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Buying a Used Jeep Wrangler: Everything You Need to Know

Sun lovers and off-road enthusiasts alike know and love the Jeep Wrangler. For over three decades, the Wrangler has been taking its owners to the beach, the mountains, the deserts and any place where paved roads are nonexistent. Born from the original Jeep Willys that later morphed into the Jeep CJ5 and CJ7, the Wrangler name came into existence in 1987 and has remained part of the Jeep lineup ever since. The Wrangler’s simple design makes it relatively inexpensive, although it also makes it far less safe than an SUV with an enclosed cabin and more robust door and chassis design. And while the Wrangler also has a somewhat checkered repair and reliability history, it doesn’t seem to bother the legions of loyal Wrangler fans.

Which Jeep Wrangler Should I Buy?

The Wrangler name first appeared on the YJ platform and ran from 1987-1996. Like the CJ, the YJ Wrangler featured solid front and rear axles coupled to a leaf spring suspension. The YJ models are relatively basic, without much in the way of complex electronics or safety features. Buyers could choose between a hard or soft top and half-doors or full steel doors with manual windows. Trims varied throughout the model run and include base S and SE, the value leading Sport, upscale Laredo and well-equipped Sahara. Two specialty trims were also offered on this generation, the Islander (1988-93) and the Renegade (1990-94).

Jeep YJ Engines

A 2.5-liter 4-cylinder good for 117 horsepower came standard. Optional was a 4.2-liter inline-6 that was later replaced by Jeep’s critically acclaimed 4.0-liter 6-cylinder in 1991. The 4.0-liter pumps out 180 hp and has a good reputation for durability and ease of repair. The 4-cylinder models are fine for around-town excursions and mild off-roading. However, if you’re going to do any serious bouldering or just enjoy keeping up with traffic at highway speeds, the 4.0-liter is the engine you’ll want under the hood.

Both engines came with a 5-speed manual, and in 1994, a 3-speed automatic was offered on 4-cylinder models. It’s important to note during this time, Jeep did make a rear-drive Wrangler, so if you’re looking for 4-wheel drive, be sure the Wrangler you’re looking at has a hi-lo transfer case lever next to the transmission stalk.

The YJ makes a good choice if you’re looking to spend as little money as possible for a used Wrangler and you’re familiar with how to work on your own vehicle. These were not the most reliable years in the Wrangler series, with early issues around electrical, mechanical and body rust. The YJ Wrangler also rides rough and can be downright uncomfortable after just a few hours on the road.

In the used market, most of these models are going to have high mileage and lots of wear and tear. But if you can find decent version, it will likely run around $1,500 to $5,000 depending on the trim.

What is a Jeep Wrangler TJ?

The second-generation Wrangler is the TJ, which was launched in 1996 as a 1997 model and ran through 2006. If you’re looking for a low-priced used Wrangler, this is the generation we’d pick. Although similar in size and power to the YJ, the TJ received a number of improvements, starting with styling that saw the return of Jeep’s traditional round headlights. The interior was made more carlike, with better seats, a new dash and features like driver and passenger front airbags as well as upscale audio options. But the really important change was the switch from a leaf-spring suspension to a more modern coil spring setup. This design greatly improved the Wrangler’s ride and handling as well as allowed for better off-road abilities and greater wheel articulation. The YJ’s engines carried over, as did the transmission choices, until 2003, when a 4-speed automatic replaced the aging 3-speed unit.

The same hard and soft-top options remained, with various trims and equipment added over time. However, the most significant updates to TJ happened in the mid-2000s, starting with the 2003 introduction of the Rubicon line. This specialized off-road-ready Wrangler featured a beefed-up suspension, improved approach and departure angles, locking Dana 44 axles, the more advanced Rock-Trac 4:1 ratio transfer case, skid plates, larger wheels and tires plus special paint and interior features. The second change came in 2004 when a stretched version of the Wrangler was introduced.

Dubbed the “Wrangler Unlimited,” this version added 10 inches to the Wrangler’s wheelbase and 15 inches to its overall length. 2003 also saw a new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine replace the old 2.5-liter unit. Transmission upgrades followed, along with improvements to the 4×4 system, steering and interior. In 2006, the 2.4-liter was dropped, leaving the 4.0-liter as the only engine.

