It’s the real deal, but is it a steal at £5000?
There’s about to be a new one, same as the old one. The new model though will still bear all the hallmarks of the old Wrangler TJ, that they made from 1996 to 2006. Maybe now is a good time to get yourself a genuine off-roader with a lazy 4.0-litre straight six petrol engine under the ‘hood’.
Most of the models you’ll find for sale in the UK will be the higher-spec Sahara trims, along with the 174bhp 4.0-litre engine. There is the option of a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine with 122bhp, but while that’s more economical it’s not as low-stressed as the larger engine and so tends to display signs of stress, which will cause its owner to do the same.
This being a proper 4×4, there’s four-wheel drive and high and low ratios in the transfer case, as well as a five-speed manual gearbox. Only a few on the market will have the four-speed auto transmission, but check that it has had the right fluid because otherwise it will be lumpy and slip around the gears a lot.
The Wrangler TJ is a vehicle with serious off-road prowess, and so the two-speed transfer case is an integral part of the machine. Make sure it works properly because if the Jeep is just used for the road then the transfer case can seize up.
This is old-school, so there’s a galvanised body on a separate ladder-frame chassis, which is great for extreme off-road, but it can give the chassis some bangs and scratches and also let the rust in, so check thoroughly underneath. Same goes for the Dana 44 rear axle, but that bigger engine is very long-lived and it’s not unusual in the USA for them to rack up well over 200,000 miles without drama.
The body shouldn’t rust, but check the detachable front wings carefully for the red peril. The suspension can get a big saggy but that’s par for the course, and the same goes for the steering, which has a tendency to go wandering. Some people will have fitted lift kits, some of which can be tremendously good, while others are definitely the other thing. Check what’s there, but if possible go for a straight vehicle as it’s more of a known quantity.
If you find a Sahara model then it comes with a removable hard top and it’s worth checking it fits and is in working order. The lower-spec Sport came with a soft top and that will need even more careful checking over.
So what else should you look out for? Both engines are prone to problems with the water pump, so watch out for leaks. Check for oil leaks too, particularly on the rear main seal and the crankcase vents on the 4.0-litre engine. There’s not all that much oil in the smaller engine and it can suck in air which can lead to terminal bottom end and conrod damage, so listen carefully.
You’ll want to take it for a test drive, at which point you should try turning on full lock at low speed and check for judders which would signal that the Belleville spring washer that tensions the clutch plates in the rear Dana diff is cracked and will need replacing.
On your test drive see if you can experience the phenomenon known as the Wrangler death wobble. When everything is too worn and out of shape, from suspension to tyres to worn ball joints, you’ll find out exactly what the phrase means.
However, the basic vehicle is pretty solid, and will allow you to not only look like you can go anywhere, but to actually go anywhere. It has that home-spun Yankee charm, and the easy-going 4.0-litre engine sets the tone for what can be a hugely enjoyable vehicle – although perhaps better as a second than main vehicle in the garage.
So how much should you spend for this genuine Yankee iron? In the £5000-£7000 bracket you’re looking at pre-2000 4.0-litre Sahara models that are going round the clock, but focus on the condition not the mileage.
From £7000 to £9000 you’re into lower mileage models of the same plus some 4.0-litre Sports and the 2.5-litre models, with about 70k on the clocks.
Above £9000 you can find smart 4.0-litre manuals and autos with really sensible mileages from the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Above £10,500 is where you’ll find the best low-mileage 4.0-litre Saharas, but watch out for ‘Defender inflation’ where sellers reckon you’ll not find anything else to match.