The 20 Best Jeep Models of All Time (No. 10 – 1)

The 20 Best Jeep Models of All Time (No. 10 – 1) 43 photos
Photo: Jeep / edited by autoevolution
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Willys-Overland originally filed the Jeep trademark in 1943 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. After much back and forth, the federal agency relented in 1950 despite Jeep being used in a formal way since 1945 when the CJ-2A “Universal Jeep” started series production.
The first commercially successful Civilian Jeep ranks 11th in our Top 20 Best Jeep Models of All Time two-part special because it singlehandedly brought this iconic nameplate into the mainstream. Nearly 215,000 units were produced, and the CJ series would ultimately top more than 1.5 million examples until 1986, the year of the Space Shuttle Challenger and Chernobyl disasters.

The February 20th, 1941 issue of the Washington Daily News features the first documented application of the 4x4 brand’s name in the guise of a headline. “Jeep Creeps Up Capitol Steps” read the headline because Willys-Overland test driver Irving “Red” Hausmann told Washington Daily News reporter Katherine Hillyer that he’s demonstrating a Jeep rather than the Willys Quad.

Currently owned by FCA US LLC, the American half of the Stellantis cross-border merger with Groupe PSA, the 80-odd-year-old 4x4 specialist originating from Toledo gave us plenty of memorable trucks, utility vehicles, and crossovers over the years. The following list contains the cream of the crop, handpicked by

10. Jeep Gladiator J series

Jeep Gladiator SJ
Photo: Jeep
Sharing its body-on-frame platform with the Wagoneer SJ, the Gladiator launched in 1962 to much critical acclaim. Produced by Willys, Kaiser, AMC, as well as Chrysler through 1988, the J series – or simply Pickup – was replaced by the compact-sized Jeep Comanche.

Introduced for the 1963 model year, the Gladiator sported a Dana 20 transfer case plus Dana 44 front and rear axles. Available in 120- and 126-inch wheelbases, then extended to 132 and 165 inches, the Gladiator was offered in wide box (a.k.a. Townside), narrow box (Thriftside), wrecker, chassis, cab, and camper flavors. Dana 44 IFS independent front suspension was offered by the Kaiser-Jeep in half-ton pickup trucks until 1965, with few examples specified with said optional extra.

Military versions including the M715 and M725 were also produced. The most lavish of the bunch is – no surprises here – the Gladiator Laredo introduced in 1980 for 1981 with leather-wrapped bucket seats, leather on the steering wheel, Alpine audio, and chrome garnish.

9. Jeep Gladiator JT series

Jeep Gladiator JT
Photo: Jeep
Resurrected as a mid-size pickup at the 2018 Los Angeles Auto Show for the 2020 model year, the Gladiator of the modern era is more akin to the Scrambler CJ-8 rather than the Gladiator from the good ol’ days. Essentially a truck-bodied Wrangler Unlimited, the JT features Ram 1500-like coil springs for the rear axle.

Jeep threw down the gauntlet with the JT series with off-road capability, challenging the likes of the Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison off the beaten path. The company’s first Trail Rated truck is available with a choice of six-cylinder powerplants, as well as two gearbox choices.

The standard Pentastar V6 and optional EcoDiesel V6 are the powertrains in question, with the gasoline-fed mill rocking a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic. The EcoDiesel V6 is an auto-only affair, and chances are that Jeep will replace it with the 4xe plug-in hybrid for the 2024 model year or 2025 model year.

8. Willys-Overland Truck

Willys\-Overland Truck
Photo: Darin Schnabel, Courtesy of RM Sotheby's
Also known as the Willys Jeep Truck, the Willys-Overland Truck is closely related to the CJ-2A and Willys Wagon. Targeting the modern farmer of the 1940s, the Brooks Stevens-designed workhorse was originally available in one-ton 4WD configuration as a pickup, stake truck, chassis cab, or bare chassis.