During this time in the Wrangler’s life, the Jeep team had a lot of fun creating special edition models. Among the more notable are the Apex Edition, Columbia Edition Willys Edition and Tomb Raider Edition, all with their own unique paint scheme, mechanical upgrades and option packages.

Overall build quality and reliability was much better on the TJ. Although there were still some bugs and shortcomings, they were far fewer and easier to repair. A quick look at pricing on Autotrader.com shows that a low mileage TJ in good condition runs between $4,000 and $9,000, depending on the trim and year. A 2005 Rubicon with low miles and no modifications falls in the $11-13,000 range.

Jeep Wrangler JK Improvements

The third-generation Wrangler is probably the model most frequently seen on the road today. Running from 2007 until 2017, the JK series saw the Wrangler grow in every dimension. Taller, wider and longer, the JK Wrangler lost some of the nimble off-road ability of the narrower TJ, but it gained significant advances in engine, drivetrain and interior technology as well as a vastly improved soft-top mechanism.

Despite having to deal with more stringent safety standards, the JK retained its removable top, folding windshield and removable doors. Speaking of doors, the Wrangler Unlimited grew two more this generation, creating the first ever 4-door Wrangler. Unlimited models also offered a rear-wheel drive version, while all 2-doors and Wrangler Rubicon models came standard with 4-wheel drive. Trims included the X (which later became the Sport), Sahara, Unlimited and Rubicon.

The JK also got a number of innovative roof options, including a hardtop with removable panels and the Sunrider soft top that featured a sliding front panel. The interior was made more luxurious, with better padding in the seats and more luxury features offered on base models such as power windows, locks and cruise control. Features like a touch-screen audio system, Bluetooth connectivity and front side-impact airbags further enhanced the JK’s appeal, while safety upgrades included electronic stability and traction control.

Does the Jeep Wrangler Have Safety Features?

Initially, the JK’s standard engine was a rather anemic 202-hp 3.8-liter V6, but that was changed in 2012 to the more robust 285-hp 3.6-liter Pentastar V6. Manual and automatic transmissions remained, and all 2-door models except the Rubicon got the standard 2-speed Command-Trac transfer case. Unlike many modern all-wheel drive SUVs, the Wrangler cannot be driven at high speeds in 4WD (this applies to all the previous generations as well). Jeep’s Command-Trac can only be used in low-speed and slippery situations.

Those looking for a low-mileage Wrangler in the low to mid $20K range should likely find the JK a desirable option. We’d go for models equipped with the 3.6-liter V6 over the older 3.8-liter, but you’ll probably pay less for an older version that, other than power, offers most of the same features. Prices range from around $13,000 for a low-mileage 2007 Wrangler X to as high as $35,000 for a nice-condition 2017 Wrangler Rubicon. The right one to buy depends on whether you want two doors or four and what balance of off-road chops and on-road comfort and convenience you’re looking for. If you’re not planning on doing a lot of off-roading, we like the moderately priced Sahara model.

Jeep Wrangler JL

Finally, there’s the fourth and current generation known as the JL Wrangler. It debuted in 2018 and is still in production today. The JL offers more modern engineering and architecture but still follows the Jeep JK off-road philosophy. Starting in 2020, a diesel V6 engine was offered for the first time in the United States, as was Jeep’s Selec-Trac 4×4 system that can be employed at all speeds. The latest Wrangler also includes more safety systems such as a blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert, while the Rubicon features an advanced electronic disconnecting front sway bar. Given how new the JL is, look for pricing to be a few thousand dollars below what a new model would run.

Is the Jeep Wrangler safe?

Keeping in mind that the Wrangler has a removable top and doors, not to mention half-doors on some models that are basically just lightweight sheet metal, you shouldn’t get into an older CJ or Wrangler expecting the same kind of crash protection you’d get in a Jeep Cherokee. The older the Wrangler, the less safety equipment it’s going to have. If you want things like rear shoulder belts, airbags and better side-impact protection, you’re going to want at least the TJ, but most likely the JK.

As the Jeep Wrangler isn’t a car, it doesn’t have to meet many of the same stringent crash test requirements. However, we did notice the 4-door Unlimited models seem to do better in side impact crash tests than do the 2-door models.

Do I need to modify my Wrangler for off-road use?

Yes and no. The Wrangler is designed for off-road use, with a rugged suspension, transmission, transfer case and, on some models, skid plate protection and greater ground clearance. The best from the factory version is the Rubicon, but for those who intend to do serious bouldering or off-road adventures, the Wrangler can easily be modified thanks to numerous aftermarket suppliers.

