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The last Wrangler JK, and what comes next (updated)

by David Zatz on

The Jeep Wrangler “JK” started production twelve years ago — in 2006 — and stayed in production, often around the clock, until the final JK was built just this afternoon — at 3:35 pm, Eastern time.

last jeep wrangler JK

While its replacement, the Wrangler JL, got up to speed at the other Toledo plant, the JK stayed in production. There were two 2018 Jeep Wranglers, with fairly similar looks; the older model was distinguished by a “JK” decal.

Now, the JK’s assembly plant will be renovated to make Jeep pickup trucks, which will start rolling off the line “in the first half of 2019” — about a year from now.

final JK wrangler

Toledo employees marked the occasion with the final JK, a white 2018 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited, which Jeep is keeping for shows.

Chuck Padden, the Toledo Assembly Complex Manager, pointed out that “This workforce has been working practically non-stop for the past several years to fulfill the dreams of Jeep enthusiasts around the world who want to go where only a Wrangler can take them.” Wrangler production has been constrained by production, not demand, for years.

Daimler-Benz had generally relied on suppliers for key roles, and also did not want to invest more capital than needed in Chrysler. Thus, the JK plant, which started production in 2006, was built “as part of an innovative supplier co-location concept where supplier partners build and manage key manufacturing process facilities.”

The process worked, but also made it difficult to expand, which is why the JL moved to the other Toledo assembly plant.  The “Toledo Supplier Park” will make pickups using the same manufacturing system and supplier partners; Kuka will supply the body and Hyundai Mobis will supply the chassis.

toledo workers

Manufacturing capacity for the new Jeep Truck was created by moving production of the next generation Jeep Wrangler (JL) to the north side of the Toledo Assembly Complex as part of a $4.5 billion industrialization plan to realign the Company’s U.S. manufacturing base to expand the Jeep and Ram brands. The Company announced plans to build the new Jeep truck in Toledo in January 2017.

THE 2007-2018 JEEP WRANGLER JK

While the Wrangler is tied to the original Jeeps, first created in 1941 for the military and first sold to civilians in 1946, it was a complete redesign, with a suspension that was safer for on-road drivers. The original Wrangler (internally coded “YJ”) ran in model years from 1987 to 1995; the TJ ran from 1997 to 2006; and the JK, from the 2007 model year to 2018 (in production, from 2006 to 2018).

For most of its history, the “universal” Jeep, whether CJ or Wrangler, had fairly low annual sales; the entire Jeep line could finish the year with well under 100,000 sales, and be considered a success. The JK was the first truly high-volume open-air Jeep, with over 2.1 million copies made over 12 years — roughly 175,000 per year. Production in many years was limited by factory capacity, not demand, for the first time in Jeep history.

The original four-door Wrangler, dubbed “Unlimited,”  drove much of this popularity. It had actually debuted before the JK, but was designed “on the cheap.” Its popularity led to a more fully engineered version, with its own frame, in the 2007 JK. Before long, most Wranglers had four doors — a healthy outcome for a vehicle that had to be argued past top management.

photographing wrangler JK

The JK itself was a major improvement over the TJ: it had better ground clearance, larger wheels and tires, stronger axles, updated transfer cases, electric axle lockers, and a remote-disconnecting front sway bar for better wheel travel on the trail. The frame was twice as stiff, and lower spring rates and better shock tuning made the ride and handling better on the road and trail alike. The body was widened and the track increased by three and a half inches; and a modular hardtop was added to the options list.

2018 Wrangler JK at Toledo

In all, the JK was a major step forward in safety, comfort, and off-road prowess alike, paving the way to ever-increasing sales; and all that came at a lower price. Sales from 2007 to 2010 reached 392,464 in the United States alone — with another hundred thousand or so sold in other countries.

The JK was criticized for an engine choice — replacing the ancient but respected four-liter AMC powerplant with the “minivan” 3.8 V6. Both power and torque increased (15 hp, 19 lb-ft), but low-end torque fell somewhat.

adding jk top

There was another redesign for 2011, with a new engine — the 3.6 liter Pentastar V6, boosting power more dramatically; the manual transmission stayed the same, but a more efficient, wider-range five-speed automatic replaced the old four-speed. The ride and off-road metrics improved again.

JK production started gathering speed, hitting 196,308 in 2012 — and never going below 220,000 per year afterwards. The record was set in 2015, with 244,720 made. Even in 2018, with the JL in production, Jeep built 62,888 JKs.

The JK was a key Wrangler in many ways; for a time, it was one of a very few Chrysler vehicles known to be highly profitable, and not just for Jeep. The Mopar people brought in cash from upgrades, and an aftermarket parts association named it the most accessorized vehicle sold in America. The JK proved that adding creature comforts would consistently boost sales — and that, as long as you added capability to the top of the line, people would give up a little off-road worthiness on the lower end. (Jeep was, however, wise enough to make the Wrangler 4×4 only, after making rear-drive CJs in the past.)

The JK proved Jeep could massively boost sales, without sacrificing much off-road prowess. The company kept the Wrangler “what it is,” making it easier to own and drive — even if you never even saw a dirt road — without making many off-road sacrifices. The Wrangler JL goes further down that path, and with extra factory capacity, may well outdo the JK’s sales — but the JK’s legacy, as a transformative Jeep, will likely never be surpassed.

 

 

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