From the CJ to the Jeepster Commando, these are the 10 best Jeeps of all time
Here’s the thing about Jeep: No one really owns it. It has sort of made its own way, moving from corporate owner to corporate owner for close to 80 years while carving out a distinct cultural and relevant place in automotive history.
Scratch that. Just make it “history.”
Such is the imprint of the vehicle, and brand. Just consider its start as a World War II hero, driving the Allied effort forward as if it were a modern-day chariot. In fact, the Willys MB was probably lighter than your average Roman chariot, and much more nimble and versatile.
Since then, it has jumped from Willys-Overland to Kaiser, American Motors (AMC), Chrysler Corp., DaimlerChrysler, and now Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA), each looking to profit, all contributing to the legend, but none truly altering what is a uniquely American experience and phenomenon.
Endurance is in the Jeep DNA. Survival is not ever doubted. The Jeep abides, the brand and vehicles enduring the vagaries of the automotive industry and thriving no matter who writes the check.
The thing is – and what some forget – that Jeep is far more than the CJ, or the Wrangler. It’s about versatile vehicles that bring forth innovation with a timeless and iconic design.
With that thought, let’s take a look back at ten great Jeeps. We chose them based on a few simple rules: they needed to make a difference as a best-seller, or serve as a trend-setting innovator, or stand as a design leader, or deliver as a performance superstar.
1941 to 1945 Willys MB
Call it the Willys MB. Or really, just cut to the chase and say “Jeep.” Because that’s what it was: A jeep that put soldiers in the right places, got them out of trouble, and carried them to victory.
Fittingly, the very name is cloaked in a little mystery, though most believe the word “Jeep” comes from the initials “GP,” for general purpose. The first mass-produced 4-wheel-drive (4WD) rig pretty much became one of the many endearing symbols of The Greatest Generation thanks to its indestructible nature and robust-for-the-time 60-horsepower engine.
Indeed, while the Willys MB would continue to serve and be updated, the romance of it has remained seared into our memories of World War II, Iwo Jima, and D-Day.
Its influence arguably continues to this day, if you consider that the Willys MB spawned an entire brand of vibrant, creative, and adventuring vehicles – all with the same intent of rugged capability. It’s fair to claim, in fact, that this squared-off little green machine is responsible for the very idea of taking a vehicle where the road ain’t, and maybe where you ought not be.
1955 to 1983 Jeep CJ-5
For 30 years, the CJ-5 put the jeep in Jeep.
If you’ve got a Wrangler Unlimited in the driveway, you can thank the CJ-5 for bridging the 30-year gap between Willys, Kaiser, AMC, Chrysler, DaimlerChrysler, FCA, and whoever else will take the brand for a spin. Point is, modern Jeeps owe their existence to the same vehicle: the indomitable and incorruptible CJ-5.
This was the jeep that made off-roading relevant to everyone not wanting a surplus army jeep. And it defined the Jeep brand, by taking a great military design and turning it into a consumer classic. Based on the 1952 Willys MD, Kaiser brought the CJ-5 to life as a longer, tougher, more powerful, and comfortable vehicle.
In doing so, the CJ-5 reflected our needs and evolving sensibilities. A good example is the various engines that powered this Jeep: the original “Hurricane” F-head 4-cylinder, the Dauntless V6, and AMC’s 304 and 360 V8 power plants.
Design-wise, the CJ-5 showed up in a carousel of styles, from canary yellow paint to giant eagle decals and massively cool stripes. Editions ran the gamut, and some even became legend: The Renegade. The Golden Eagle. Laredo. And Limited.
The Jeep CJ-5. It was the jeep that refused to die, no matter who owned the brand.
1963 to 1991 Jeep Wagoneer
One thing about Jeep: They know a good thing when they build it. The Wagoneer, for example, just about matched the CJ-5 in terms of longevity, lasting 28 years. And here’s the thing: The Wagoneer boasted the longest continuous production run on the same platform. Ever. Which makes sense when you consider that it weathered some very turbulent times by keeping to its core: timeless styling, innovation, and 4-wheel drive.
Penned by industrial designer Brooks Steven, the Wagoneer kept the chiseled, rugged Jeep look but added more style and refinement. Indeed, it wasn’t just the Wagoneer that benefitted from Steven’s eye: SJ vehicles such as the 1962 Gladiator truck, and more, became virtual classics thanks in large part to the styling.
