A Jeep Wrangler has the sparkling off-road ability to match its old-school looks and hardcore reputation. We explain how to pick a good one from £5000 up
25 May 2018

There’s an all-new Wrangler coming to these shores next year.

It looks a lot like the old one but, even more important, like the one before that. It’s a good time, then, to consider this most ancient version, the well-regarded Wrangler TJ, from 1996 to 2006.

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In fact, Autocar ran one – a Sahara 4.0 – as a long-term test car and, its lazy power delivery and bouncy ride notwithstanding, what fun we had. Today, prices start at £5000.

As ever, when you’re talking about motors as old as 22 years, condition is everything, which is why you’ll find there’s little relationship between price and vehicle age.

That said, be wary of ‘Defender inflation’ – the tendency for sellers to ask a bit more, since what else is there? Unless you know your quality Wrangler aftermarket kit from Far Eastern rubbish, favour an original and unmolested example over the many modified ones out there too.

Our Verdict

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The majority of Wranglers are 174bhp 4.0-litre models, most of them in ‘upmarket’ Sahara trim, with a sprinkling of cheaper Sport versions for good measure. The 4.0-litre is a straight six petrol unit with few issues, so long as it has been looked after. It suits the Wrangler, especially off road.

Because it has to work harder, the 122bhp 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine can be more troublesome. Check for bottom-end noises and a leaky water pump. (The water pump is an issue on both engines.) One thing in the 2.5’s favour is its better fuel economy. If you have no plans to go off road, it could be the one to choose. Worried about high mileage? In the US, Wranglers rack up a quarter of a million without breaking a sweat.

The model has selectable four-wheel drive, with a choice of high and low ratios. The transfer ’box can seize up if four-wheel drive isn’t regularly selected, so ensure it engages smoothly. Check for noisy diffs and worn universal joints causing shunting too. The standard gearbox is a five-speed manual (the 4.0-litre got an uprated unit in 2000) but there’s also a rare four- speed automatic. It needs the correct transmission fluid so feel for lumpy changes and excessive slipping.

The Wrangler is an old-school body-on-frame mud-plugger so the first thing you want to see is a long MOT suggesting the ladder chassis is in robust health, although expect surface corrosion on this and the Dana 44 rear axle. The galvanised body sits on coil springs. They might be a bit saggy but that’s no problem if you plan some off-roading adventures since you’ll want to fit a lifting kit anyway.

Out of the box, the steering was hardly crisp, but if it’s seriously vague, suspect worn ball joints. The Sport had a soft-top and the Sahara a removable hard-top. Check both fit snugly, and look for signs of damp on the seats and floor.All good? Then have a go. It may not be the latest JL but a well-bought TJ will put just as wide a smile on your face, for a fraction of the price.

How to get one in your garage: 

An expert’s view,  CHRIS BASHALL, SURREY OFF-ROAD SPECIALISTS - “Assuming both vehicles are in standard trim, a Land Rover 90 will beat a Wrangler TJ off road. The Jeep’s ground clearance just isn’t great enough and you can easily wallop the fuel tank. However, raise it a couple of inches with a good lifting kit such as ARB’s Old Man Emu and fit 31in tyres, and they’re more evenly matched. Being smaller and more agile, a well-prepared TJ will beat the later Wrangler JK as well. If you’re looking at a modified one, check it’s quality kit and that it has been fitted properly.”

Buyer beware...

ENGINE - The 4.0-litre is prone to water pump issues so check for leaks. While you’re there, look for oil leaks from the engine’s rear main seal and crankcase vents on top of the valve cover. Pre-2000 4.0-litre engines can suffer a cracked exhaust manifold.The2.5 has quite a small oil capacity. Under sudden heavy braking, it can suck air into the sump, leading to big-end and con-rod failure. Distributor bearings can wear on both engines. Inspect the radiator seams for leaks and the condition of the plastic tank caps.

TRANSMISSION - The Belleville spring washer that tensions the clutch plates in the rear diff can crack, making the diff noisy. Check by turning the car on full lock and feeling for a judder. The diff fluid needs to be original equipment with a special additive that prevents the plates drying and grinding. Early five- speed ’boxes can suffer synchro issues.

SUSPENSION - Coil springs can sag. It’s cheaper to fit new radius arms than replace their worn bushes. Check for play in the ball joints at the end of the Panhard rods.

BODY - With the exception of the separate, bolt-on front wings, the galvanised body is generally rust-free. The chassis should show only surface corrosion and nothing worse, although the rear portion of the frame can suffer, as can the rear axle. Some parallel imports aren’t as well rust-proofed as official UK cars and their chassis can rot.

Also worth knowing:

The Wrangler death wobble. This well-known condition describes the alarming behaviour of the TJ’s front axle when the suspension is all out of shape. Poor alignment, unbalanced tyres, worn ball joints, a loose anti-roll bar – each or all can cause the axle to wobble violently as you drive. It’s worse if the car has been raised.

How much to spend:

£5000-£6995 - Up to 2000-reg Sahara 4.0 hard- and soft-tops with about 100k miles, some with full service histories, and mostly manuals; others tatty, trading on image.

£7000-£7995 - Lower-mileage pre-2000 Sahara 4.0 manuals, plus early-2000s 4.0 Sports.

£8000-£8995 - More 2001-reg Sahara and Sport 4.0s plus the occasional 2.5, all with around 70k miles.

£9000-£10,495 - Tidy late-1990s and mid-2000s 4.0 manuals and autos with 50k-70k miles.

£10,500 AND ABOVE - Low-mileage early to mid-2000s Sahara 4.0s.

One we found:

JEEP WRANGLER SAHARA 4.O 1998/S, 108K MILES, £6495: This Wrangler has full service history. Its interior is unmarked and it is described as “outstanding for its age”, but since it’s 20 years old, that could mean anything. It’s totally original, so no risk of unseen bodgery, but check the clutch because it has a tow hook.

John Evans 

Read more 

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