1997 - 2006 Jeep Wrangler

This series of articles offers buying tips and advice on some of our all-time favourite used four wheel drives. Vehicles that have proven themselves and stood the test of time. These vehicles, if serviced and looked after properly, can represent good value for anyone searching for a used 4x4. In this article we deal with the venerable 1997 - 2006 Jeep Wrangler

jeep Wrangler on the beach

How does the diminutive and toy-like Jeep Wrangler make it onto our list of classic 4WD's you may ask.

The answer lies in the Jeep heritage that this stout little 4x4 inherits in its styling and performance.

The initial Jeep was largely responsible for the shape of four wheel drives for decades to come. The open vertical grill, eye-like headlights, wide flared guards and firmly planted stance all contribute to the classic look common to many modern off-road marques.

Jeep describes the Wrangler as a four wheel drive with on-road capability, unlike it's most relevant competition - vehicles like the Nissan X-Trail and Toyota's Rav4 which are really road cars with some off road capability.

The Jeep Wrangler comes equipped with a real limited slip rear differential and a true high and low range; lever operated transfer case - making it a real contender in the bush and on the beach.

The 2005 Sport model we had the chance to put through it's paces came equipped with coil suspension and a 4.0 litre fuel injected six cylinder petrol engine coupled to a six speed manual transmission.

On The Road

The big straight six engine doesn't provide the heart thumping race performance you'd expect in such a compact package but it does deliver smooth and responsive acceleration with a strong power band around 2000rpm.

The stiff coil suspension and solid chassis rails mean there is little flex and virtually no body roll when taking highway corners at speed.

The Wrangler has a bit of reputation as a bit of a roll-over candidate, much like Toyota's older Hilux (unkindly dubbed the 'Roll-Ux'), but in reality rolling a solid little performer like the Wrangler is down to operator error rather than any inherent flaw in the design.

The short wheelbase, stout stance, chunky roll bar and zippy performance all create a promise of a sports car lurking under the skin of a 4WD thoroughbred, but Jeep is quick to point out that the Wrangler is primarily an off-road vehicle and not a Porsche. However the little beast does corner well even though the very direct steering takes a bit of getting used to.

It is true that the light weight package can be bounced around by large potholes and gullies on country roads - resulting in a momentary loss of the driving line, but the Wrangler resumes it's direction and carries on unaffected.

The six speed gearbox and the clutch are light in operation, with first gear being almost too low for town while the sixth gear provides good highway cruising speeds. The Wrangler is no fuel miser and it likes a drink so this sixth gear also aids in reducing fuel consumption at highway speeds. It's rarely needed around town.

A family car the Wrangler is not. It seats two comfortably with a simply laid out dashboard, tall and flat bucket seats which are a refreshing change from tiny Japanese seats (yes the Wrangler is USA made) and loads of headroom.

The rear seat can accommodate two people but in reality is better suited to children while the luggage compartment is virtually non-existent. It's a nod to the real purpose of the car - a proper 4x4 with an excellent departure angle for dropping of steep ledges. Off road capabilty hasn't been sacrificed for on-road usefulness here. The seat can be tipped forward or easily removed for extra cargo space. There's enough room for a tent, some luggage and bedding, fishing gear and a 12 volt fridge and interestedly the Sport model we tested came with a cigarette lighter and an auxiliary 12 volt outlet for just such an occasion.

The driving position is slightly elevated offering good vision of the road ahead and also delivers a sense of sitting towards the mid-rear section of the car. It's partly a result of the long bonnet housing the inline six - and the stumpy back-end.

Off The Road

Once you get the Wrangler off the bitumen and onto some rough stuff you begin to understand where the heart of the Jeep philosophy lies.

Our model came equipped with some reasonably chunky all-terrain tyres on fifteen inch factory rims. In practise the Wrangler will probably mostly see service as a lifestyle runabout and the all-terrains are a good choice. Sixteen inch rims would probably serve the Wrangler Sport a little better because the car has quite a low bash plate that protects the underside of the transmission and acts as a rock slider for negotiating ledges and beach dunes.

The short wheel base and light weight mean the lowish ground clearance isn't a major issue but the Wrangler is begging to pick it's way around boulders and obstacles and a higher ground clearance can only help in this regard.

The coil springs and live axles deliver real articulation meaning the Jeep can bend and stretch to overcome serious shifts in elevation.

The six speed gearbox combined with a true low-range ratio means there is a gear for every occasion. The Wrangler does a good job of making steep, uneven descents without needing to constantly ride the brakes and good useable torque means the Wrangler will power uphill with no threat of running out of puff.

