Among many enthusiasts is the notion that Wranglers stopped being good when Jeep went to the JK platform in 2006; likely a similar feeling to what Jeepers thought in 1987 when the YJ replaced the CJ-7. The square headlights and bent grill of the YJ must have been what the plastic fenders and V6’s mean today in the JK. Those who malign the JK embrace the preceding Wranglers. However, there is a little bias against the square headlights of the YJ regardless of however good the vehicle underneath is. For this, the YJ has been overshadowed by the succeeding TJ (1997-2006), yet it is still a quintessential classic Jeep in ways that the JK can’t replicate.
Everything is metal on a YJ, despite the fact it originates from the late eighties and nineties. The grill is metal, the fenders are metal, and the tub has familiar slab-sidedness and gentle curves around the rear corners. It has exposed screws, wipers that haphazardly just lay across the windshield, and the top-heavy, nearly rickety, profile that ended with the JK. On the right rear corner of Wrangler, the magic words, “4.0L High Output” can be seen on models built after 1991. But back to that later; the YJ initially got off to a shaky start in its introductory year of 1987. It had a messily-designed plastic dash that replaced the flat metal unit in the CJ and a couple of weak, carbureted engine choices, the AMC 258 cubic inch straight six and the 150 cubic inch AMC inline-four. The 1987 Wrangler looked far removed from the CJ; it sat lower and wider for increased stability. But most noticeable and what was considered sacrilege to the more dedicated fans were those square headlights, they seemed to corrupt the familiar face of the Jeep in some eyes. By being the replacement for the CJ and by having those controversial headlights, the YJ has an inescapable stigma of not being a worthy successor to the CJ.
The 4.0-liter inline six had multi-point fuel injection, and, in the Wrangler, produced 180 horsepower and 220 pound-feet of torque. With this engine, the YJ makes all the classic Jeep noises and the torque seven-slot hearts desire. It has two leaf-sprung solid axles, probably the last light-duty vehicle to have them. The interior is a lot more comfortable than it has any right to be, it’s a sparse box with slap-dash design. But thanks to its proportions, the YJ feels very capacious. There are no airbags to worry about, just a wide, thin rimmed steering wheel with three stainless steel spokes. It has the high doorsills, and thin doors that swing open and closed lightly and freely. The mirrors are spindly, vertically oriented rectangles. It’s unmistakable for anything else.
In the age of the CJ, the YJ likely looked like a soft caricature. Square headlights are still brought against it, even today. That aside, the YJ is a premier example of what a classic Jeep is. It immerses you in an experience that personifies what the JK tries to be. It is an elemental and unique machine with the pull, roar, and sheet metal people have known and loved.