If there’s any one motor vehicle that can truly be called “all American,” it would have to be the subject of this week’s Road Test by Request, the Jeep Wrangler. Now, civilian versions of Jeep’s military marvel have been carrying faithful fans over hill and dale since the end of World War II. And while Jeep’s current owner, Chrysler, appreciates its classic appeal, it also knows that modern buyers are only willing to take nostalgia so far. So, can this redesigned ‘97 Wrangler deliver the comforts that today’s buyers demand and still please the purists?
Well, it’s off to a good start. That’s because the new ‘97 Wrangler - or “TJ” - still retains that instantly recognizable Jeep look. And it returns to round headlights, next to the classic stamped steel 7-bar grille, much to the delight of Jeep purists who never accepted the YJ Wrangler’s rectangular lamps. But other than that hard core, few will notice minor styling changes to Wrangler.
The gas filler is now readily accessible on the left rear fender. The windshield is an inch shorter in height, its base has moved two inches forward, and the slant is increased four degrees. And yes, it still folds flat. And new hood latches are still mounted outboard.
However, the most important Wrangler changes can’t be seen, but felt. Gone are the old fashioned leaf springs, replaced by these coil springs at each corner. This Quadra-Coil multi-link suspension - adapted from the Grand Cherokee - vastly improves ride quality on pavement, where there’s less choppiness despite a still short 93.4-inch wheelbase.
Off-road capability improves even more, because Quadra-Coil increases the Wrangler’s wheel travel by 7 inches, for even more goat-like prowess. Plus there’s a substantial 11.2 inches of running ground clearance at the rear axle. And if that isn’t enough, you can now order 30-inch tires on your Wrangler. The standard 4-by-4 system remains a part-time, shift-on-the-fly unit, but the transfer case engages much easier than before.
Powering you over the terrain is either this 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, standard on base SE-grade Wranglers, and good for 120 horsepower and 140 pound-feet of torque, or an improved 4.0-liter straight 6, optional on SEs and standard on Sport and Sahara-grades. It now unloads 181 horses and 222 pound-feet of torque, with peak power at a most useful 2800 RPM. Transmissions include a 5-speed manual and a 3-speed automatic.
On straight-line pavement, the I-6 with 5-speed produced an impressive 7.6-second zero-to-60 time. The quarter mile tripped by in 16.3 seconds at 83, still good for a vehicle geared to low-end work.
But the Wrangler’s standard front disc/rear drum brakes need work. They didn’t inspire confidence and took a longish 136 feet to stop from 60. We strongly recommend the optional anti-lock system.
We were surprised how this new Wrangler took to our street handling course. The stiffer frame and body work well with the compliant coil springs to produce a more agile, yet far less tipsy- feeling vehicle. Some credit, too, goes to the power steering borrowed from the Grand Cherokee, although more feedback would be nice.
Speaking of the unexpected, check out the Wrangler’s new interior. Much more car-like now and it even has dual air bags and a real glovebox. While some purists will miss the flat metal dash, Chrysler chose a plastic modular design so a right-hand drive model for export would be cheaper to build.
It’s still a big climb up to the driver’s seat. The high-back buckets have minimal adjustments but provide good support. A full analog gauge cluster now faces your eyes, not your knees. And, the neat center stack puts stereo and climate controls within easy reach of both front seaters. The folding rear seat will still accommodate two in a pinch, and the combination of a locking tailgate and this optional steel add-a-trunk panel provides real storage security.
While artificial air conditioning is available, natural flow is what the Wrangler is all about. And that is easier to come by thanks to a new soft-top design that unsnaps, unzips, and folds almost quickly. Up or down, wind buffeting is reduced, and an all-season hardtop remains available.
Wrangler prices remain pretty reasonable, too, and it’s the least expensive convertible you can buy. The 4-cylinder SE starts at $13,495 and the Sport at $17,192. Our Sport stickered out at $19,744, but that is without ABS brakes that add $599 more.
Chrysler has managed a minor miracle with the ‘97 Wrangler. They have redone and vastly improved on a classic, while retaining all of the essential character of an open Jeep. It is both more civilized and more capable. The purists, and everyone else, should be pleased.
Engine: 4.0-Liter 6-Cylinder
Torque: 222 Lb Feet
0-60 MPH: 7.6 Seconds
1/4 Mile: 16.3 Seconds @ 83 MPH
60-0 MPH: 136 Feet