidedly toward retirement indulgence.
But the Wrangler, ah, the Wrangler is something entirely different. It embraces a rich national history as an invaluable tool in the second World War. It is THE industry standard when it comes to off roading, capable to the point of having no legitimate rival (until the return of the Bronco). And in recent years, with more room and more doors, it has crossed into new territories of practicality for group travel and cargo room to compliment that “go anywhere” physique. With sales exploding, and the newest iteration (the highly anticipated JL) just over the horizon, the question is no longer, “Who is the Jeep Wrangler for?” The question now begs, “Who isn’t it for?”
A Model Citizen
Tom Brokaw once dubbed the Americans who fought and won World War II “The Greatest Generation.” One of the tools that was invaluable in their fight was the Willys MB, which transitioned into a civilian vehicle known today as the CJ. Kaiser-Jeep and then the American Motors Corporation produced the CJ with farming in mind after the war, which continued halfway through the 1980s when Chrysler purchased AMC in the late 80s. The CJ isn’t considered an official ancestor of the Wranglers we know today, but its influence is obvious.
In 1986 (model year 1987), Jeep produced the first honest-to-goodness Wrangler: the YJ. Still boxy and utilitarian, with removable tops and doors like their forefathers, the YJ stands out among other Wrangler generations as the ones with the rectangular headlights. Annual domestic sales reached around 60,000, making the YJ an overall success. And it continued to perform well for nine years, with a half million YJs sold altogether.
But consumers clamored for a Wrangler with a smoother ride, a weather-proven top, and a more comfortable driving experience overall. So, after taking a sabbatical in 1996, Jeep returned from a year at the drawing board in ‘97 with a bang, debuting the Wrangler TJ. The new model upped ride comfort with a coil spring suspension, an improved frame, better hard tops, and far superior seating comfort. And yet again, sales improved.
Nearly 82,000 Wranglers hit the roads and trails the first year a TJ was available. In 2006, the final year before the next revamp, Jeep still reported Wrangler sales above 80,000. When all was said and done, approximately 750,000 TJs moved off the assembly line and into driveways. This generation is also notable for birthing a Rubicon trim package in 2003; it’s the most off-road capable Wrangler to date, and its use of the world-renowned 4.0L inline-six cylinder engine found in some models only reaffirms that clout. Perhaps most importantly, 2004-2006 gave us the first Wrangler Unlimited (Jeep call sign LJ). With an extra ten inches of wheelbase, the model gave a brief glimpse into the future of the Wrangler name.
What comes next truly splits the Jeep court of popular opinion. The year 2007 marks the release of the very first Wrangler JKs and JKUs (‘U’ standing for Unlimited, the four-door version); its the most versatile and civilized Wrangler to date. And off-road capability wasn’t compromised in the process. With a widened wheelbase and better ground clearance angles, in many ways it improved its grit. But with an even smoother ride, more refined interior, and the first offerings of high-end goodies such as navigation systems, the new class was obviously designed with the daily driver in mind. The Wrangler could now be the domain of the soccer mom and the family man. The JKU cleared the way for the Wrangler to be a viable option for those that genuinely liked their looks and performance but simply needed more room, or a smoother ride on their daily commute.
Detractors say it’s a tame, milquetoast aberration that moved the Wrangler off of the trail and into every suburban driveway. Its luxury classifies it as a caricature of its former, primal self. “For God’s sake”, shuddered every Jeep purist, “you can get power windows on these things.”
But what can’t be denied is the ever-skyrocketing popularity that this diversified Wrangler platform has fostered. In 2007, the JK’s first year, sales shot up to over 119,000 vehicles. This was a staggering forty thousand more than the TJ’s 2006 swan song. And numbers have only risen since (save for a brief dip on the heels of the financial crisis of the late aughts). In 2015, sales surpassed 200,000, and the total number of JKs sold since their inception now tops 1.4 million.
Another major overhaul for this foray into adulthood is planned for 2018, when the Wrangler JL finally hits the road. Jeep continues to expand its platform both at home and globally. And with rides like the Renegade and new Compass, how will the Wrangler continue to pull its weight? How will it honor the square-jawed, take-no-guff image that made it so beloved? Jeep has struggled mightily to keep upcoming changes shrouded in secrecy. Leaked photos and information suggest the courtship of everyday American drivers who do most of their crawling on blacktop will continue.
A wildfire aftermarket parts culture allows drivers from the staunch Wrangler base the freedom to add as much off-road capability as need be after the fact. One can expect, however, Wrangler’s newest offerings to widen the umbrella even further, to including as many consumers as possible. An official announcement should be launched in September, with production to kick off in November of 2017. But enthusiasts are excited for diesel engine offerings and a long-awaited Wrangler truck (the JT). Whatever changes are on the horizon, rest assured that the focus on a broader appeal will be the driving motivation.