Today, after almost 12 years in production, the final Jeep Wrangler JK will roll off the assembly line in Toledo. And while this may not seem like such a big deal in the wake of the excellent replacement model, the JL, we shouldn’t forget how important the JK was. This is truly the end of an era.
In the pantheon of Jeeps that fundamentally shaped car culture as we know it, three vehicles rise to the top: the original WWII Jeep, the Cherokee XJ and the Wrangler JK. The first on that list changed the world when it faithfully served allied forces during World War II, the second became the best selling Jeep in history (~2.9 million sold) when it brought real off-road capability—and Jeep itself—into the mainstream, and the last—well, in some ways, it did exactly what the XJ did. And then some.
That’s why the JK wrangler has been flying off lots since it debuted, with over 200,000 selling during its peak in 2015 according to goodcarbadcar, and a total of over 1.6 million Wranglers sold since 2007.
For the longest time, the Jeep Wrangler and its CJ predecessors were niche vehicles meant for the brave few willing to make major sacrifices in the areas of on-road comfort and practicality.
Even with the stretched CJ-5 called the CJ6 (which came out in the 1950s) and the stretched TJ Wrangler called the Wrangler Unlimited “LJ” (which came out in 2004), fitting three kids on the tiny rear bench and groceries in the back has never really been a realistic option. And driving on a pothole-ridden highway in any gear past first risked dislodging a few vertebrae.
The Wrangler and CJ were always vehicles that people with actual responsibilities in their lives looked at and thought “God that looks like a fun toy.” But in 2006, everything changed. People’s thought upon looking at the new Wrangler remained mostly the same, except for one key change: the last word was no longer “toy.” It was “daily driver.”
I spoke with Tony Carvallo, former Jeep Wrangler JL product planner and now engineer at axle company Dynatrac, to get his take on why he thinks the JK made such a splash in the market.
“The reason why it got so big is because it introduced another segment of people, and that is people with families,” he said. He told me that, for the longest time, the Wrangler was a small, specialized vehicle, but when Jeep released a four-door for 2007, that changed.
Tony described why he thinks the Jeep has done so well, even during the recession. “When the economy was going down, people were scrounging and trying to figure out ways to still have their fun vehicles,” he said, “and what a great way to still have your fun vehicle, and still have your vehicle to drive your kids to school.”
Another key attribute that Tony says made the JK so popular is its adaptability. “One of the most important factors of the success of the Wrangler [JK],” he told me “is that I can just modify it just a little and now it’s mine.”
Assuming the viewpoint of people who bought JKs, Tony told me about how the Jeep’s extremely customizable “canvas” brought folks to the Jeep brand, saying: “So now, I have ownership. I am proud to say that this is my car...it’s mine...I put that little lift kit on it, and I put those bigger tires on it, and I love it.”
Part of that adaptability stems from the JK’s simplicity: its simple front and rear axles being of crucial importance, because that setup lends itself to cheap lift kits. “You’ve got to make it so then the entry level guy that wants to put 33s or 35s just to be proud of the vehicle can do it...with ease, and not $10,000 later.”
Look at any SEMA show from the past ten years, and you’ll see it’s dominated with aftermarket suppliers building up JKs. Though he admits he doesn’t have data to support it, Tony says he thinks the JK is “what kept the aftermarket automotive industry alive.”
To learn more about what the JK meant for the aftermarket, I called up my friend Arlin Sittler, whose JK is shown in the two photos above, and who runs an off-road shop called Red Rock Customs. When I asked him if the JK was an important vehicle to his company, he said: “Considering I pretty much ONLY work on JK’s...yes. It’s the core of my business.”
Arlin loves the JK as a platform. “Anything you want to do to make it yours, is possible,” he told me over Facebook messenger. “The combinations of parts available make every single jeep out there unique in some way or another.”
Talking about his ownership experience (he owns a 2008 Sahara Unlimited), he praised the Jeep, saying “I’ve met so many cool people with this Jeep. Truly best experience of my life and it continues to be so.”
I also called up Mel Wade (that’s his Jeep above), who runs well-known off-road shop and aftermarket parts supplier Off Road Evolution, to try to better understand the JK’s importance to the aftermarket community.
Wade told me that the JK has been a huge player in keeping the industry healthy. “The JK really carried the whole off-road industry for the last seven years,” he said. “In my opinion, [the JK] really turned the Jeep market into a big, big market,” he said. “It became an every-family’s Jeep,” appealing to everyone from “grocery getters, high school kids, to CEOs.”
“It wasn’t just an extra vehicle; it was now a daily driver,” Wade told me over the phone a few months ago. And part of that, he said, had to do with the vehicle’s comfort. Things like navigation, power windows, and the Jeep’s extra room were a huge draw to consumers.
And with all these sales from a new demographic, the aftermarket has lots of demand to meet.
When the JK Unlimited first launched at the New York Auto Show back in April of 2006, diehard Jeep fans looked at it with disdain. “A four door Jeep Wrangler?!” they cried. “Blasphemy.”
Early sales of the four-door weren’t so great, with Automotive News saying in its own eulogy:
...when the 2007 Wrangler Unlimited arrived, its popularity was about half that of the traditional two-door, short-wheelbase Wrangler. Early on, assembly workers here built a pair of two-doors for every four-door produced. Now production of the four-door versions outnumber the two-doors by more than 2-to-1.
Whether the four-door lagged in the beginning because of low demand as Automotive News implies or because Jeep didn’t expect the four-door to sell as well as the two-door and thus didn’t build enough, I’m not entirely sure, though I have heard the latter from sources close to Jeep.
“The first year,” Wade from off-road aftermarket company Off Road Evolution told me, “big companies were not wanting to endorse; everyone was convinced that they ruined Jeep.”
Aside from its everyday livability that allowed families to experience a convertible, off-road capable, highly customizable vehicle, another thing that made the Wrangler so great is its updates throughout the years.
The JK Wrangler initially debuted with a 3.8-liter V6 that many Jeep enthusiasts referred to as the “minivan motor” because a version of it had been used in Chrysler minivans. Especially with the outgoing “TJ” Wrangler getting power from a legendary, low-end torque-y, four-liter inline-six, Jeep enthusiasts were upset with the motor choice.
With the JK’s additional weight, some thought the higher-horsepower 3.8-liter V6-powered JK actually felt slower than the outgoing TJ. And over the years, the engine became known for its oil consumption.
Aside from being underpowered, early JKs came with a four-speed automatic that had a tendency to overheat in tough off-road conditions (and even catch fire in some cases), their interiors were filled with DaimlerChrysler-era hard plastics, and—and here comes the most egregious mistake of all—Jeep offered two-wheel drive models.
But eventually Jeep saw its error, and killed off the 4x2 Wrangler. And in 2011, after Fiat bought Chrysler, the JK got an updated interior; the following year, the off-roader received a powerful 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 and an excellent Daimler-sourced “A580" five speed. The solid but a bit awkward (because of its long clutch travel) six-speed NSG370 manual, also sourced from Daimler, has been with the JK since launch in 2006, and remained until the final model year, 2018.
And while early Pentastar-equipped Wranglers had a few issues with their cylinder heads, pretty much any Wrangler between 2012 and 2018 is not only quick, but also relatively reliable and—with the new interior—actually kind of comfortable. Well, for a Jeep at least.
So pour one out today for the Jeep JK, the first four-door Wrangler—the extremely capable and adaptable SUV that brought real off-road capability, as well as fun features like removable doors and a convertible top—to the masses.