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1997 Jeep TJ

Way back in 1938, the U.S. Army was searching for a light reconnaissance vehicle that could go just about anywhere.

The problem was solved in 1940 when the first "Jeep" was delivered.

The origin of the name isn't clear. It could derive from GP, or General Purpose vehicle or perhaps it was inspired by the Popeye cartoon character, "Eugene the Jeep," who could travel back and forth between dimensions.

But one thing is clear: the Jeep name today means tough, rugged, reliable go-anywhere utility vehicles.

When Chrysler undertook market research in its revamp of the 1997 model, it considered nine functional areas: reliability, off-road capability, comfort and convenience, fun to drive, versatility and adaptability, "looks like a Jeep," safety and security, affordability and easy field repair and recovery.

Consumers didn't hold back with their comments.

They basically said, "Don't mess with it. But since you asked, how about looking at:

* Greater offhighway capability, with increased operating comfort.

* Improved ride quality on normal paved roads.

* Friendlier, easier to use, more ergonomic interior.

* Better soft top for quieter operation.

* An Improved HVAC (heat, ventilation, air conditioning) system.

So, based on these objectives, the 1997 Jeep TJ was born.

The location Chrysler chose for us media types to test drive the TJ was an offroader's dream.

Nestled in the interior of British Columbia, Penticton is like Niagara, resplendent with fruit orchards and vineyards. Only with mountains.

My choice of vehicle was a bright magenta, 2.5 litre, four-cylinder, five-speed model.

(The best things about being the only female car writer on a trip like this are: you don't have to line up for the bathrooms, and you don't have to fight with anybody for the purple car.)

Perhaps the most important exterior feature is the return of round headlights. Apparently anything else is just not a Jeep.

The hood hinges and latches are still exposed for image and ease of use, but suggest a neater design.

Our on-highway portion of the drive let us experience TJ's greatly improved ride. The frame is noticeably 15 per cent torsionally stiffer and has 30 per cent higher bending stiffness.

This contributes to a better ride and reduced harshness and vibration.

The Quadra-Coil suspension is borrowed from the Grand Cherokee. In addition to offering quite an acceptable ride, it apparently also delivers less tire wear than independent systems (because tire camber does not change during ride motions).

On this section we drove with the soft-top roof up, and my driving partner and I were pleasantly surprised that we could actually conduct conversation and listen to the radio en route.

We drove about an hour and our only complaint was that the smaller engine had difficulty keeping up with the 4 litre, straight-six Sports models during some of the climbs.

Hey, what do you want for $16,600? At that price, it's still a better ride than others I've driven in its class.

Our next test was an offroad hill climbing exercise in Osoyoos, Canada's only desert. No cactus, but lots of sage.

This is where TJ really showed its stuff. The pedals were well enough positioned that I even managed to heel-toe manoeuvre in size seven sneakers.

However, to accomplish this, I permanently dented my shin on the bolster on the underside of the dashboard. And the lack of a dead pedal for support didn't help me any, either.

That aside, we easily climbed and descended (in reverse!) a slope of about 30 degrees.

The afternoon exercise included a climb to within spitting distance of the top of Mount Baldy (2,130 metres, or 7,000 feet). The unmaintained trail is primarily for the use of the forest and weather rangers.

And once a year, it hosts the annual gathering of Jeep aficionados known as the Jeep Jamboree.

The trail is quite manageable, rated about 6 to 7 out of a possible nailbiting 10.

The TJ was as surefooted as a mountain goat in its natural environment. Let's face it, driving over logging trails is far from luxurious. However, the Jeep managed to get us where we wanted to go safely and in relative comfort.

The elegant catered picnic we enjoyed at the peak of Mount Baldy was a terrific and humorous contrast to the mud-encrusted, dust covered vehicles we arrived in.

The return trip reinforced my appreciation of the TJ's more than acceptable behavior on the highway.

Aerodynamics is rarely a concern with serious offroaders, but some improvements in design have been made to improve wind noise, buffeting and flapping of the soft top.

And, unlike some other vehicles in the same class, you can get the top back on without having a PhD in physics or referring to the owner's manual.

If you're a real Jeep person, you won't mind zipping and unzipping window flaps instead of winding your windows.

You'll also learn to exercise a little caution when viewing through the plastic rear window.

That notwithstanding, you'll have an authentic Jeeplooking vehicle that offers a lot of fun at an affordable price. The TJ is very competent offroad and much improved on the road getting you there.

Jody Ness is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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