But design and looks only go so far. There must be some steak to the sizzle, as well.
On that score the Wagoneer didn’t disappoint, introducing a long list of performance firsts in a 4WD vehicle: First with an automatic transmission, first with an independent front suspension, first with an automatic full-time 4WD system. Perhaps most notably, the Wagoneer also introduced Jeep’s Quadra-Trac all-wheel drive (AWD) system (along with the CJ-7).
Toward the end of the run, AMC moved the Wagoneer name to the smaller Cherokee XJ model as the top trim. They then renamed the SJ model Grand Wagoneer and upped the luxury content – which made it one of the preferred luxury SUVs of the era.
1966 to 1971 Jeepster Commando
Don’t ever claim the CJ-6 never gave us anything. Okay? Because this little gem of creative quirkiness was based on the CJ-6 chassis, and featured a multitude of styles: roadster, pickup, and station wagon. If you were lucky enough to get one with a Dauntless V6 engine, it made the experience that much better.
Brought to life by Kaiser Motors in 1966, it lasted until 1971 – when AMC ruined its replacement.
As for the C101, however, it was all sunshine and smiles because that’s what the Jeepster Commando was all about. Take a light-hearted design, add 4WD, go to the beach, and pow! Fun time. Crack open a cold one and play some volleyball, or go belly boarding.
As if to prove the point, even the name evoked frivolity with a dash of rugged toughness. After all, how could you be serious driving around in a Jeepster?
1976 to 1986 Jeep CJ-7 (with Scrambler)
If I had any cash, I would buy a Jeep CJ-7, even though the very idea of it makes no rational sense. It’s just that I believe in weekend adventures – sun in face, wind in hair adventures. It makes you feel alive and makes for happy memories.
That’s why the CJ-7 is the perfect CJ-5 replacement, and one of the greatest Jeeps ever. Because I would buy one right now. And so would you.
The simple fact is that the CJ-7 was more adaptable to consumer driving patterns than the legendary CJ-5, thanks to a longer wheelbase and bigger doors. And that’s just for starters. It was also the first CJ to offer an automatic transmission and Jeep’s optional Quadra-Trac AWD system.
Creature comforts aside, the AMC-built CJ-7 maintained the rugged factor and just-right style and size to challenge the highest mountain. Which is nice, because the CJ-7 was really about opportunities and off-road optimism. Ten years later, most purists would probably tell you that the day Jeep replaced the CJ-7 with the new and not-great Wrangler YJ was sad and not-great.
And let’s not forget about the short-lived but terrific 1981 CJ-8 Scrambler.
Based on the CJ-7, Jeep’s weird-looking compact pickup was longer and offered buyers the choice between a steel hard top and doors or a vinyl soft-top with vinyl doors. By 1986, though, the Scrambler was gone as well, falling victim to poor sales and the Comanche pickup.
1984 to 2001 Jeep Cherokee (with Comanche/Eliminator 4.0L)
Automotive journalist and design expert Robert Cumberford called it “possibly the best SUV shape of all time.”
Hyperbole? I think not. An SUV before they were called SUVs, the Jeep Cherokee looked like it was chiseled out of a block of granite. To this day, it offers a perfectly balanced design for the SUV body style.
It was simply a home run in just about every way. Instant-classic design, unibody architecture, two 4WD systems, and a choice of two or four doors. Debuted in 1984 with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or 2.8-liter V6 engine, the venerable 4.0-liter inline-6 engine injected a much-needed dose of power in 1987.
It was such a compelling combination that one could claim the Cherokee brought on the demise of the station wagon. Or that it sparked the modern SUV craze thanks to its right-size design and drivability. Whatever. It was great, and just that much better than anything else offered at the time.
Same goes for the Comanche.
Based on the same XJ platform, Jeep’s little pickup came initially as a long-wheelbase version, but soon the company offered a short-wheelbase Sport Truck model. That it was a unibody build made it even more unique. But whereas the Comanche was (like the Cherokee) a well-designed vehicle, it was also slow as snails, which gave Jeep engineers the bright idea to add a little power.
And, thus, the Eliminator was born.
Powered by a 4.0-liter inline 6-cylinder engine that made 173 hp (63 hp more than the standard V6), the Power Tech 6 gave rise to the Comanche Eliminator. Paired with a light, short-wheelbase body, it was a sports performance pickup, and for five years it grew in terms of capability and power. Today, the Comanche Eliminator is one of the most sought-after classic Jeeps of its era.
