The hoodline was lowered by an inch, and the fold-down windshield, which was moved four inches forward at its base, sat at a steeper angle. Hood hinges and fasteners remained exposed, but were now flush with the surrounding metal. Turn-signal lamps moved from the grille face to the front of each fender.
From the windshield pillars rearward, though, the 1997 Jeep Wrangler looked an awful lot like the old model. As a convenience, the fuel filler moved from behind the rear license plate holder to the rear quarter.
Under the skin of the 1997 Jeep TJ Wrangler was a roomier interior and all-coil suspension.
Once again, Jeep Wrangler came with a folding soft top and an available plastic hardtop. The modified canvas top now folded more like a traditional convertible roof and Jeep claimed it could be lowered in one-third the time needed for the old one.
Plastic rear side windows were no longer removable, but the fabric top could be lowered and left in place with the optional hard-top installed directly over it. Jeep claimed that the new removable plastic door frames for soft-top models reduced wind noise at highway speeds.
Base SE, midlevel Sport, and upscale Sahara models went on sale. A Wrangler SE stickered for $13,470, while a Sahara brought $19,210.
Engines were basically the same as in the prior generation. The 2.5-liter, overhead-valve four-cylinder made 120 horsepower at 5,400 rpm. Modified for smoother running and better low-end torque, it produced three fewer horse-power than before, but one more pound-foot of torque.
Standard on the Sport and Sahara, the 4.0-liter, inline six-cylinder engine developed 181 horse-power at 4,600 rpm, and 222 pound-feet at 2,800 revs. Horsepower was up by one, torque by two, though the latter now peaked 1,200 rpm earlier than before. New aluminum pistons, a stiffer block, and a revised cam profile were the foremost changes. Six-cylinder models could tow exactly one ton. Payload capacity continued at 800 pounds.
A five-speed manual transmission was standard, a three-speed automatic optional. Standard Command-Trac four-wheel drive was a part-time system not for use on dry pavement. Equipped with auto-locking front hubs, it could be shifted while on the move between two-wheel drive and four-wheel high.
A center-console-mounted transfer case lever also selected the four-wheel drive low range. Options included a limited-slip Trac-Lok rear differential and a Dana 44 rear axle. Six-cylinder Wranglers could be ordered with four-wheel antilock braking, which again worked in both two- and four-wheel drive.
Wranglers seated up to four, with two front bucket seats and a two-place folding/removable rear bench that offered six more inches of hip room, thanks to the new rear suspension design. The front passenger seat had a new flip/fold mechanism to ease entry into the rear seats. Upholstery was done in vinyl or cloth, depending on the model.
Round analog gauges-including a tachometer-again sat in the redesigned dashboard, but instruments were now grouped ahead of the driver instead of strung out along the dashboard top. The climate system was now integrated into a central panel, whereas previously, air conditioner outlets hung below the dash. A full locking glovebox was installed. An optional full console (standard on Sahara) had two cupholders and a deep lockable bin.
Wipers now "parked" at the windshield base when not in use, rather than right on the glass, for an unobstructed view of the road. The former parking-brake foot pedal was replaced by a lever between the seats. Door map pockets contained "wash-out" slots, and carpeting could still be removed to hose down the Wrangler's interior after a muddy days' work-or play.
Ride quality and ergonomics ranked as the biggest improvements. Though still not truly comfortable, the TJ Wrangler stood well ahead of its predecessors in passenger pleasantness. According to Consumer Guide, the new suspension was far more absorbent, but still reacted abruptly to dips and bumps. Sharper steering helped make the Wrangler more responsive and stable, with less correction needed to stay on course.
Both engines felt smooth, though not really, stronger, and the automatic transmission sapped a lot of energy. Gas mileage was unimpressive. Consumer Guide testers averaged 19.3 mpg in mixed driving, including some off-roading, with a five-speed Sahara. Considerable wind noise was noted where the roof met the windshield frame. Doors sealed poorly with the canvas top, which fluttered. Meanwhile, the hardtop drummed at highway speeds.
Two adults no longer sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the back seat, but the cushion and backrest were deemed hard and short. The digital odometer became invisible in sunlight, and cargo space was modest unless the rear seat was folded or removed.
Despite Jeep's claims of easier operation, erecting the top still turned into an ordeal of struggling with zippers and plastic fittings. Still, Consumer Guide declared the Wrangler markedly more refined in this new generation and thus much closer to viable everyday transportation.
In an eight-vehicle trial dubbed "Festival of Filth," Car and Driver noted that a Wrangler Sport "proved terrific at telegraphing how much traction was still available to each front wheel," in a nasty dry wash. C/D also noted the Wrangler's "cement-mixer ride, deafening noise [and] amenities you'd find in a county lockup."
Details on the 1997 TJ Jeep Wrangler continue on the next page, as well as information for the 1997 Jeep Cherokee.
For more information on Jeeps, see:
- History of Jeep
- Consumer Guide New Jeep Prices and Reviews
- Consumer Guide Used Jeep Prices and Reviews