1997 Jeep Wrangler

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2002 Jeep Wrangler

This 2002 review is representative of model years 1997 to 2006.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 6

Bottom Line:

Rugged and distinctive, but better off-road than on pavement.
Pros:
  • Iconic reputation
  • Superb off-road prowess
  • Uncompromising personality
Cons:
  • Jerky ride
  • Tight rear seat
  • Low fuel economy

The 2002 Jeep Wrangler arguably has the most iconic status of all American vehicles because it's the direct descendant of the one that helped win World War II. That model made Jeep a household word, like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Levi's.

Watchers of the History Channel might know that the current-generation Jeep Wrangler was preceded by the World War II Willys MB and Jeep CJ-2A and CJ-7—and 1987-95 Wrangler.

No Wrangler was designated a 1996 model because Jeep just kept pumping out 1995 Wranglers until the significantly redone 1997 Jeep arrived with the most significant redesign in Jeep history.

Basically Unchanged
In fact, the 2002 Wrangler is basically unchanged from the 1997 model and retains its carefree, go-anywhere personality.

While the 1997 Wrangler retained old-fashioned solid front and rear axles, it got a car-like all-coil-spring suspension that replaced antique leaf springs, which caused a dreadful ride even on seemingly smooth roads. The new suspension greatly improved ride and handling during both on- and off-road driving.

Also, the new-generation model was made nearly one inch wider and the track (distance between wheels on the same axle) was made an inch wider for more stability.

Still, the wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) remained a very short 93.4 inches. The length was nearly the same at about 150 inches, and the Wrangler still stood very tall.

The rugged body-on-frame construction also was kept for 1997, and the frame was strengthened.

However, every body panel except for the doors and tailgate was changed from the 1987-95 Wrangler, although the vehicle's producer, Chrysler Corp., wisely kept the signature Jeep grille, fold-down windshield and squared-off shape. The traditional round Jeep headlights replaced square ones, which had been utilized for some time and disliked by Jeep fans.

Off-Road Prowess Retained
DaimlerChrysler is just as proud of the Jeep's legendary off-road prowess as any of the vehicle's previous producers, which even included American Motors Corp. The 1997-2002 Wrangler thus doesn't sacrifice off-road abilities of its predecessors for a better on-road ride.

Several improvements were made for 2001, including a new instrument cluster, revised anti-lock brake system and a plastic (rather than metal) Add-a-Trunk unit for the rear cargo area that provides a lockable covered compartment.

All versions of the current $15,305-$23,650 Wrangler convertible have four-wheel drive that must be disengaged on dry roads but has low-range gearing for serious off-road jaunts.

More Affordable Six-Cylinder
A 4-cylinder engine still powers the base SE trim, but a new $18,485 "X" trim joins the costlier, higher-line Sport and Sahara trims in providing a 6-cylinder engine to allow more folks to get the larger, more desirable motor.

The 2002 Wrangler also has an upgraded sound system and new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system for faster, quieter heating and cooling. A 30-inch tire-and-wheel package is newly standard on the Sahara and optional on the Sport, which gets a new look with hard doors, roll-up windows, fog lights and tow hooks now standard.

Uncompromising Personality
Through it all, the Wrangler has kept the uncompromising personality of the World War II Jeep.

For example, the entry two-door Wrangler SE is a convertible with a soft-top and plastic side windows. You must move up to the $20,280 Sport to get those standard full-metal doors with roll-up windows.

Optional Hardtop
Those doors and windows are optional for other trims, and there is an optional removable hardtop for all trims. Order the hardtop and you automatically get the full metal doors and roll-up windows. The hardtop has a glass rear window with an electric defroster and wiper.

The Wrangler is like a mountain goat off-road, but is one of very few vehicles better suited to off-road journeys than driving on pavement. Even the lowest-priced economy cars have a better ride and more comfort than the Wrangler.

Marginal Four-Cylinder Engine
The SE has a rather lackluster 2.5-liter 120-horsepower 4-cylinder engine that calls for the standard 5-speed manual transmission for acceptable performance. Even so, it must be pushed hard most of the time.

The X, Sport and Sahara trims have a larger inline 6-cylinder engine. This 4.0-liter motor produces 190 horsepower, more torque and lively performance to 65 mph. However the 65-75 mph passing time is average.

Poor Fuel Economy
Miles per gallon figures aren't very good with either engine: In the mid- to high teens in the city and in the high teens on the highway.

The engines are hooked to either the manual gearbox, which has a rather truckish shifter, or responsive 3-speed automatic, which costs $625 and will be replaced by a more modern 4-speed automatic for 2003.

Tight Rear Seat
Occupants can comfortably wear tall cowboy hats in the Wrangler with its soft or hard tops in place, and the front seat area is roomy. The rear seat is tight, but is fairly easy to enter because the front passenger seat flips forward a lot.

There is scarcely any cargo space unless the back seat is folded forward or removed. And putting the soft-top down or up can be a hassle, with all its zippers, fasteners and struts.

A giant step is needed to enter the Wrangler because it's high and has intrusive doorsills. The upright front seats are comfortable, but the driver's seat needs to slide back a bit more for tall folks. Adults of any height will not want to spend much time in the uncomfortable rear seat.

Nice Dashboard
The simply designed dashboard has easily read gauges and pretty large, smooth controls. The console has deep cupholders but many front-seat occupants soon may regret the fact that the doors have no armrests.

New safety items include next-generation airbags with an on-off switch for the front passenger airbag.

While steering is quick, the ultra-short wheelbase and off-road-style suspension often produce a markedly jerky ride even on apparently smooth pavement.

Watch That Handling
Handling is decent for a short, high truck if you don't push the Wrangler too hard. Here's a definite warning: Careless drivers easily can easily get into trouble if they don't keep the Jeep's limitations in mind.

The sporty looking Wrangler looks and initially feels as if it invites hard driving, but it doesn't come close to providing sports-car-style handling—or even the handling of an economy car with a sport suspension.

A Wrangler driver also must be careful during off-road driving. After all, this is no military Humvee.

No Anti-Lock for Base Trim
The brake pedal has a good feel, and stopping distances are okay with the $600 anti-lock brakes. Too bad they're not offered for the base Wrangler SE.

The Wrangler has lots of personality and is in a class by itself. But for those who don't use its off-road abilities, the uncomfortable ride, sparse sound insulation and annoying wind noise at highway speeds make the Wrangler pretty much of a style statement or fair-weather weekend toy for short trips.

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BB02 - 7/29/2014 12:31:51 PM