1997 Jeep TJ

There it is, bold as brass, right on the front page of the press material for the new Jeep TJ, a quote from Jeep's platform manager, Craig Winn.

"Our goal…was straightforward; to make an acceptable road vehicle and an exceptional off-road vehicle."

Hmph! The new Jeep, any Jeep, had better be an exceptional off-road performer. It always has been.

There is something about the simple, tough, four-square chassis with a powered wheel at each corner that is made for traversing ugly terrain.

A '90s design squad might improve it. I'd be more afraid that they'd spoil it.

"Acceptable road vehicle." Now there's a concept. To my way of thinking, the Jeep has never delivered acceptable road-going qualities.

That short chassis with its straight axles and buggy springs has always been a twitchy handling, choppy riding beasty. It wandered all over the lane at highway speeds and did everything it could to avoid going around a corner.

True, the YJ, Jeep's most recent incarnation introduced in 1986, did soften the ride and ease some of the handling twitches with the aid of increased spring compliance and better roll control.

Nevertheless, whenever I drove a YJ at leftlane velocity on the 401, I heard that little voice warning me, "You're gonna die!"

The TJ, however, has received more than evolutionary modifications to its underparts. The Quadra Coil suspension, so successful on the Grand Cherokee, has been adapted to the smaller vehicle.

Straight axles remain, but they swing on leading arms up front and on trailing arms at the rear. In a profound break with tradition, coils do the springing. (Coil springs! On a Jeep! Changes for the millennium!)

Nevertheless, I still wasn't prepared for the experience when I picked up our TJ tester out at Chrysler's Mississauga distribution centre. It's a trip I've made dozens of times.

So without thinking much about it, I swung right onto the four-ought-one, wound the four litre six through the gears in the slick shifting five-speed, cleared the offramp, completed two lane changes and settled in at a three digit cruise for the trip home.

In previous Jeeps, any one of those manoeuvres would have called for serious attention from the driver. A little too much or too quick at the wheel might have resulted in a wakeup call.

Not in the TJ; the new Jeep darted through traffic and rolled along like a compact sedan.

Intrigued, I tried a couple more lane changes and repeated the no-surprises result. Then I tried blitzing through the ramps at Trafalgar Rd. Not bad; some understeer and accompanying tire squeal shows up in a hard sweeper and particularly when the corner tightens.

But our progress was decidedly un-Jeeplike. Only when attempting very sharp turns at low speeds did the TJ revert to the old Jeep habit of plowing at the pavement with its front wheels.

Back on the highway at warp speed, I was further impressed by the machine's straight line tracking abilities. Earlier Jeeps seemed to constantly fall off the crown of the road, and the tires would follow every pavement irregularity.

That's a characteristic of any leaf spring/straight axle front end and I say good riddance. The TJ's QuadraCoil held a course better than some of the independent front-suspensioned sportutes I've driven.

Unfortunately, some things don't, or can't, change. As relaxed as the TJ was out there, I didn't get to kick back and catch some country tunes on the radio. Couldn't hear 'em.

Although Jeep has given the TJ the tidiest, closest-fitting soft-top I've seen on this sort of machine (Land Rover should take a look), any tent in a hurricane is bound to be noisy.

In the Jeep's tent at 120 klicks, you could be strafed by a 747 and not notice, so raucus is the racket. Bring ear plugs; I always use them in these softtoppers.

Or you could just back off the speed. The noise drops to loud but livable levels at 100 km/h.

All this took place on relatively smooth roads. Close to home, a run through my frost-damaged, multi-patched rural test loop revealed that, along with the noise, some of the twitchiness remains.

The ride also degraded, becoming almost as joggly as the YJ's. But not quite. The Jeep folks have managed to sand off the sharp edges, eliminating the harshness. The spring and shock rates have been harmonized with micrometer precision.

Jeep's newfound pavement civility makes the other civilizing changes all the more welcome. Creature comfort is served by new front buckets that cushion the spine and support the thighs.

The rear couch is still a marginal place to sit, but the seat back is high enough and the foot well low enough.

The dashboard design constitutes another profound break with Jeep tradition. Some of the earlier versions were among the worst I've ever encountered bad enough to have a certain joky charm.

In the TJ, a proper sixpack of analogue dials is clustered in front of the driver. Two stalks do turn signal, wiper and high/low beam duty. The rest is stacked in a centre panel: simple heat, ventilation and air conditioning slider controls; a big-buttoned radio. To the right we find a decent-sized glove box.

Only the between-seat console failed to gain my full approval. The major functional items, the shifter, transfer case lever and the parking brake handle are laid out in easy reach.

But the cup holders won't accept a small takeout coffee cup, and the storage box needs help. The interior of the box is a bottomless pit. (How about two levels like on the Chev S10?). And the top surface is the right height to be used as an armrest, but it doesn't extend far enough forward.

Heat and air conditioning vents are arrayed across and under the dash, including a pair of window defrosters to clear a view of the side mirrors.

With everything fully carpeted, tightly fitted and well screwed in place, the TJ interior takes on an almost, dare we say it, car-like aspect. But you can't pull the rugs on your Cavalier and hose the mud out, can you?

Safety is served by two air bags. This is a Jeep, sports fans, a Jeep with a pair of explosive inflatable SRS devices definitely stuff for the millennium.

More to the point, for yours truly, are the four-wheel anti-lock brakes; optional with the six-cylinder engine, not available with the four.

Our TJ Sport listed at $25,105, including air conditioning, P225/75 Wrangler tires and alloy wheels, plus a Trak-Lok differential.

For the record, I took it off-roading. It was exceptional.

Freelance journalist Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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