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Jeep Wrangler TJ Buyer’s Guide – What To Look For To Get The Best TJ 

 March 17, 2022

By  Chris

by Chris

March 17, 2022

Jeep Steel Grill

If you're in the market for a Jeep Wrangler TJ, you've come to the right place. The TJ is the second generation Wrangler. With it's return of the round headlights and coil springs front and rear, it's an excellent option for a used Jeep Wrangler.

In this wrangler buyers guide, we'll provide all the information you need to make an informed purchase.

We'll talk about engine options, performance, and concentrate on the driveline, and what you need to look for. So whether you're a first-time buyer or just looking to brush up on your knowledge, read on for all you need to know about purchasing a TJ.

What's the best Jeep Wrangler TJ option?

Off-roaders love the highly capable Rubicon and its value matches its desirable qualities. Equally popular is the Long-wheelbase Unlimited with more cargo space coupled with comparatively better riding comfort.

These two versions were however just a small slice of TJ production, and a significant number of used Wranglers are comparatively pedestrian models.

The slightly more luxurious trim levels will be the Sahara. Other trim levels are Sport, SE, and X.

What will you use your Jeep Wrangler for?

Be honest with yourself when you answer this. Most new Jeep owners purchase with the intent of building a badass off-road Jeep TJ.

Jeep Wrangler TJ im hartem Einsatz

Soon after purchasing, they realize that it takes a heck of a lot more time, money, and skill. It's not as simple as throwing on lift kits and big tires.

If you are planning on making it a serious competitor off-road, I'd get the 4.0l TJ Wrangler with the manual transmission. This next statement will surely be met with angst, but I wouldn't by the Rubicon models.

Don't get me wrong. They are extremely capable rigs and the Dana 44 axles are strong enough for tire sizes up to 35 inches. They are perfect for daily drivers and weekend warriors.

If you're looking for a Jeep to just cruise around Gulf Shores with the top down, then anyone of the models will do.

Daily commute on the highway? Any model with the 4.0l straight six-cylinder engine.

TJ Wrangler engine options

The Jeep Wrangler TJ offers two engine options. The first is the venerable Jeep 4.0l straight six-cylinder engine. This Jeep engine is incredibly reliable and has proven itself time and time again in a Jeep Wrangler.

The second engine option for the Jeep Wrangler TJ is the 2.4l four-cylinder engine. This was Jeep's attempt at building a Wrangler for those who wanted better fuel economy.

In my opinion, the four-cylinder is underpowered and doesn't offer the same Jeep driving experience that the six-cylinder does. I would avoid this engine if possible.

Jeep TJ Transmission options

The Jeep Wrangler TJ offered multiple transmission options through the years.

Jeep Wrangler Manual Transmissions

AX5

The first manual was the AX5. This was a five-speed manual that was found in Jeep Wranglers from 1987-1999.

The Jeep AX5 is a decent transmission but it is not known for its strength. I would avoid Jeep Wranglers equipped with the AX5 if possible. These were found behind the four cylinder engines.

AX15

The AX15 manual transmission was Jeep's attempt at a more durable manual. The AX15 was found in Jeep Wranglers from 1997 to 1999.

The AX15 is a much stronger transmission than the AX5 and will hold up to more abuse. I would recommend Jeep Wranglers equipped with the AX15. These were found behind the 4.ol engines.

NV1550 five speed

The NV1550 manual was Jeep's attempt at a more durable transmission. The NV1550 was found in models from 2003 to 2004. The NV1550 was found behind the four cylinder engines.

The NV1550 is a much stronger manual than the AX5 and will hold up to more abuse. I wouldn't necessarily recommend Jeeps equipped with this transmission either.

NV3550 five speed

The next manual offered was the NV3550. This Jeep transmission is a significant upgrade over the AX5, AX15, and NV1550. The NV3550 was offered from 2000-2004 in TJs. It was found behind the 4.0l.

NSG370 six speed manual

The fifth is the Jeep NSG370 six speed manual. These were found in the 2005 - 2006 Jeep Wrangler. This is Jeep's purpose-built off-road Jeep Wrangler transmission. It's strong and can handle the abuse that an off-road Jeep will see.

Jeep Wrangler Automatic Transmission Options

30RH

The first option was the three speed 30RH automatic transmission. The 30RH was found in Jeep Wranglers from 1987-1998.

The three speed RH30 is weak and I would avoid Jeeps equipped with it if possible.

