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1997-2006 Jeep Wrangler: Used Car Review

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Used 1997 Jeep Wrangler Sahara
Used 1997 Jeep Wrangler
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author photo by Lee Ronson September 2012

Dubbed the TJ by Jeep fans, the 1997 Jeep Wrangler ushered in a coil spring suspension with gas-pressure shocks that gave the vehicle a greatly improved on-pavement ride. This meant getting rid of the leaf spring suspension the Wrangler and its heirs had since the first Jeep military vehicles of World War II. The result was less hobby-horsing on the highway, making the 1997-2006 Wrangler a better all-around vehicle. With its compact size, tight turning circle, short overhangs and generous 8.5 inches of ground clearance, the Wrangler was still one of the best off-road vehicles around. Other improvements included dual front airbags, instruments centered in front of the driver, 7 in more suspension articulation and optional ABS on some models.

Why You Want It:

There's really nothing else like it. With a style that's changed very little in more than 70 years, the 1997-2006 Wrangler oozes personality. What other vehicle allows you to take off the doors, remove the top, fold down the flat windshield or hose it out after an off-pavement adventure? For folks living out in the sticks, the Wrangler is basic transportation. For others, it's a weekend getaway machine. Yet, beginning with the 1997 model, the Wrangler is also a vehicle you could drive every day. It's the last Wrangler available with the legendary AMC inline-6, and it's smaller and 400 lb lighter than the 2007-and-later Wranglers, which are not as nimble off road.

Notable Features and Options:

The Wrangler was available in SE, Sport, Sahara, X, Rubicon and Unlimited trim. All models feature 4-wheel drive and come standard with a canvas top that features side curtains with zip-out plastic windows and half-canvas doors. Optional is a hardtop with steel doors and roll-up tinted glass windows. The hardtop is also available with a rear window defroster and wiper. A stout rollover bar is standard. There are no side airbags, power windows, mirrors or door locks, as the doors are removable.

The SE is very basic, with just two front buckets and 4-cylinder power. Even a radio was optional. The base tire is a 205/75R-15.

The better-equipped Sport adds a back seat, AM/FM radio, wider 215/75R-15 tires and the 4.0L 6 engine.

Sahara is the topline Wrangler from 1997-2004, with standard fare including a leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, cassette or CD player, fog lamps, intermittent wipers, alloy wheels and 225/75R-15 rubber. Later models come with A/C, cruise control and other amenities.

Beginning in 2002, X is a bargain-priced, youth-oriented model with the standard 4.0L 6, rear seating, AM/FM radio and 215/75R-15 tires. ABS and limited slip are options.

Starting in 2003, Rubicon is an off-road-focused specialty model with 31-in tall LT 245/75R-16 tires, Dana 44 axles, air-locking 4.11:1 differentials, special 4:1 transfer case and 4-wheel disc brakes.

Introduced for 2004, Unlimited is a long-wheelbase model with 3,500-lb towing; added rear legroom and cargo space; and standard CD player, A/C, alloy wheels, and limited-slip differential. The optional Sunrider package has a separate sunroof in the canvas soft top.

Model Milestones:

1998: Introduces optional cruise control, Smart Key anti-theft system and easy-tilt driver's seat.

1999: Climate controls switch from sliders to rotary knobs. A CD player is a new option.

2000: The 15-gallon fuel tank is dropped, and the 19-gallon tank is made standard.

2001: A new, quieter 4-ply soft-top is introduced. Headlamp and wiper functions are moved to turn signal stalk. Intermittent wipers and child seat tethers become standard. Optional molded plastic Add-a-Trunk provides lockable storage and is now removable via thumbscrews.

2002: The Wrangler X model debuts. The 4.0L 6 is upgraded to 190 hp and 235 lb-ft of torque.

2003: The previous 3-year/36,000-mile power train warranty is improved to 7 years/70,000 miles. Front seat travel is increased to accommodate taller drivers, and a 4-speed automatic transmission replaces the 3-speed. A fold-and-tumble rear seat is available. The base SE model is upgraded with wider 215/75R-15 tires and a new, more powerful 2.4L 4-cylinder with 147 hp and 165 lb-ft of torque. The Rubicon model is added.

2004: All models have tilt steering, and a CD player is standard on all but the SE model. The cassette player is dropped. A long-wheelbase 2-door Unlimited model is introduced that's 15 in longer overall.

2005: A 6-speed manual replaces the previous 5-speed. A 6-disc CD changer is optional. 4.0L 6-cylinder becomes optional in the SE model. The long-wheelbase Unlimited Rubicon edition makes its debut. The Unlimited Premium replaces the Sahara. ABS is only available on Sport.

2006: The power train warranty is upgraded to unlimited mileage.

Engines and Performance:

Not unlike the original WW II Jeep, the base engine offered in all Wrangler SE models is a 4-cylinder. From 1997 to 2002, this is a 2.5L pushrod 4 with 120 hp at 5,400 rpm and 140 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 rpm. Starting in 2003, the Wrangler SE base engine is a double overhead-cam 2.4L borrowed from the Jeep Liberty, which delivers 25 percent more power and 18 percent more torque--specifically 147 hp at 5,200 rpm and 165 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm.

