What Are the Differences Between the Jeep Wrangler JK and JL?

A popular used Jeep Wrangler for sale, a green 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL, is shown driving off-road.

The Jeep Wrangler has such a unique and storied history that some people who are just getting into the Jeep culture, and specifically, the Wrangler, might feel like there is a lot of catching up to do. It makes a pretty significant difference when it comes to looking for a used Jeep Wrangler for sale and the features available for the different models from the different generations.

There are some important distinctions between the availability and functionality of the Wrangler JL and the Wrangler JK models. What are those differences, and how will they affect how you drive and what features you have? Let’s break down what it all means in terms of shopping, features, availability, and pricing.

What Do JK and JL Mean?

Unlike many brands, Jeep vehicles designate different generations for their nameplates using letters instead of numbers. Most companies will classify their vehicles based on first-generation, second-generation, third-generation, etc. Each generation will have so many model years designated to it until a platform change or an overhaul is made to the nameplate. The Wrangler, like other Jeeps, utilizes this lettering nomenclature for its generations.

This dates all the way back to before the Jeep brand was properly established. During the 1940s, in the days of the Wrangler’s distant predecessor, the Willys Jeep, there was a separation between the military variants and the civilian variants. The civilian production models were known as the CJ, which stood for Civilian Jeeps. This nomenclature also had numerical fixtures at the end, so you had CJ-1, CJ-3A, or CJ-5, indicating different classifications, body styles, and generations. This nomenclature continued all the way up through the CJ-7, CJ-8, CJ-10, and CJ-10A models. All of these were the designations for the CJ line, which came to an end in 1986. That’s when the Jeep brand came under the control of Chrysler, and the Wrangler was designed as a replacement for the venerable CJ.

Interestingly enough, the 1987 Jeep Wrangler, the first model year of the new generation under the Chrysler Corporation, was classified as the YJ Wrangler. Chrysler continued the lettering nomenclature for the generational designation that started with the original Willys Jeep. The first generation Wrangler models were in production from 1986 up through 1996, when the second generation of Wrangler models, known as the TJ, were introduced. The generational differences by this time were both form and function-related, with changes to the grille, headlights, fascia, tracks, wheelbase, powertrains, and features.

This designation continued on to the third-generation and fourth-generation Wrangler models. These were the JK models that were introduced in 2006 and the JL models introduced in 2017. In short, any Wrangler known as a Wrangler JK refers to the third generation of the Wrangler, while any Wrangler known as a Wrangler JL refers to the fourth generation of Wranglers.

A yellow 2021 Jeep Wrangler is shown parked near a mountain.

What Made the Wrangler JK Special?

The Wrangler JK was a complete ground-up reinvention of the Wrangler. An all-new chassis, platform, and powertrain were introduced with the JK. A year after this generation started, Dana 44 axles were made standard equipment. Throughout this generation, interior refreshes featured an all-new ergonomic design, cabin layout, and center console. It was a complete do-over for the Wrangler coming off the outgoing generation. The Wrangler JK also introduced the four-door Wrangler, known as the Wrangler Unlimited, which rode on a longer wheelbase than the two-door Wrangler. The addition of the four-door Unlimited sometimes results in the community referring to it as the Wrangler JKU, since the longer variant is a similar but different platform than the two-door Wrangler.

The Wrangler’s trim line-up, consisting of the X, Unlimited X, Sahara, Unlimited Sahara, Rubicon, and Unlimited Rubicon, was initially powered by a 3.8L V6 that produced 202 hp, 237 lb-ft of torque, and was paired up with a six-speed manual transmission. Jeep overhauled the powertrain offerings for 2012 with the introduction of the Pentastar V6. The 3.6L Pentastar delivered 285, 260 lb-ft of torque, and was paired with a new five-speed automatic transmission.

The X, Unlimited X, and Unlimited Sahara were available both with two-wheel drive or four-wheel drive, while the Sahara, Rubicon, and Unlimited Rubicon were only available in four-wheel drive. The JK also introduced the availability of the uConnect infotainment system, featuring Bluetooth connectivity for smart devices, a hands-free voice and phone system, navigation support, and standard radio functionality. The infotainment suite for the JK line was fairly bare bones, but still utilitarian, with a 6.5-inch touchscreen being made available later in the generation.

What Did the Wrangler JL Add?