32RH

The second option was the 32RH which was found behind the 4.0l engine in 1997-2002. This is by far the best automatic found in the TJ's in my opinion. Only con is it having only three speeds.

42RLE

The four speed 42RLE was Jeep's attempt at a more durable automatic. The 42RLE was found in Jeeps from 1993-2004.

The four speed 42RLE is a much stronger automatic than the 3 speed 30RH and will hold up to more abuse. I would recommend a Jeep equipped with this transmission as well for moderate wheeling.

Jeep Wrangler TJ Transfer case options

The Jeep TJ offers two different transfer case options. The first is the Jeep NP231 and the second is the Jeep NV241OR Rock-Trac.

NP231-

The Jeep NP231 is a part-time four-wheel-drive case. This means that it must be manually engaged when you want to use four-wheel drive.

Jeep offered this case in the TJ from 1997-2006.

NV241OR-

The Jeep NV241OR Rock-Trac is a full-time four-wheel-drive case. Jeep offered this case in the Jeep Wrangler Rubicon from 2003-2006.

This crawl box is better for those who are looking to do some serious off-roading.

Jeep TJ Axle options

The TJ models offered multiple axle options.

The Dana 30 was Jeep's standard front axle for the Wrangler TJ. Jeep offered this axle from 1997-2006.

Dana 30 2011

The Dana 35 rear axle was the most common found from 1997 to 2006.

Dana 35

The Dana 44 rear axle was Jeep's Heavy Duty axle option for the Jeep Wrangler TJ. Jeep offered the Dana 44 rear axle from 1997-2006 as an upgrade option for the rear axle.

The Jeep Rubicon Dana 44 was Jeep's Heavy Duty front and rear axle option for the Jeep Wrangler TJ Rubicon. Jeep offered this axle from 2003-2006.

JeepDana44

This is the front and rear axle combo that I would recommend if you are looking to do any serious off-roading unless you are going to the extreme.

What are Jeep Wrangler TJ's common problems?

One of the Jeep Wrangler TJ's common problems is the transfer case. This problem can be traced back to 1997 when Jeep first offered the TJ. The chain will stretch eventually.

The case can fail due to several reasons, but the most common is from water and dirt getting into the case. This can cause the gears to fail. Luckily, these are fairly easy to rebuild. I've rebuilt two and installed slip yoke eliminators on both.

Another common problem with Jeep Wrangler TJ's is the radiator. The Jeep Wrangler TJ's radiator is prone to failure.

Exhaust manifolds are prone to cracking as well.

Jeep Wrangler TJ's are also known for their electrical problems. These problems can range from the Jeep Wrangler TJ's headlights not working to the Jeep Wrangler TJ's stereo system not working.

Jeep Wrangler Body Lines

What to look for when shopping for a Jeep TJ.

What's the best year jeep TJ?

  • If you're wanting an automatic get a 1997-2002 TJ. These years have the 32RH 3 speed transmission which is the best automatic found in any year TJ in my opinion.
  • If you're looking for a Jeep to perform an engine swap, I'd personally go with a 2005-06. With some of the Hemi swaps, you'll need a fuel tank out of these models anyway or fab a new fuel cell for the newer style fuel pump module.
  • If you're looking for a manual then any of them will do. I have had really good luck with the AX-15 manual found in 1997-1999 models.
  • No matter what you're after, get the 4.0l engine.

Engine Compartment-

  • Check for a cracked exhaust manifold
  • Check the belts, fluids and signs of off-roading
  • Inspect the radiator for leaks on the plastic ones
  • Check for oil leaks
  • Listen to the engine for knocks
  • Drive it to get a feel of the engine condition

Drivetrain Inspection-

  • Check the undercarriage for signs of carnage.
  • Check fluid quality and quantity of transfer case.
  • Same for the axles.
  • Drive it and run it through all the gears to include 4 wheel drive. Everything should operate smoothly and not be sloppy.
  • Listen for throw out and pilot bushing/bearing noise if driving a stick.
  • On Rubicon models operate the lockers to ensure they work.

Suspension inspection-

  • Check that steering is tight and functions properly.
  • Have the dealer or owner turn the steering will back and forth. Watch to see if anything is loose or damaged and listen to the power steering pump.
  • Check that the sway bar links are in tact and if equipped, check that front disconnects are attached and present.
  • Grab the rear at the bumper and push it sideways trying to rock it. This will tell you if the track bar bushings or other components are bad, which could lead to bump steer.
  • Inspect the control arms and track bars for bends, cracks and worn bushings.
  • Check the outputs of the case for leaks.
  • While you're down there, you may as well check the conditions of the tires.