All other Wranglers, including the Sport, Sahara, Unlimited and X, get upgraded to the legendary Jeep 4.0L inline-6 engine. This smooth-running American Motors engine delivers excellent low-range and midrange torque for good response regardless of the gear or grade. From 1997 to 2001, it has 181 hp at 4,600 rpm, and a hearty 222 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm--class leading in its day among small SUVs. In a 1997 test of a Wrangler Sport with the 4.0L inline-6, Open Road magazine netted a 9.5-second 0 to 60 time. For 2002 and later Wranglers, tuning enhancements boost the 4.0L to 190 hp at 4,600 rpm and 235 lb-ft of torque at 3,200 rpm.

1997-2002 transmission choices are a 5-speed manual or 3-speed automatic. For 2003, the automatic is upgraded to a 4-speed with overdrive top gear for more relaxed cruising. Beginning with 2005 Wranglers, the manual gearbox is a 6-speed.

All Wranglers come with 4-wheel drive, which in this case is Jeep's part-time Command Trac. Low-range gearing for venturing off-trail is a 2.72:1 reduction, unless it's a Rubicon model, which has a super creeper 4.0:1 low-range ratio and extra-beefy Rock-Trac 4WD system.

The Wrangler is a very basic go-anywhere machine with awesome off-road ability, but it's not optimized for over-the-road fuel economy. Ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for 4-cylinder SE models range between 18 to 19 mpg in the city and 20 to 21 mpg highway. The EPA rates the 6-cylinder at 14 to 16 mpg city and 18 to 20 mpg highway driving.

Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties:

NHTSA announced the following safety recalls on the 1997 to 2006 Wrangler:

1997: Software error in airbag module could delay airbag deployment in a crash or accidently deploy airbag after ignition key is turned off.

1998: Power brake booster reservoir diaphragm can tear, resulting in loss of power assist.

1998: Front shoulder belt turning loops were not properly hardened and may not restrain front passengers in a crash.

1999: Instrument panel gauges and defroster blower may not function due to poor grounds.

2000-2002: On 4.0L 6, debris may accumulate between intake and exhaust manifolds, causing a fire.

2001: Instructions for child seat tether anchorage were missing in some vehicles.

2001-2002: Water could enter ignition switch, causing a short circuit and fire.

2004: Tire inflation info was omitted from door label.

2005-2006: Improperly installed parking anchor shaft in some automatic transmissions may allow vehicle to roll away on an incline.

2006: Manual transmission clutch master cylinder rod may break, disabling the clutch.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the Wrangler a 4-star rating for the driver and passenger in frontal impacts (except 1997 models, which got a 5-star passenger rating), but did not test for side impacts. In rollover testing, 2001-03 Wranglers got three stars, and NHTSA gave 2005-06 models four stars.

In testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), 1997-2006 Jeep Wranglers were rated Acceptable for frontal impacts and Marginal in side impacts. Rear crash protection, only measured on 2001-06 Wranglers, was determined by IIHS to be Poor.

The 1997-2006 Wrangler came with a 3-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. The powertrain warranty was 3 years/36,000 miles on 1997-2002 models, 7 years/70,000 miles on 2003-05 Wranglers and unlimited on 2006 models.

The 1997-2006 Wranglers are too old to be eligible for Chrysler Certified Pre-Owned status.

Word on the Web:

Because of its unique design and driving characteristics, the Jeep Wrangler is a polarizing vehicle. In a test of the 2005 Wrangler Unlimited, lauded the Jeep for its off-road ability and nostalgic look but took issue with its choppy ride quality, abrupt handling, long braking distances, noisiness, poor ingress/egress, fit and finish, and lack of ABS on some models. Nonetheless, Consumer Reports predicted better-than-average reliability for the engine, transmission, suspension and brakes but cited the climate control system, paint and trim as trouble spots. It accelerated from 0 to 60 mph in 10.3 seconds. tested a 2002 Wrangler X and acknowledged that it was not the vehicle of choice for drivers who spend considerable hours on the highway. But the tester found more to like in its big, torquey inline-6 engine, short dimensions and quick steering, which allows it to thread among stumps and rocks better than any factory-built truck. It concluded: "For the cost of some two-to-three-week safari to the uncharted, you could buy years of adventures into the North American backcountry." That was back when the Wrangler was new, so a used one would be a particularly good bargain in that respect.

Competitive Set:

The Wrangler is in a class of its own. The HUMMER H3, Toyota FJ Cruiser, Isuzu Amigo and Nissan Xterra are much larger, heavier vehicles that lack the Wrangler's off-road agility. The Chevrolet Tracker, Kia Sportage and Suzuki Vitara offer good maneuverability, better fuel economy and more civilizing touches but don't provide the retro character, word-of-mouth reputation and resale value of the Jeep.

Auto Trader Recommendations:

A used Wrangler of this vintage holds its value well, so there won't be many bargains out there. The Wrangler has tremendous off-road ability, but it's best to avoid a used model that has undergone a lot of off-road modifications. For security, get a CARFAX report to help you stay away from a Jeep that's a salvage unit or has been in a rollover or flood.

Because Wranglers are specialty vehicles, they don't get the highway miles more sedate SUVs might rack up, so it's easy to find one with relatively low miles. Stick with the inline-6 for best overall performance and better resale value. And, if possible, get one with the factory hardtop, which makes the A/C a lot more effective in hot weather, and makes the vehicle much quieter on the highway and more secure when parking it on the street.

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Used 1997 Jeep Wrangler Sahara
Used 1997 Jeep Wrangler
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1997-2006 Jeep Wrangler: Used Car Review - Autotrader