You can raise the Wrangler’s ride height, increase its tire size plus change its axles, transfer case and skid plate protection. Jeep owners have been known to perform these upgrades in their own driveways, garages and even while out on the trail.

What kind of gas mileage does the Jeep Wrangler get?

With the exception of the new diesel engine option, fuel economy is not one of the Wrangler’s strong points. Early model 4-cylinder Wranglers couldn’t muster much better than 15 miles per gallon in the city and 19 mpg on the highway, with the 6-cylinder versions getting about a mile or two less than that. The 2016 Wrangler with the 3.6-liter V6 returns 17 mpg city/21 mpg hwy regardless of transmission choice, while the 2019 Wrangler with the 2.0-liter turbodiesel gets 23 mpg city/25 mpg hwy.

Is the Wrangler expensive to maintain?

One of the great benefits of being able to work on your own car is that it can save you a lot of money. If you look at any automotive repair bill, you’ll see it’s always the labor that costs the most. In the case of the YJ and TJ models, there isn’t much in the way of complex electronics to mess with, and the mechanical bits (transmission, engine, differentials) are all readily available either through salvage yards, automotive stores or aftermarket suppliers. The late-model JK and JL trims do have more sophisticated engine management and safety systems, so you may need a professional mechanic depending on the issue.

What are the issues to watch out for with a Jeep Wrangler?

Buying a used Jeep Wrangler isn’t like buying an ordinary used car. In the case of the Wrangler, the buyer must watch for excessive abuse by the previous owner. You’ll want to check all the suspension parts, drain the differential and transfer cases to look for metal shavings in the oil, check all the seals for leaks and be sure any modifications made were properly installed and maintained. Any YJ or TJ model with more than 150,000 miles will need to be seen by a professional mechanic for a thorough going-over.

These early model Wranglers also have known issues with their automatic transmission, blown head gaskets and cracks that develop in the exhaust manifold. Soft-top models can see their vinyl tops grow weak and crack, and the plastic windows tend to yellow. Many of the 4-cylinder models used a less robust Dana 35 rear axle, which tended to have issues after prolonged heavy use.

How Does the Wrangler Stack Up to the Competition?

Used Wrangler vs. Used Toyota FJ

The FJ is relatively new compared to the Wrangler but is every bit as off-road capable. You can’t remove the FJ’s doors and top, but it is a safer vehicle and has a much better reputation for reliability and resale.

Used Wrangler vs. Used Nissan Xterra

Like the FJ, the Xterra doesn’t offer removable body parts. Its body-on-frame construction is similar to the Wrangler, but it isn’t as off-road capable. The Xterra is a more comfortable daily driver, however, with better interior space for people and cargo.

Used Wrangler vs. Used Toyota 4Runner

The 4Runner offers superior reliability with good off-road ability and a large aftermarket supplier base. The 4Runner is quieter than the Wrangler Unlimited and, like the FJ and Xterra, provides a more secure cabin for storing valuables. Like a new Jeep Wrangler, the Toyota 4Runner is good at providing daily comfort and the ability to go off-road.

Is the Jeep Wrangler a Good Vehicle?

For the better part of the Wrangler’s existence, it consistently pulls in average to below-average reliability and dependability figures. However, most Wrangler enthusiasts value the vehicle’s off-road abilities and open-air attitude above the occasional repair. Because the Wrangler is commonly used off-road, it takes the kind of beating most of its SUV competitors don’t. This in turn leads to some complaints that may be owner-induced.

For all its quirks and issues, the Wrangler is easily fixable. Many Wrangler owners modify and upgrade weaker components such as the standard Dana 35 axles, suspension components and exhaust systems. The soft-top on the YJ and TJ models can be a royal pain to get on and off, especially as it gets older. The design on the JK models is significantly better. Even if you do experience mechanical issues while out on the trail, the Wrangler community is a tight-knit one, always willing and able to lend a hand. Think of them like a giant off-road AAA. Find a Jeep Wrangler for sale

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Joe Tralongo
Joe Tralongo is a longtime contributor who started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2002 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He’s well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to translate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations. Joe has worked for a number of outlets as both a writer and editor. When not test driving new cars, he’s busy driving and restoring large vintage 1970s-era American cars.

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