Interior-

  • Check the condition of the tub. The carpet should pull up easily to inspect the floor in front and rear.
  • Check all electrical works, AC, heater, blower and lights.
  • Inspect the door strap bars on the body. These tend to break off easily on full doors.
  • Soft tops are delicate by nature. Check the straps and zippers. Look for tears and horrible window material.

Common Questions Asked About The TJ

Is the TJ reliable?

The Jeep TJ is a really reliable Jeep, but it does have its fair share of problems with a lack of maintenance. I would recommend giving it a once over before purchasing a TJ.

Is TJ the best Wrangler?

There is no definitive answer to this question. It depends on what you are looking for in a Jeep Wrangler. For me the TJ is the best for a multitude of reasons however it's not my favorite Jeep of all time. That's reserved for the 1941 - 1953 flat fenders.

What does TJ stand for Jeep?

The TJ is just a model identifier. One could conjure up thoughts of "Tough Jeep", "True Jeep", or "Terrible Jeep" depending on your view.

How long will a Jeep TJ last?

The Jeep TJ can last for many years if it is properly maintained. I have seen Jeep TJ's that have over 200,000 miles on them and are still going strong. Jeep TJ's are known for their durability and longevity.

I've also had my 1998 Wrangler's inline six cylinder crap out with less than 95,000 miles. It wasn't Jeep's fault. It drank water one day while wheeling behind the Fort Knox Goldmine when we lived Fairbanks, Alaska.

If not for drinking water, I'd probably still be rolling with the inline six.

Are TJ Wranglers any good?

It's debatable. Some call it the last of the old Jeep Wranglers due to it's steel grill. It was a major jump in performance over the YJ. The coil suspension allowed for greater axle articulation. The upgraded suspension also gave it more comfortable ride.

The TJ also went back to it's roots with the round headlights.

Jeep Steel Grill

Which is better Jeep YJ or TJ or JK?

This is another argument that will never be resolved. My first brand new Jeep was a 1995 YJ. I enjoyed that vehicle just as much as any of the others I've owned for various reasons. I currently own a TJ Sport and it's my favorite of the three.

Yes, I own a 2010 JK Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. My daughter stole it from me way back. She loves it and I love that she took it. It has some great features which include wider fender flares, lockers, 4 to 1 low range, four link suspension and is an excellent model.

But, so does mine. Granted, it didn't come from the factory that way. My Sport has lockers, custom four link suspension, wider fender flares and last but not least, a steel grill.

Purchase a TJ or Wrangler Unlimited?

The longer wheelbase Wrangler Unlimited is an excellent choice if you plan to run tires larger than 35 inch. The ride is slightly better due to the longer wheelbase. If you've ever climbed up steep terrain, then you'll appreciate the Wrangler Unlimited length.

The choice of which model you buy will be up to you. They are essentially the same rig. The engines, suspension, and drivelines are the same. The shorter model has a wheelbase of 93.5 inches while the longer body Wrangler Unlimited has a span of 103 inches.

Final thoughts-

The TJ is an awesome model when shopping for a used Jeep. It quite possibly could be the greatest bargain for an overall off-road vehicle. These vehicles are more than capable as is from the factory.

There are a lot of trim levels. You'll do fine whether you choose the Rubicon, Sport, or Sahara trim package. No matter which one you get, get the 4.o engine. You want regret it.

If you think you might want a soft top and half doors in the future, then search for one with those options now. The half doors are getting harder to find and I've seen them as high as $1000 for the pair.

Whether you get an unlimited model or the short one, try to find a totally stock one. If it hasn't been modified and doesn't look like it's been wheeled, it will probably last a long time. You'll want to perform some beginner Jeep Wrangler modifications yourself without undoing what somebody else may have done.

Be careful buying one that was towed around by retirees behind a motor home. The odometer might be low, however it may have a ton of miles on the drive train.

Hopefully this guide has been helpful. If you do find the perfect Jeep Wrangler, tell me what you ended up buying in the comments below. If I missed or forgot something, let me know as well.

About the author 

Chris

Average guy that likes to build things and teach others what I learn. Family comes first. Steel, Jeeps and off-roading are all fighting for second place.

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