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The Jeep Wrangler is an immensely popular vehicle that has changed remarkably little in the 35 years. While it has changed with the times and taken on some modern touches, it has continued to be sympathetic to its heritage and its charming simplicity in overall design is what appeals to most people.
But what is it specifically that makes the Wrangler such a popular car today, in a world full of soft-roaders and EVs? We will go through the obvious points, as well as the not-so obvious ones, that keep the Wrangler’s popularity at a high level.
1. Iconic Design
The Jeep Wrangler has changed very little in the 35 years since the nameplate was first used. In fact, a lot is shared with the CJ before it. The bold, upright grill is a throwback to the Willys-Overland original, as are the round headlights, the short body and even shorter wheelbase (in the case of the two-door) all hark back to the earliest Wrangler and its forebear.
Even as the Wrangler has evolved with the times, it still manages to capture the essence of the early cars, and that is something that can’t be said often about new generations of vehicles. What it has done is emphasize the popularity in vehicles with historical links; manufacturers are re-introducing nameplates and models (like Ford’s new Bronco) that pull at the heartstrings of customers looking to re-live the good-old days in some way.
2. 4×4 Purists’ Underpinnings
These days, the Wrangler is in rarified air, being one of the last “proper” 4x4s available as a new vehicle. For a long time, the only mainstream models available globally with live axles front and rear were the Mercedes-Benz G-Wagen, Land Rover’s Defender, Nissan Patrol, Suzuki Jimny/Samurai, and the Wrangler. As these models have been updated, so too have they been modernized… but only up to a point in the case of the Wrangler and little Suzuki.
Where the others have finally bitten the bullet and moved on with an independent front suspension (IFS) setup, if not fully-independent suspension all-round (as is the case of the new Land Rover Defender), the Wrangler has stayed true to its origins. It is one of the very last vehicles available with a beam axle in the front, body-on-frame construction, and (for the last 25 years) coil-sprung suspension all-round.
3. Off-road ability
The underpinnings mentioned above really come into their own off-road. The Jeep Wrangler has always prided itself on being an immensely capable off-road vehicle, so even as most cars become more refined and softer, the Wrangler wears its utilitarian design with pride.
The old-fashioned beam axle design grants the Wrangler exceptional axle articulation, giving superior traction off-road. Its small size makes it perfect for negotiating narrow tracks and gives the Wrangler outstanding approach, departure, and ramp-over angles.
While the latest Wrangler is a better car on-road than its predecessors, it is clear the focus is still on maintaining high levels of off-road prowess and that is something many owners are thankful for. The Wrangler has few true rivals to compete against in this category of driving.
4.Removable body panels
One of the most charming (and niche) aspects of Wrangler ownership is the ability to remove almost everything from it. The doors, the soft-top roof, and the windscreen can be gotten rid of in next to no time at all. It encapsulates the free-living spirit so often attached (pun intended) to the Jeep, and more specifically the Wrangler, ownership experience.
It may have taken some time, but Ford has eventually rejoined the game in offering such vast structural flexibility by selling its 6th generation Ford Bronco with removable doors and roof panels (itself harking back to the very first, 1960s-era Bronco Roadster). What this proved was the niche that most manufacturers vacated was still desired by customers; Jeep duly obliged by continuing to build the Wrangler, removable panels and all.
5. (Relatively) small size
By today’s standards, the Wrangler is a small vehicle. The current-generation Toyota Camry has a 111-inch wheelbase, and even the VW Golf and its 103.8-inch wheelbase really highlights just how small even the latest Wrangler still is, at least in 2-door form.
The Wrangler just hasn’t increased much in size, bucking the trend of almost every other car and subsequent new versions (compare a first-generation Golf with the current model if you need some proof). From 1986, the short wheelbase (SWB) Wrangler has grown very little in the ensuing 35 years (at least in wheelbase):
|Wrangler series||SWB Wheelbase (“)||SWB Length (“)|
While the SWB 2-door has stayed true to its origins, Jeep had the foresight to offer the long wheelbase (LWD) 4-door Unlimited for those who required more space, and perhaps accepting that market pressure deemed it necessary to do so.
6. Body styles
Jeep has offered the Wrangler with a range of body options since 2004, starting with a simple 2-door long wheelbase option in the TJ. The JK series offered the first 4-door Wrangler and then, in 2018, Jeep released the JL-related JT Gladiator pick-up.
