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The Original Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Was Such a Good Idea

When Jeep brought round headlights back to its Wrangler lineup for the 1997 model year with its redesigned TJ, purists were momentarily satisfied. No longer were the square headlights from the previous YJ-body Wrangler there to dilute the looks, which had been largely unchanged since 1941.

Of course, Jeepers often have complaints — I should know, I’ve owned a slew of Cherokee XJs, Grand Cherokee WJs and even a horrendously rusty Grand Wagoneer. The TJ was no exception, as fanboys took issue with the coil-spring suspension, which provided a better on-road ride and more off-road articulation, and the “modern” dash, which integrated radio and climate controls — but it wasn’t waterproof if it was submerged in a lake for an hour! And, of course, the fact that the cargo and passenger space was still limited didn’t help the situation.

Enter the long-wheelbase Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, which was rushed to production a full seven years after the TJ bowed. The Wrangler Unlimited has its roots in the Jeep CJ-8, better known as the Scrambler, which combined a pickup-truck-style bed with a covered cab and an upright grille with round headlights.

The Wrangler Unlimited was a great idea. Jeep stretched the Wrangler’s wheelbase by 10 inches and added another half a foot of storage behind the rear seat. The result was not only more interior space but also a far more tolerable ride. The 93.4-in wheelbase in the standard Wrangler provided a bouncy ride, and while the Wrangler Unlimited was hardly plush, it was more stable at speed and in most off-road settings. The Wrangler Unlimited still measured just 171 inches between its bumpers, which made it far more nimble off-road than contemporary 4-wheelers. For instance, the Toyota FJ Cruiser that followed was about 13 inches longer.

2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

The original Wrangler Unlimited was short-lived, but it was offered with some ideal specifications. All versions swapped out the relatively weak Dana 35 rear axle, which was standard on the regular Wrangler, for a more robust Dana 44, and 4-wheel disc brakes replaced a front-disc/rear-drum setup. Between the longer wheelbase and the beefier rear axle, the Wrangler Unlimited could lug up to 3,500 pounds, which was 1,500 more than the standard Wrangler. An extended-length soft top was standard and could be had with clear or tinted side windows, and a heavy hardtop was optional.

All Unlimiteds used the AMC-era 4.0-liter straight-six, and each came with either a 4-speed automatic transmission or a rather agricultural 6-speed manual. Equipped rather like the Wrangler Sport but with a limited-slip rear differential, alloy wheels with 30″ tires and a few other goodies, the Wrangler Unlimited was priced at about $24,300 when it hit the road.

The 2004 model year was a brief one for the Wrangler Unlimited, and the dawn of 2005 saw the arrival of the beefy Wrangler Rubicon with a Dana 44 front axle, locking differentials and an upgraded transfer case with a 4:1 crawl ratio. The Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon cost $1,000 more than the short-wheelbase model.

Jeep redesigned the Wrangler for 2007, keeping a short-wheelbase version but dropping the 2-door Unlimited in favor of a 4-door that shared its name. The 4-door Wrangler Unlimited quickly became a better seller than the standard version, and yet it lacks the simple, Scrambler-like looks and utility that have made the original TJ Unlimited a modern classic.

Finding one may take some patience, especially since the Wrangler Unlimited has gained a strong enthusiast following recently, as Jalopnik has documented. Clean, low-mileage examples may cost upward of $20,000 on Autotrader, including this exceptionally nice 1,800-mile 2004 Unlimited with an automatic transmission for $29,800 and this 4,600-mile 2005 Unlimited Rubicon for just $24,995. That may sound like a lot, but a base 2019 Wrangler 4-door costs nearly $33,000 new.

Today’s Wrangler lineup is extensive, with 2-door, 4-door, and Gladiator crew-cab pickup models — and yet, there’s a distinct hole waiting to be plugged: a two-door model with a longer wheelbase and more cargo space than the relatively less popular standard Wrangler. Find a Jeep Wrangler for sale

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz is an author specializing in helping in-market consumers get the most bang for their buck -- and the best car, while they're at it. When not virtually shopping for new and used cars, Andrew can probably be found under the hood of a vintage classic that's rapidly losing fluids.

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