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How The YJ Was Born: A History Of The First Jeep Wrangler

Introduced in the late 1980s to replace the competent but dated CJ series of Jeeps, the original 'YJ' generation Wrangler was as controversial as it was revolutionary for the brand when it first arrived. Although it took years before Jeep purists accepted that the Wrangler was a worth successor to the brand's storied history, the new Wrangler proved to be exactly what the company needed to move its four-wheeler into the SUV mainstream, eventually becoming the massive profit-generating juggernaut that it is today.

Jeep Wrangler YJ pair

What made the Jeep Wrangler YJ such a step forward for the automaker, and why did it cause such consternation among the faithful? The answer lies in several key decisions that helped push the vehicle into the mainstream while also fiddling with a design formula that dated back to the end of World War II. The YJ broke important new ground for Jeep, but it also forced the company to reckon with the power of its own traditions when contemplating its successor.

Better, Safer Handling

Jeep had a great run with the CJ-7, a vehicle that refined the manufacturer's original off-road platform to the point where it could meet the demands of daily driving without impacting its impressive off-road credentials. By the mid-'80s, however, the CJ-7 was approaching its 10th anniversary, and there was no question that the rest of the sport-utility market had moved on in terms of refinement, features, and comfort.

Jeep Wrangler CJ on Nitto trail grappler tires

It was with this in mind that Jeep began working on a replacement for the CJ-7 in 1982. Parent company American Motors was full steam ahead on revitalizing the Jeep brand, with the unibody XJ Cherokee debuting the following year and instantly finding an audience among SUV fans. Although the body-on-frame follow-up to the CJ couldn't take advantage of the XJ's more modern construction methods, most of the changes made to the vehicle's design were in a similar spirit of further improving its ability on pavement.

Jeep Wrangler YJ white in motion

The Jeep Wrangler YJ stayed close to the CJ concept, with notable changes inspired by the public reaction to the XJ Cherokee. Despite maintaining a steel ladder frame, the same 93.4 inch wheelbase, and featuring Dana axles front and rear, the new YJ was lighter than the CJ in an effort to improve fuel economy. It was also lower (by half an inch) and wider than the older Jeep, which further improved efficiency while adding increased stability at higher speeds, (a problem that had long dogged the still-available CK-5 platform and lead to a series of lawsuits against AMC regarding rollovers). Anti-sway bars were installed for the first time, its leaf springs were also widened, and its steering system and other suspension details were cribbed from the XJ.

More Vroom, More Comfort

The YJ Wrangler also borrowed from the XJ's engine lineup, which meant it initially offered a 2.5L, cylinder engine (117 hp, 135 lb-ft of torque) or a 4.2L inline six good for 114 hp and 210 lb-ft of torque. Transmissions included a three-speed automatic (for six-cylinder models) or a five-speed manual. By 1991 AMC's venerable 190 hp 4.0L inline six arrived on the scene, and it became the preferred Wrangler engine, and in 1994 the automatic was expanded to four-cylinder models.

Jeep Wrangler YJ interior

Inside, the Cherokee also improved much of the Wrangler's cabin, which meant a more civilized passenger compartment that was quieter, more modern, and more weather-proof than what had been offered in the past. In terms of exterior styling, the YJ was instantly identifiable as the next step in the CJ's evolution, but with one major difference: square headlights replaced traditional round units, sparking a firestorm of disapproval among Jeep fans that continues to this day.

Big Sales, Big Packages

Regardless of how hardliners felt about square-headlight Jeeps, the Wrangler YJ sparked a sales explosion when it arrived for the 1986 model year. While far from the smooth daily driver represented by the XJ Cherokee, the YJ was certainly much easier to live with than the CJ and gave up none of that Jeep's considerable off-road capability.

Jeep Wrangler YJ in black

After its sale to Chrysler in 1987 (and post-trademark lawsuit from Wrangler jeans), Jeep began to pay far more attention to the Wrangler brand than it had the CJ-5 and CJ-7. This manifested primarily in a continual stream of unique YJ editions aimed at luring in curious customers who may not have previously considered buying such a rugged vehicle.

Jeep Wrangler YJ Islander

The party began with the Islander package in 1988, which added a more refined color palette and sticker set to go with its flashier wheels.

Jeep Wrangler YJ Sahara

Jeep also went all-in on its trim levels, dividing features up among the upscale Laredo, the quicker Sport, and the popular Sahara.

Jeep Wrangler YJ Renegade

The most unusual version of the YJ was the Renegade, which boasted an Autostyle body kit that included box flares, street-style tires and wheels, fog lights, upgraded shocks, and power steering.

A Firm Foundation For The Future

By the time the Wrangler YJ was replaced by the TJ for the 1997 model year, the vehicle's square headlights had been banished in favor of the round design still seen on the SUV today.

Jeep Wrangler TJ

At that point, however, the Wrangler was well on its way to iconic status, which meant that the rest of the TJ's styling and feature set was merely an evolution of what the YJ had brought to the table.

Jeep Wrangler YJ in black rear view

The importance of the YJ is hard to overstate. Alongside the XJ, it represented the most valuable properties in AMC's portfolio at the time it was courted by Chrysler, which ended up buying the Jeep division based on the strength of these two models. With a higher budget and more care spent developing the Wrangler, Chrysler was able to transform the 4x4 from off-road outlier to modern-day centerpiece, positioning it as the crown jewel of the entire Jeep brand. Inexpensive to manufacture, remarkably profitable to sell, and still tied to the decades long history of its Civilian Jeep (CJ) ancestor, the YJ paved the way for the Wrangler's current off-road dominance. 

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