Willys introduced a ¾-ton variant with rear-wheel drive in 1949, then the Toledo-based automaker applied a small facelift in 1950. More than 200,000 examples of the breed were produced from 1947 through 1965, with the Willys Truck receiving the Hurricane F4-134 in 1950 to the detriment of the Go Devil L4-134 side valve.

The later Super Hurricane 6–226 and Tornado 6–230 were also paired to a three-speed manual supplied by BorgWarner, a transmission shared by all four engines. Had it not been for the commercially successful Willys Truck, the Gladiator might not have happened at all.

7. Jeep Wagoneer SJ series

Jeep Wagoneer SJ
Photo: Jeep
There’s a common misconception about the first luxury-oriented SUV. Then owned by British Leyland, Land Rover finalized the Ranger Rover in 1969, then launched its 4x4 sport utility vehicle in 1970. Kaiser-Jeep rolled out the Wagoneer in 1962 for the 1963 model year, after which the Super Wagoneer launched in ‘65 for ‘66.

Four-wheeled blueprints for all future luxury-oriented SUVs, the Wagoneer and better-equipped Super Wagoneer were vehicles of many firsts, beginning with the first automatic transmission fitted in a series-production 4x4 vehicle. The first four-wheel-drive vehicle with independent front suspension, first automatic full-time 4x4 system, and first overhead-cam six-cylinder truck engine also need to be mentioned.

Chrysler ended production of the SJ-based Wagoneer in 1991, although this nameplate would be used on the ZJ-series Grand Cherokee for a highly-spec’d grade. Later still, Stellantis revived the Wagoneer under the WS codename with half-ton pickup truck underpinnings.

6. Jeep Wrangler 4xe

Jeep Wrangler 4xe
Photo: Jeep
4xe is the Jeep way of saying plug-in hybrid. The first-ever Wrangler to feature plug-in assistance is the only Wrangler available in Europe at press time (February 2023). Don’t expect Toyota RAV4 Prime-like electric driving range because Jeep developed the Wrangler-specific system with one eye on off-road capability.

First and foremost, a 2.0-liter turbo hides under the hood, connected to an eight-speed transmission. A transmission-integrated electric motor replaces the torque converter and supplies electric power through the automatic transmission. There’s another electric motor up front, which applies power to the engine’s crank.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 21 miles (34 kilometers) of all-electric range in the combined test cycle, coming courtesy of a 17.3-kWh battery located under the rear seats of the four-door-only Wrangler 4xe. The WLTP combined ratings for the European market are 53 kilometers (33 miles) for the Sahara and 45 kilometers (28 miles) for the Rubicon.

5. Jeep Wrangler YJ

Jeep Wrangler YJ
Photo: Jeep
The YJ series holds a special place in the pantheon of great Jeeps because it’s the first one to be called Wrangler. It succeeded the long-running CJ series, with the first-generation Wrangler produced through 1995.

It lived on until 2001 in Iran, where Pars Khodro also manufactured the CJ series, SJ-based Wagoneer, as well as the Gladiator under license. More similar to the Cherokee of that era than the CJ-7, the YJ was designed from day one to be more comfortable in regular driving conditions. Although it features leaf springs, the leaves are wider than those of the CJ. The American Motors Corporation further sweetened the deal with anti-roll bars and trackbar suspension links for better stability.

Easily identifiable thanks to rectangular headlights, the first-generation Wrangler came with three AMC-designed engines. In the order of displacement, said engines are a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, a 4.2-liter sixer of the inline variety, and a 4.0-liter inline-six powerplant.

4. Jeep Wrangler TJ

Jeep Wrangler TJ
Photo: Jeep
TJ was a return to form, with the Wrangler adopting round headlights à la CJ-7. It also marked a tremendous mechanical change with the introduction of coil springs both fore and aft, a setup marketed as the Quadra-Coil.

