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See: Willys Jeep, the CJ, 1975-76 Jeeps, 1987-1995 Wrangler, 1997-2005, 2007-2010, and 2011-16 Wrangler.
With one of the most recognizable faces on the earth, the Wrangler naturally had few exterior design changes. The 1997 Wrangler, therefore, looked similar to the classic Wrangler and CJ. The dimensions were also similar, because of the need to make it through narrow openings (e.g. between trees).
Front fenders, all wheel openings, and rear wheelhouses were, though, all higher, to allow more suspension articulation and optional 30 x 9.5-inch tires, one inch (25 mm) larger than the largest previous Wrangler tire.
The Wrangler did have a wider front end, and restored the CJ’s round headlights — more widely spaced than in 1987-1995. The park and turn signal lamps were moved from the grille to the front fenders. Molded plastic bumper end caps were used on all trim lines, and modern new fog lamps and a new frame valence panel were added. The front sway bar was covered by a plastic overlay panel.
New hood hinges and their fasteners were exposed, but made flush with the surrounding sheet metal to meet European requirements. The fixed half of the hinge was concealed by the removable cowl plenum cover. New exposed hood latches were added. The cowl was raised by around an inch (25 mm) to fit the climate control unit, also giving the hood a modern “sloping” line in the side view.
The base of the windshield moved forward, increasing its angle by 4° for the airbag. The rear line of the pillar was left in its prior location, with a thicker base, to allow use of the old door outer panels. The folding windshield glass was taller because the wiper mechanism had been moved to the plenum, from the passenger compartment. Upper door hinges were integrated with the windshield hinges.
Two new fender flare designs had deeper cross sections, neatly comforming to the newly avaiablle 30-inch tires. SE and Sport flares remained a functional mold-in-color black, now grained to hide scuffing, and wider than those on earlier models, at 3.5 in. (90 mm), for better tire coverage. Front mud guards were included. With Sahara, the flares were wider by 4.25 in. (110 mm), with a smooth, body color finish.
New Sahara sill moldings were integrated with the larger fender flares and side steps. The “Jeep” decal on the cowl side was on a continuous stamped plateau, rather than on individual letter plateaus, providing a consistent logo (and likely saving money). Forged aluminum tailgate hinges were neater while retaining the functional exposed look.
Wind noise, buffeting and soft top flap were at the head of the list of aerodynamic concerns, and were all addressed; drag was also reduced by 10-12%. The hard top drag coefficient was 0.55 and the soft top, 0.58 (a 1994 Ram was 0.42 and a 1995 Neon was 0.28). Changes included:
These changes guide air to reduce the turbulence that causes flapping, and stabilize air flow at the cowl plenum, reducing pulsation and making HVAC system performance more stable. Rounded windshield pillars reduce buffeting and wind noise around the soft top side curtains.
The interior was completely redesigned, with an instrument panel which, for the first time, included HVAC outlets. A functional bin-type glove compartment replaced the open box.
A full set of analog gauges in a modern cluster with simple white-on-black graphics were inspired by World War II vehicles and early Willys designs.
New one-piece molded polypropylene door trim panels included map pockets with slots along the lower edges for “wash out” capability. Full and half-door versions were available, both with pull handles.
The main hoop of the sport bar is farther forward than its predecessor, increasing rear passenger visibility. It aligns with the windshield pillar in the side view for a consistent flow of lines when the top is down. The rear legs of the sport bar are parallel with the centerline of the vehicle and aligned with the forward extensions, providing an integrated appearance and contributing to rear passenger head clearance.
The passenger air bag required a space allocation on the right side of the panel. Knee blockers, which are required with driver and passenger air bags, determined the planes of the steering column lower cover and the glove compartment door.
The front seat tracks provide 1.6 inches (42 mm) of additional travel, increasing the size range of the US driving population that can be comfortably accommodated to 90% (5-95%). The floor pan had a smaller tunnel section to enhance foot room.
The rear floor pan riser was over 3 inches (76 mm) rearward of its position than in the previous Wrangler, increasing rear passenger foot room. The sport bar mounting points on the floor pan were both forward and outboard of their locations on the 1995 Wrangler, also increasing rear foot room and making it easier to enter and exit the rear seats; making the front seat attachments smaller also added footroom and made entry and exit easier, as did a smaller front floor pan tunnel.
Redesigned rear wheelhouses provided the opportunity to widen the rear seat by six inches (152 mm) and increase hip room by 9 inches (229 mm). The seat is also three inches (76 mm) taller than in 1995 for increased passenger comfort. Front seat-mounted inboard seat belt buckles also freed up foot space for rear passengers.
The 1997 Wrangler retained traditional Wrangler wash-out capability:
For 2000, the Jeep Wrangle had new colors, LEV compliance for the 4.0 in California-like states, a four-speaker cassette stereo standard on Sport, and an improved NVG 3550 five-speed manual transmission. The 4-liter engine gained redesigned cylinder heads, new exhaust manifolds, dual close-couple mini catalytic converters (on LEV models), and rail-coil distributorless ignition for better performance and lower maintenance (no cap or rotor); the 4.0 thereby reduced its emissions and increased its durability, according to Jeep.
In 2003, changes included vibration-free rear view mirrors, an optional auto-dimming compass/thermometer-equipped interior mirror, replacement of the ancient AMC 2.5 engine with the Chrysler 2.4 (for 25 extra horses), and the replacement of the even more ancient TorqueFlite three-speed automatic with a current four-speed automatic. The five-speed manual was updated with a synchronized reverse gear and better shift quality in cold weather. Four wheel disc brakes were optional on the Sport and the Sahara. There was a new side view mirror design, along with new steering wheels. New seats have more rearward travel, and a new, more easily removable fold-and-tumble rear seat has child seat anchors. New standard corner pods (see review for illustration) replace the optional sound bar, and also provide interior lighting. There are also new colors, and a new three-ply soft top.
A Smoker's Package was optional on all models. The 2003 Wrangler featured an auxiliary 12-volt outlet, Speaker Pods to replace Sound Bar, new flush-mounted stereos, and an On-Board Refueling Vapor Recovery (ORVR).
The new Rubicon model featured Dana 44 heavy-duty front and rear axles, rear electronically controlled locking differentials with limited slip. A push-button operated switch allowed either both the front and rear axles to be locked or just the rear differential for increased off-road performance. There was also a 4.11 axle ratio, Rock-Trac heavy-duty part-time transfer case with 4.0:1 low range, LT245/75R16 MTR 31"-tall tires, 16"x 8" Moab aluminum wheels, four-wheel disc brakes, and diamond plate sill guards with a unique "Rubicon" graphic.
More changes — see our 2007-2014 Jeep Wrangler pages
Main 1997-2005 Wrangler Page • Powertrain • Specifications
Related Jeep Wrangler pages
Inside the Wrangler
Variants and related...
The 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL: suspension • aluminum vs steel • open or fixed roof • pickup
body engineering • weight, strength, and safety • transmissions • engines
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