1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee
In many ways, the landmark 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee continued the Jeep tradition of bold design backed up by stout performance and engineering innovation. In this case, it was an all-new example – the first of its nameplate – and a smash success.
Yep. It’s tough to start at the top.
But that’s what Jeep did with the ’93 ZJ-designated model. Sure, the automaker has offered many a fine Grand Cherokee over the years, and it remains a strong and compelling option in today’s vehicle market. But not much has really measured up to that first model year, especially in terms of its overall combination of styling, off-road capability, and luxury packaging.
Begun by AMC and finished by Chrysler Corp., the 1993 model was a bit larger than the Cherokee, with striking styling and lots of creature comforts and first-time innovations. For example, the 1993 model was the first SUV with a driver’s side airbag.
It also featured an array of advanced 4WD systems. There was Quadra-Trac, the first computerized drive system available on the Grand Wagoneer Limited version of the Grand Cherokee (how grand!). There was also Selec-Trac, a full-time 4WD system, and the standard Command-Trac system.
All told, the 1993 Jeep Grand Cherokee, with it’s simple trims (base, Laredo, and Limited) and uncomplicated design, would introduce the world to one of the most notable SUVs of all time. That first-generation version lasted until 1998, when the WJ took its place – yet never really did.
1997 to 2007 Jeep Wrangler TJ
Technically, the second-generation Jeep Wrangler TJ has little to do with the CJ-7, or even the forgettable YJ (the first-gen Wrangler). In fact, most reports claim that upwards of 80% of the Wrangler TJ’s parts were all new and had no connection to the CJ era. This Wrangler, then, was its own kind of Jeep, even if looked just like the ones that came before.
Styling-wise, it sure did hearken back to those glory days. The round headlights, up-front design, fold-down windshield, and of course the iconic grille…it was as if the spirit of the endeavor had been revitalized.
But there was a twist. The Wrangler TJ had grown up, because Jeep realized that on-road ride and handling was just as important as this SUV’s ability to cross boulder-strewn paths and streams. The TJ reflected a realization that people wanted to daily-drive the Wrangler because of the way it looked…and because of its capabilities. To that end, the Wrangler TJ swapped leaf springs for coil springs all around, to improve ride and handling.
That didn’t mean it suffered in the wild. Indeed, the Wrangler TJ boasted improved off-road capabilities such as greater axle articulation, ground clearance, and more. The TJ was also the trailhead for the Rubicon model, an uber-capable crawler that featured Dana 44 axles, 31-inch off-road tires, 4-wheel disc brakes, and other upgrades.
2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited JK
Seriously. A 4-door Wrangler?
Many a purist became untethered from sanity at this news. Yet Jeep relentlessly proved the Wrangler Unlimited’s point, trail after trail, and sure enough it came to be accepted as an extremely capable and much more convenient member of the Jeep family, doing so without sacrificing much by way of off-road credentials or style.
Besides, what could be better than a 4-door Wrangler? That’s fun for more people – never a bad thing. The Wrangler Unlimited gave everyone in the family a Trail Rated door to adventure while making this Jeep more tolerable to live with on a daily basis.
Since 2007, the Wrangler Unlimited has gradually gotten better and more refined. As a result, a vast army of suburbanites now drive around town in gleaming white and black examples. These are Wranglers that will never see the wilderness. Drivers who will never experience the joy of articulation.
Whatever. Too bad for them. But good for all of us that Jeep figured out how to add those two back doors and make room for five.
2018 Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk
That’s not just the name of an old-school Boeing airplane. It’s a number that represents the jaw-dropping horsepower that seethes under the hood of the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk. That’s 707 hp to be exact, pulled from the depths of a supercharged, 6.2-liter Hellcat Hemi V8 engine and optimized by a launch-control function meant to shred tires. Add in a full complement of off-road equipment, and the Trackhawk is a stealth freak.
It may not be the Grand One. But it sure is the Oh-My-God One.
But still, one of the greatest ever? Yeah. Holy cow, yes. Whoever made putting a Hellcat engine in a Grand Cherokee happen deserves a promotion, and their own special day. Something like “Bob’s Trackhawk Celebration Day” where we all get ice cream and try to make the Trackhawk fly like one of those old Boeings.
Come to think of it, the Trackhawk does what all great Jeeps must do: Go anywhere in style, and with the utmost of performance capability.