Chrysler didn’t make the Wrangler soft, though. More ground clearance, better approach and departure angles, and increased axle articulation made the TJ a proper off-road machine. Chrysler also offered a fold-down windshield, a redesigned interior with driver and passenger airbags, a sport bar, removable doors, as well as the choice of a soft top or a removable hard top.

The TJ is all the more important to the Wrangler’s history thanks to introducing the Rubicon off-road trim level with Dana 44 axles, Tru-Lok front and rear lockers, the Rock-Track 4x4 system, and 31-inch tires from Goodyear. It also paved the way for the four-door Wrangler with the introduction of the long-wheelbase Unlimited specification, internally referred to as LJ.

3. Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ series

Jeep Grand Cherokee ZJ
Photo: Jeep
Chrysler introduced the Grand Cherokee as if the ZJ was the rock star of the sport utility vehicle genre. The mid-size SUV was driven up the steps of the Cobo Hall convention center by Bob Lutz, with Detroit mayor Coleman Young in the passenger seat. The ZJ crashed through a plate-glass window to make its way to the 1992 Detroit Auto Show, leaving everyone flabbergasted.

Export vehicles manufactured in Graz, Austria under contract were designated ZG. Designed by Larry Shinoda of Chevrolet Corvette and Ford Mustang fame, the ZJ/ZG replaced the SJ-series Wagoneer. It was the first sport utility vehicle to feature a driver side airbag. It originally came in three grades: the Base, Laredo, and range-topping Limited. The Grand Wagoneer was offered exclusively for 1993 as a separate model even though it’s nothing more than a luxury-oriented pack.

The Grand Cherokee in Grand Wagoneer format came with the Magnum high-output V8, a computerized 4x4 system dubbed Quadra-Trac, faux woodgrain, a color-keyed leather steering wheel, quilted leather seats, and many more. Very few units were sold because few peeps were prepared to pony up so much money for a Jeep.

2. Jeep Avenger

Jeep Avenger
Photo: Jeep
Technically not the first-ever electric Jeep, the Avenger is the first electric Jeep to reach series production. Not available in North America, the subcompact-sized crossover is positioned below the Renegade and manufactured in Poland alongside the combustion-engined Fiat 500 and the Italy-only Lancia Ypsilon.

The ICE 500 and Ypsilon will be dropped in 2024 at the latest because Fiat and Alfa Romeo siblings are due to join the Jeep Avenger at the Tychy plant. Available in either combustion or electric versions, the small crossover is the smallest Jeep currently in production.

Just over 160 inches long, the Avenger is built around the STLA Small platform, an evolution of the Common Module Platform developed by Groupe PSA. Despite being more at home in the urban jungle, the Avenger offers the most ground clearance in the segment, a 20-degree approach angle, and a 32-degree departure angle.

1. Willys MB

Willys MB
Photo: Jeep
Jeep wouldn’t even be here today without the MB, the successor of the MA variant and Quad prototypes. Willys and Ford eventually produced more than 637,000 units during World War II, with Ford’s version of the MB called the GPW. The Dearborn-based automaker’s original submission to the U.S. Army was the GP, meaning Government Pygmy.

The precursor to the Civilian Jeep saw action on the heavily contested beaches of Normandy in France and in the Pacific Theater of Operations. The Guadalcanal campaign comes to mind, the first major land offensive carried out by the Allies against the Empire of Japan.

Shelled by a Japanese battleship on Guadalcanal, a certain MB had its windshield damaged by shrapnel. It was the first MB to land on Guadalcanal, it survived the Bougainville invasion as well, served four Marine generals, and was awarded the Purple Heart for its battle scars. Nicknamed Old Faithful, the first American vehicle to be so decorated served 18 months, during which it racked up 11,000 miles (17,703 kilometers).
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About the author: Mircea Panait
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After a 1:43 scale model of a Ferrari 250 GTO sparked Mircea's interest for cars when he was a kid, an early internship at Top Gear sealed his career path. He's most interested in muscle cars and American trucks, but he takes a passing interest in quirky kei cars as well.
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