While we are on brakes, it was disappointing to see the Wrangler with a set of drum brakes on the rear. While the front brakes are standard disc units, river crossings will render the rear drums useless until they dry out. Drum brakes also tend to require a higher level of maintenance.

The intake breather sits high under the bonnet which means tackling reasonably deep water crossings are a real possibly. The light weight of the Jeep will mean fast flowing creeks will shift the car off-course much easier than a heavier car.

We had the pleasure of taking the Jeep Wrangler from Cairns to Cooktown along the coastal Bloomfield Track - an iconic 4WD route, that although not as arduous as the country further north at Cape York offers a couple of interesting obstacles nonetheless.

May usually signals the end of the 'wet' season on Cape York but we were still experiencing some late showers, in fact we were still getting an inch of rain a day.

The Bloomfield Track is a dirt corridor that skirts the Cape York coast and cuts through the Daintree Rainforest. It is typified as a slippery dirt track track held together by a series of creek crossings, pot holes and washouts.

The Jeep Wrangler held the track beautifully without any hint of drifting or sliding, even in two wheel drive. Easing the transfer lever up a notch into high four meant the Wrangler held on even harder. Hard hit potholes deflected the light weight car off-course but without loss of control and the nimble short wheelbase meant most irregularities could be avoided anyway.

There are a couple of steep ascents and descents along the Bloomfield Track especially as you cross the ranges and head into Wajul Wajul - a tiny aboriginal community which also hosts the major water crossing along the track.

Nothing was too much trouble for the Wrangler. It stormed up hills, crawled down them and picked it's way through the river and creek crossings with ease.

By the time we reached Cooktown we were ready to hit the beaches near Quarantine Bay and the Wrangler proved that it can eat up soft hungry beach sand with aplomb. In fact the limited slip rear differential is so good many sand tracks could be negotiated in two wheel drive. Hitting really heavy sand was overcome by a simple pull on the 4x4 transfer lever - even on the fly, and the Wrangler dug through the sand, the 4.0 litre engine getting it floating and on-plane quickly. Another notch upwards on the transfer lever delivers low range 4x4 but the car wants to be stationary to achieve this.

We'd driven this beach a week earlier in a turbo charged Nissan and the little Wrangler would have left it for dead. They make a great beach buggy.

We'd also have no hesitation taking it right to the tip of Cape York although going early in the season (while the rivers were still high) would mean a suspension lift and a higher air intake would be mandatory.

The Soft Top

The Jeep Wrangler came optioned from the factory as a hard top or as a soft top and both configurations are absolute pigs. The hard top is cumbersome and heavy and Jeep sells a range of accessories for the Wrangler including a hard top gantry to lift the roof on and off.

There is no push-button, glide-open convenience on the soft top version. No sir. Instead it's an awkward, complex arrangement of zips and Velcro that seems to take an eternity to remove and even longer to replace.

This is no quick remove and replace job that you can accomplish at the traffic lights at the hint of rain. Owning a Wrangler means committing to either driving it as an often top vehicle or as an enclosed vehicle and judicious planning needs to be made regards the weather. It could be a nightmare for Melbourne drivers who want to get around with the roof down and need to get it back on in a hurry when the skies turn sour.

As well as being difficult to use the soft top is also downright noisy. Road noise, tyre noise and the wind all assault the ears. The Wrangler is no Daimler or Mercedes. Thankfully there are a neat pair of audio speakers positioned behind the driver and passenger in the well designed roll cage.

Potential owners shouldn't be deterred by the flaws of the soft top because driving around with the roof off is a barrel of fun. It's just that no vehicle manufacturer has any business making an automotive application so user unfriendly and awkward and Jeep has failed badly here.

Conclusion

This is a basic, utilitarian 4WD. It's heritage is firmly planted alongside the famous U.S. army Jeep and the Wrangler is unashamedly a little truck designed to be used off road.

Some people won't be able to live with the modular, bolt-together look, the unrefined interior, the road noise or the mildy quirky city manners.

Others won't give a hoot, delighted with the potential to reef off the roof and belt around exposed to the elements - 'wind in the hair - lead in the pencil' to quote Jack Nicholson.

The real 4x4 ability of the sturdy Wrangler is the attraction here. Tonk around the city during the week enjoying the rugged retro look - with genuine inner city manoeuvrability, then head to the bush on the weekend and run with the big boys.

If you don't care about Lexus-like appointments and comfort: enjoy the retro styling: can tolerate the quirks of the convertible roof - then the the Jeep Wrangler may be right up your alley. Or should we say Track.

If you're interested in the Jeep style then you may like the Jeep Cherokee XJ

available now

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