The Jeep Wrangler had its best sales year ever in 2015, topping 200,000 units, and 2016 was almost as good. Sales have almost doubled since 2007, when the current-generation Wrangler (code name “JK”) made its debut. On the surface, this sales growth is puzzling. While the Wrangler has had some incremental upgrades, it’s still a fundamentally simple vehicle when compared to other SUVs on the market — and even within the Jeep brand itself. Land Rover is widely considered to be Jeep’s premier competition for off-road capability, yet the Wrangler outsold the entire Land Rover lineup in 2016 by over 100,000 vehicles. Why is the Jeep Wrangler still so popular after all these years? The answer is rooted in a combination of three factors: heritage, authenticity and capability.
The Jeep Wrangler is the direct descendant of the 1940 Willys Quad prototype vehicle that was commissioned by the United States Army and eventually developed into the 1941-1945 Willys MB. The rugged, capable and cheap MB was everywhere during World War II. At some point, the MB took on the nickname “Jeep.” Many articles have been written about how the Jeep got its name, but no theory is accepted by all. I like to believe that it’s army slang for “GP” or “General Purpose,” a designation that was attached to the vehicle, but some experts trace the name back to a comic strip character named Eugene the Jeep. The mystery is part of Jeep lore, and may never be unraveled.
After World War II, government-surplus MB vehicles were widely available in the U.S., and returning veterans snapped them up as cheap, reliable transportation. Capitalizing on the opportunity, the Willys-Overland company produced the 1945-1949 Jeep CJ-2A, a version of the MB modified for civilian use. Its successor, the 1949-1953 Jeep CJ-3A, is widely considered “the father of recreational vehicles,” according to the Jeep website.
American Motors Company (AMC) took over production of the Jeep in 1970 and in 1987 released the Jeep Wrangler (code name “YJ”). Chrysler Corporation acquired AMC later that year, continuing YJ production through 1996. The next generation of Wrangler, the “TJ,” ran from 1997-2006 through various changes of the Jeep brand’s ownership. The current Wrangler (code name “JK”) debuted as a 2007 model and continues through the present under the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) regime.
Few vehicles have such a direct line and heritage. Even casual car fans can recognize the unique character and lineage of the Jeep Wrangler, which certainly contributes to its continued popularity.
We often overuse the descriptor “iconic” when describing cars, but the Jeep Wrangler is an iconic vehicle design. The current generation maintains a rugged profile that hearkens back to its military roots, over 75 years after its initial design. With the 7-slot grille flanked by round headlights, the big flat fenders and hood, the fold-down windshield, the removable doors, the convertible top or optional hard top and the rear-mounted spare tire, the Wrangler displays a timeless design that’s totally unique in the marketplace.
Inside, the current Wrangler has evolved to include levels of comfort and convenience that would stun those World War II veterans. Power windows and door locks, air conditioning, carpeting, a finished interior and even available heated leather seats can be had on some trim levels. The civilian Wrangler has been civilized, and many drivers use their Wrangler vehicles for daily transportation without hardship. It’s like driving a piece of design history without compromise, and that’s certainly part of the Wrangler’s popularity.
The Wrangler’s on-road driving has been greatly enhanced over the decades, especially with the adoption of the Pentastar V6 engine for the current generation. Older Wranglers were painfully slow by modern standards, while the JK models are able to keep up with traffic in stock form.
But where the Wrangler really shines is when the pavement ends. In the hands of a skilled off-road driver, the Wrangler can chew up trails and terrain that many other vehicles must avoid. The Wrangler has a short wheelbase, short front and rear overhangs, and great ground clearance, delivering the impressive approach, departure and breakover angles that make off-roading easier. Combined with a rugged transmission, solid front and rear axles, a coil-over suspension and 4-wheel drive, the Wrangler really is the “Go anywhere. Do anything.” vehicle advertised by its slogan. Add to that a robust list of optional performance enhancements and a robust aftermarket, and the Wrangler’s continued popularity makes perfect sense.
While some vehicles, like the Land Rover Range Rover, Toyota 4Runner and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee may be able to equal it in some areas, no single current vehicle can match the Jeep Wrangler’s combination of heritage, design authenticity and capability.
And that’s the answer to our question.