Over 70 years and five generations, the Wrangler is still the off-roading benchmark.
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Jeep's history will know it started with the Willys MB and Ford GPW that were developed for military use in World War II. Its full title for military use was the US Army Truck, 1/4-ton, 4×4, Command Reconnaissance, but it quickly and affectionally became known as the Jeep by soldiers. President Eisenhower called it "one of three decisive weapons the US had during WWII." That may be its most important achievement, but there are others - including being the world's first mass-produced four-wheel-drive car - that can be directly traced back to the MB.
Following World War II, the Jeep continued its service and was updated before getting a full redesign from Ford. From there, it was built under license or just copied by other companies. Initially, that was for military use, but the Jeep also became a civilian vehicle. The nameplate Wrangler didn't appear until 1986, but we'll join the story with the Civilian Jeep, more commonly known as the CJ.
As victory in the war became a certainty, Willys began working on a civilian version of the Jeep that was introduced in May 1944. It differed from the military version by having lower gearing as well as a tailgate and canvas top. The civilian version also started with the spare tire being mounted on the side. Jeep customers could order their CJ from a patriotic color palette that included Normandy Blue, Potomac Gray, Picket Gray, Michigan Yellow, and Emerald Green. The civilian version did retain its fold-down windshield though, a throwback to being a detail of the military design that allowed the Jeep to be packaged in lower crates.
It ran in production for over 40 years, and in 1980 the TV news magazine show 60 Minutes fabricated a report claiming that the CJ could easily roll over. In reality, there had been over 400 trials and only eight rollovers, all of them from one test Jeep with bad tires. The CJ name was damaged, though, and a name change was needed to go with the next generation.
The YJ generation Jeep debuted at the 1986 Chicago Auto Show. It brought with it a new level of comfort by using the suspension and interior from the Jeep Cherokee, including anti-roll bars. The result was a more composed, safer, and more agreeable vehicle to drive on the road as well as being a serious off-roading machine. The Wrangler became something that wasn't reserved just for weekend off-road hobbyists; it was now a competent daily driver as well.
The hardcore fans weren't all happy about the new Jeep, though. The new face highlighted by rectangular headlights rather than round units didn't sit well with many. The Wrangler clothing company wasn't impressed by the name, and promptly started legal action, but dropped the suit later.
Jeep placated the hardcore in 1991 by offering more power and torque from one of the finest inline-six engines yet produced for off-road vehicles. The fuel-injected AMC inline six-cylinder was a 4.0-liter variation of the AMC 242 that produced 190 hp and 225 lb-ft of torque. The company then annoyed the hardcore in 1994 by offering an automatic transmission option for the drivetrain to help appeal to a broader audience.
The YJ generation of Wrangler took large steps in the model's evolution, and the TJ capitalized on everything Jeep learned through its ups and downs. The frame and body got a lot stiffer to improve strength and reduce flex when off-roading, and the suspension was upgraded to become coil sprung. The new suspension helped its on-road comfort without sacrificing rough ground ability through better axle articulation. Most importantly, to the hardcore enthusiasts, anyway, the round headlights returned while the engine options remained the same. The interior was also improved and featured driver and passenger airbags, while stalwart features like a fold-down windshield and removable doors were retained.
The upgrade not only secured the Jeep's reputation as a daily driver while staying true to its rough-ground roots, but also introduced the Rubicon name to the Jeep family. Designed to be able to transcend the famed Rubicon Trail, the Jeep Rubicon featured an increased lift on the suspension, heavy-duty suspension components, and improved approach and departure angles. The TJ also saw a slew of now-familiar names on its badging, including the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, Wrangler X, Wrangler Sport, and Sahara, amongst others.
Jeep's JK generation opened the door to even more customers by having a four-door version made available. While two-door models are still popular, the majority of Wranglers sold today are four-door versions. The JK Wrangler also saw the introduction of stability control, but its launch also coincided with the US economy crashing. Despite fuel economy becoming a more critical feature on new cars at the time, the JK still sold well. It was more capable and more comfortable as well as being 5 inches wider than the TJ generation. Not everyone was a fan of the new plastic front fenders, but many came to and still do appreciate how easy and inexpensive they are to replace after a crunch. As they crumple easily, it also means they are less likely to cause further damage to the grill or structure.
The JK generation was also the first Jeep built with the aftermarket in mind. Jeep used less expensive non-critical components that kept the cost down in the knowledge that many owners would upgrade them later to their taste and needs. One of the best examples is the bumpers, which are the tip of the spear in the now-massive Jeep aftermarket industry. The cost-cutting didn't affect the overall ability of the JK generation, and the all-new design offered an even better ground clearance and break-over angle.
The latest Wrangler generation became more straightforward and more complex at the same time. The folding windshield only needs four bolts removed to lower rather than 30. The axles are still solid, the roof and doors still come off, the body still bolts to the frame. However, both the two-door and four-door models are a couple of inches longer and wider, and technology like push-button start and a giant touchscreen have infiltrated the cabin. The spartan cabin of the Willys MB and Ford GPW are now entirely consigned to the history books.
The now-familiar 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 with either a six-speed manual or a new eight-speed automatic is still available, but there's also a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. The trick here is that the turbo four-cylinder makes 295 lb-ft of torque over the straight six's 260 lb-ft of twist.
The JL generation is the most civilized Wrangler to take to the road yet, but also the most capable off-road. It flaunts an approach angle of 44 degrees, a departure angle of 37 degrees, and a breakover angle of either 22.6 degrees or 27.8 degrees depending on the model. The Rubicon boasts an electronic front sway-bar disconnect, 10.9 inches of ground clearance, and 30 inches of water fording capability from the factory and rides on 33-inch BF Goodrich all-terrain tires.
Jeep's Wrangler does something that few other vehicles manage as they grow and evolve over the decades - it remains true to itself. It hasn't become anything other than a purely recreational vehicle for the masses, although a few countries have pressed earlier generations into some form of service. The Wrangler is a niche vehicle, but it's a huge niche, and while other off-roaders may be more versatile, nothing else approaches its ability straight off the dealer's lot. Whatever the next generation may look like, you can bet it'll still be instantly identifiable as a Wrangler and be ready for adventure.