1997 Jeep TJ

  • Driver

CROWN KING, Ariz.: We are about two hours into a three-hour, 50 km trek to this former gold-mining town north of Phoenix, in the new Jeep TJ.

Do the math: that's an average of about 16 km/h. This ain't no freeway, Buckwheat.

The best parts of this road – it's on the map, it even has a number: Arizona State Road 192 – are like a bad Muskoka cottage road.

The worst parts look like a whitewater rafting course, without the water.

Place names like Horsethief Basin. Fort Misery. Hell's Hole. Dead Cow Springs. Bumble Bee. I'm not making this up.

I'm slack-jawed in admiration over what the Jeep can do. Stepping over boulders the size of small cars. Scrambling up sand-covered inclines that aren't far from vertical. Fording Humbug Creek at least a dozen times.

Jeep even says that on their reconnaissance run, they used some TJs to rescue a stuck Hummer near the Oro Belle mine site.

But over to my left, upside-down in a dry wash, is a 1974 Chevrolet Impala station wagon. How the heck did that get in here? How drunk do you have to be before driving your own car into a place like this sounds like a good idea?

Driving someone else's Jeep now, that's a clear-eyed sober plan.

Owners of junior Jeeps like the new TJ – as with its predecessor the YJ, Chrysler Canada cannot call it Wrangler like they do in the U.S. because someone else owns the rights to that name and won't sell – are slightly more likely to take their trucks off-road than most sport-utility owners.

But the vast majority of TJ use will still be on-pavement. Yet, off-road prowess is critical for TJ prospects, just as a 250 km/h top speed is to Porsche owners. They may never use it, but knowing they could, given the opportunity, is a big reason for buying the vehicle in the first place.

To this end, the TJ gets improved ground clearance, larger approach and departure angles – the steepness of hills you can go up or come down without tearing up some expensive underbody ironmongery – and longer-travel coil springs for better articulation of the live axles.

This comes via an all-new boxed frame, plus Quadra Coil suspension four leading links for the front axle, four trailing links at the rear borrowed from Grand Cherokee.

Despite TJ's superior gully-bashing credentials, it returns inordinately better comfort in conventional commute duty as well.

The body is all-new, apart from the door and tailgate skins. But by design, it doesn't look much different – you can have fun playing spot-the-changes with your friends.

No points for noticing the most obvious: a return to round headlights. Jeep was shamed into this by longtime Jeep fanatics who had taken to wearing Tee-shirts that read, "Real Jeeps don't have square headlamps."

The TJ is Jeep's first "paperless" design. The engineering was all done on computers, using CATIA software. This, plus advanced assembly and welding technology at the Toledo, Ohio, plant, makes TJ the tightest-tolerance, best-built small Jeep ever. Not that it had much to beat.

Most modifications had functional or safety inspirations. The frame and body are both much stiffer, for improved ride, handling and durability. To meet evaporative emissions standards, the fuel filler was moved from behind the licence plate below the left taillight, to the left rear fender.

Aerodynamic fine-tuning (on a Jeep?!) resulted in better air flow to the intake at the base of the windshield, a contributor to the vastly superior performance of the new heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system.

The aero tweaks also reduce wind noise and buffeting, and create a slight increase in fuel economy, although the TJ is hardly a silent econo-champ.

To make room for the new HVAC, the wiper motor was relocated from under the dash to the air intake plenum. Talk about win-win: the new arrangement is quieter and allows the wipers to park at the base of the windshield.

The windshield itself, by the way, is still foldable. Some things are sacred.

The optional hardtop is 20 per cent lighter, hence easier to remove, and can be fitted over the convertible top. The soft-top itself has been simplified for easier erection and takedown, and can be used with either the cut-down doors with removable side curtains, or the hardtop's full-depth doors with wind down windows. Or, no doors at all – another Jeep tradition.

Market (and impending legislative) demand for dual air bags necessitated an all-new dashboard. Jeep has done a clever three-piece modular design. The left third (full instrument panel, steering wheel) and right third (lockable glove box, passenger panic handle) can be fitted on either side of the middle third (centre stack, radio, HVAC) for easy conversion to right-hand drive. Jeep is embarking on a serious attempt at worldwide marketing with the new TJ.

Homecoming queens and other rear-seat riders will appreciate the much improved room and comfort back there. A new and patented tip-and-slide front seat – a hefty pull on a little loop on the seat back, and the entire gubbins pivots forward eases rear seat access. Too bad it can't be activated easily when you're sitting in the back. International models will have this feature on both front seats; we'll get it only on the right side – cost reasons, presumably.

The rear seat back can be folded, or the entire thing removed, for added storage space. Behind the rear seats you can order an optional "Add-a-Trunk", a two-cubic-foot (0.06 cubic metre) lockable steel strongbox that provides a safe place to store cameras, snake bite antidote – whatever you take on a Jeep jaunt.

If you're jaunting in the dust, removable carpets and drain plugs in the floor give the TJ hose-down capability. Jeep even says the truck can go through a carwash with the top down and everything will still work. (I'd check the warranty booklet before trying that at home.)

The powertrains are sort-of carryover. The drive-ability and torque upgrades on the 2.5 litre four and 4.0 litre inline six-cylinder engines were introduced on other Jeep products in 1996, but are new to this class of Jeep. (For the record, there were no 1996 YJs. The '95s were built out through last December, and the TJ is a '97.)

Either engine is available with a five-speed stick or three-speed auto-box, the latter gaining an improved torque converter on six-cylinder models.

In our convoy to Crown King, we could always tell whether the truck behind us was a four cylinder – it sounded like a John Deere tractor on our tail. I was in a four-cylinder automatic myself on this stretch (last down from breakfast again). While it's pretty lame on the highway – in freefall off the CN Tower, I doubt this thing would go over 130 km/h the combination does a pretty good job in the tough slogging.

Not having to worry about shifting and clutching is a big help, especially for those who don't go off-road very often. Deliberately, I mean. Many experts also believe shiftless is the way to go in the boonies, while others feel a manual gives superior engine braking on downhill crawls.

For me, it'd be the six with a five-speed, if for no other reason than antilock brakes are not available with the four.

Overall, it's hard not to be impressed with the new Jeep TJ. Sure, it's not for everybody; it perhaps defines the term "niche vehicle". But it is improved in every possible way: more capable off-road, more comfortable on-road, better built anywhere. Even Jeep freaks don't have to wear hair shirts all the time.

And the price increase – the Canadian base list of $16,600 is about two grand more than before – seems reasonable, given the added features and equipment.

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