The move from the JK to the JL saw the Wrangler offering a litany of new features for the 2018 model year. New powertrain configurations were available, including pairing the Wrangler with an eight-speed automatic transmission and giving shoppers the option of the previous generation’s Pentastar V6 or several new powertrain configurations. These included a Pentastar V6 with eTorque capabilities as a mild hybrid for quicker access to low-end torque. The JL also introduced the new 2.0L turbocharged I-4, which produces 270 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. A third option was also available at the start of the Wrangler JL generation, a 3.0L EcoDiesel V6, which makes 260 hp and 442 lb-ft of torque.

The 2021 Wrangler JL added two additional powertrain options in the form of the performance-driven Wrangler 392, featuring the 6.4L HEMI V8 that makes 470 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. The other addition was the Wrangler 4xe PHEV, a plug-in hybrid that pairs a battery pack and electric motor to a 2.0L turbocharged I-4 that makes a combined 375 hp and 470 lb-ft of torque. The Wrangler JL is available in multiple trims, but they have fluctuated over the years. These trims include the Sport, Willys, Sport S, Rubicon, Sahara, Rubicon 392, and the Rubicon 4xe, available either in two-door or four-door variations. Special editions and model year-specific trims have also been available throughout the JL generation.

Wrangler JL also features a choice between a five-inch infotainment screen, a seven-inch infotainment screen, or an 8.4-inch HD touchscreen, depending on the model year and trim. The displays are part of a robustly overhauled interior, featuring an all-new dashboard design, interior color options, a streamlined center stack, and a new digital driver display cluster. New comfort and convenience features such as a multi-directional power driver and front passenger seats were implemented, along with new driver safety assists and aids, as well as improved infotainment, navigation, and Wi-Fi connectivity functionality.

A white 2021 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon is shown driving off-road.

What Are the Key Differences Between the Wrangler JK and JL?

Everything is newer in the JL. That is one of the best ways to sum up the differences between these two Wrangler models. Jeep has never been satisfied with standing still with the Wrangler line. From new trims and special editions nearly every other year to new features, upgrades, updates, technology, and safety features, there is always something new as part of a new model year or as part of a mid-generation refresh.

One small but notable difference is that only the Wrangler JK models from 2017 onward had optional LED headlights, whereas all the Wrangler JL models come standard with LED lighting. There is an entirely different grille design for the Wrangler JL than the JK, with the newer JL fascia designs being aggressively svelte. There are also many more safety features in newer Wrangler JL models, such as the active electronic driver assistance and passive side-curtain airbags for the first and second rows of the Wrangler Unlimited.

Infotainment is a big change between the two generations. Some early Wrangler JKs didn’t even come with touchscreens, while every Wrangler JL has a standard touchscreen. Another big difference is that newer Wrangler JL models have the more recent uConnect 4 or uConnect 4C NAV. This is significant because the newer uConnect operating systems are much more robust, have faster loading times, more app compatibility, and better navigation and vehicle health functionality. That’s not to mention more robust trail apps, camera settings, and better off-road support through features like the Jeep Off-Road Pages.

Another big difference is the availability of specialty trims. The Wrangler JK had its own specialty trims, such as the 2010 Wrangler Islander or Wrangler Mountain trims, the 2011 Jeep Wrangler Modern Warfare 3 Rubicon Edition, or the 2014 Wrangler Freedom III Edition. Jeep has always experimented with different special editions for different model years of the Wrangler, and so the Wrangler JK had its own as well, such as the 2022 Jeep Wrangler Beach Special Edition, the 2023 Wrangler Xtreme Recon, or the Wrangler 20th Anniversary Edition.

Choosing Between a Wrangler JK and JL

If you want to buy a used Jeep Wrangler, your options are vast and varied. When it comes to the differences between the two generations, you have many different opportunities to buy many different variations and special editions of the Wrangler. The thing to consider is what your spending limit is and what features you absolutely must have. If you want all of the tech bells and whistles, a Wrangler JL is going to be the preferred model. A Wrangler JK works just fine if you want something much more affordable but still highly capable off-road. If you want the high-performance or alternative fuel Wrangler, you will want to opt for one of the Wrangler JL 4xe models. A Wrangler JK is a safe bet if you want something for daily driving and occasional off-roading without all the electronics. It all depends on your spending limits and feature requirements. If you still have questions about either generation or a particular model from the JK or JL offerings, feel free to contact us so we can help answer any questions.