A SWB 2-door, LWB 4-door, or a pick-up is the kind of flexibility that was offered to customers of yesteryear. In today’s day and age of ever-decreasing profit margins and manufacturing simplification, it is a rare thing to see manufacturers build cars with this sort of range. Yet again, Jeep has both listened to customers and reached out to create a niche of its own.
7. Flat-towing ability
A very unusual feature of the Wrangler is the ability for it to be flat-towed behind, for example, an RV. While it isn’t the only vehicle that can be dinghy or flat-towed, it is one of the most popular and it is not uncommon to see a Wrangler being towed behind an RV.
A vehicle can only be safely flat-towed if its transmission can be fully disconnected from the wheels, and the steering can remain unlocked. Jeep offers this rare ability on the Wrangler, adding further to its appeal as a holiday and touring vehicle. It is a rare and almost-unique talent but one that further enhances the Wrangler’s popularity across a range of owners, young and old.
For more details on the Wrangler’s flat-towing ability, you can read on here.
8. Aftermarket support
Few vehicles have the kind of range of aftermarket parts the Wrangler has. Part of that is due to its long sales life, both overall and also each generation. Its appeal for off-road work helps here too, as more and more owners seek to go further and further off (or up) the beaten track. Great the standard Wrangler is off-road, it can be made ever more capable through the installation of some choice suspension and wheel/tire upgrades, for example.
Manufacturers of aftermarket accessories and parts are more willing to invest the research and development (R&D) costs if they can get a profitable return on that investment. It is a no-brainer then to offer aftermarket support for the Wrangler thanks to the above-mentioned popularity of the 4×4 for use off-road.
Like with any other 4×4, Wrangler owners want their vehicle to stand out from the others, and with accessories ranging from snorkels, bumpers, roll bars, lighting, then more serious stuff like suspension, differentials and more, few vehicles can be modified as easily as the Wrangler.
9. Deceptive practicality
Small it may be, but even the 2-door Wrangler makes good use of its space. Being relatively-square sided makes it fairly spacious inside and given Jeep offers the longer 4-door Unlimited in the JK series, most owners will find a model to suit their needs.
If ever a car was required for all things on- and off-road, the Wrangler has to be one of the first to come to mind. While the 2-door cars might struggle with a family and luggage, the longer Unlimited model in the newer cars really is an automotive case of having your cake and eating it, too.
10. Durability and reliability
It is not unusual to see Wranglers still driving with 200,000 miles on the clock, a testament to both their quality and the desire from their owners to keep them going. While certain Jeep models are infamous for reliability concerns, the Wrangler largely avoided these, in part to its resistance to being “modern”.
When things do go wrong with the Wrangler, there are countless suppliers selling both original and aftermarket spares to keep these vehicles on the road and running for years to come. Mechanical, electrical, and body component spares are all available, making ownership less intimidating and, more importantly, less expensive.
What all of the above highlights most is an understanding by Jeep of the Wrangler’s unique place in automotive history. With an obvious heritage going back as far as the CJ-5 of the 1950s, the Wrangler strikes a nostalgic cord for older generations of owners, and walks the line between retro cool and retro practical that younger owners can appreciate and take full advantage of.
While in some respects the Wrangler is a dinosaur in a day and age of soft-roaders and ever-more modern vehicles claiming to be competitors, it is nonetheless resolute in continuing to be different and benefiting from that. As one of the last few true off-road vehicles, coupled with rarities like the removable body panels and flat-towing ability, it has a skillset that defies belief and makes it a popular choice of vehicle across a wide range of potential customers.
Jeep should be commended for sticking with this basic Wrangler formula for so long, especially when bowing to inside and outside pressure with other models in the Jeep range (namely the softening of the Cherokee and creation of other SUV “soft-roader” models). With the introduction of the 4-door and pick-up body styles, Jeep has only made the Wrangler a more appealing ownership proposition that looks to continue for years to come.
What we have with the Wrangler is an outstanding example of a car that is sympathetically improved upon to bring it into the 21st Century, while still having links to the past that are a valuable and rare commodity today. It might not suit all tastes, but that was never the point of the Wrangler. It has never needed to conform, and it still doesn’t conform today. That is perhaps, more than anything else, the Wrangler’s real legacy.
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