For the first time Jeep owner, the options can seem overwhelming and questions abound. Should I buy an older Jeep or a newer one? Should I buy something stock or find one that has already been built up? Do I buy a Wrangler, a Cherokee, or one of the other models? What the heck is the difference between the Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon? Lots of good questions, but let’s take it one bite at a time.
Let’s start with a story from a friend of mine to see how this decision can go wrong. He saw a bunch of the pictures and adventures we had so he wanted to buy a Jeep. He found a steal on a 1982 CJ7 that was lifted and set on 33” Super Swampers. They were only asking $2500 so he took it for a short test drive and bought it on the spot. Eager to get it out wheeling, he joined us on a trail run soon afterward. Unfortunately, this is where things went wrong. Out on the trail he discovered that it rode extremely rough, and worse than that, when he tried to climb steep hills, the engine would stall out and had a hard time getting re-started. After having the Jeep for just a short time he sold it, frustrated.
We can learn a lot of lessons from this anecdote.
Lesson #1 : Old Jeeps come with issues.
The older the vehicle the more general work and upkeep it will need. Old Jeeps are cool but carburetors need adjustment, are temperamental with angles and altitude, have rough riding stiff suspension, and rather anemic heaters. On top of that, age alone can create issues not to mention the fact that 20-30 years of people modifying, fixing, re-fixing, and swapping around parts can lead to hidden issues that the average person doesn’t want to deal with. I bought a 1979 Ford Bronco as my first 4×4 and, while it ran OK at first, after a good deep dive I found broken leaf springs, a worn out engine, and a shot transmission.
Lesson #2 : Just because it looks capable doesn’t mean it is.
Just because a Jeep has big tires and an aggressive stance doesn’t necessarily make it a capable off-road vehicle. So much goes into building a proper 4X4 more than a lift and tires. Driveshaft angles, axle strength, U Joint strength, lockers… etc. can play into whether it actually functions off-road or not.
In regards to the best model of Jeep, it really depends on how much you intend to go off-road. Most any Jeep (Compass and Patriot excluded) is plenty capable of light trail duty. If you want to get more aggressive, models with front and rear solid axles such as any CJ, Wrangler, original Cherokee, and Grand Cherokees up to 2004 will do the job. Fuel injection is also highly recommended for trail use. Jeeps were converted from carburation to electronic fuel injection around 1990, depending on model. The more road time you expect your Jeep to see the newer the model and more amenities you will need.
As far as model goes, when we’re talking Wranglers, there is no real difference, mechanically, between the X, Sport, Sahara, Islander, or a few other model names Jeep has tagged this vehicle with through the years. They are mostly just designations of trim level: how nice the seats are and if it comes with air conditioning and other niceties. The exception to this is the Rubicon. This is not just an exception but a HUGE leap forward in off-road capability from all the other models Jeep has ever made. The Rubicon comes from the factory with Dana 44 axles, selectable locking differentials, a 4-1 low range, and, for the 2007 and newer models, a push-button front sway bar disconnect. The Rubicon is arguably the most capable factory 4X4 ever manufactured for sale to the general public.
Personally, I prefer Wrangler and Cherokee models from the late 1990s and early 2000s. While some can afford to buy a $35K Jeep and then take it out wheeling, that’s beyond the reach of most average incomes. Maybe the most sought after model is the 2004-2006 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. It offers the reliability of the 4.0 straight 6 engine, all the capability of a Rubicon, extra-long wheel base, and added storage that comes with the Unlimited version. It’s old enough to be affordable but new enough to be reliable.
Whichever way you decide to go, just make sure to do your homework first, ask the advice of folks who have been there and know what they are talking about. I highly recommend Jeep forums for getting some good feedback if you are looking at a particular model. www.wranglerforum.com, www.jeepforum.com, and my personal favorite, www.forbiddenjeeps.com, are all great websites to research and make some great jeeping friends who are more than willing to put in their 2 cents to help you with your buying decision.