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Which Jeep Wrangler Is For You?

Posted in Features on September 20, 2013
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We’re constantly getting asked by readers, friends, the mailman, and even that weird lady with the pirate hat and “spare change” sign near the local Walmart which Wrangler to buy. Actually, the pirate hat lady kinda mumbles, so we’re kinda guessing she’s asking about Wranglers and not methadone. Some don’t realize that there’s a big difference between a YJ, TJ, and JK, while some are acutely aware of the quantum leap in technological advancements between the models. We frequently steer novices towards ’07-newer Wranglers simply because they suffer fewer age-related mechanical problems, but more often than not we find ourselves telling those facile with a wrench or with several years trail taming experience under their belts to go for an older Wrangler and put money saved on initial purchase price towards trail gear like suspensions and axle beefing components.

As it happened, we had a ’89 Wrangler YJ and ’07 Wrangler Rubicon JK sitting in the driveway next to each other. We drive both off- and on-road almost every day. So we started considering how much each cost to buy and build into their current state, how well each does off-road, how enjoyable they are on-road, and when given the choice, which set of keys of these two representative samples we’re most likely to grab.

Reliability and Durability
The ’89 Wrangler came to the stable as a non-runner with a leaky hydraulic clutch throwout bearing. After the previous owner left it sitting for a couple years, we put in a new Optima battery, changed the fluids and filters, tossed in a new injector for peace of mind, and bled the clutch master cylinder. That’s all it took to make it a runner. After a year or so driving it like this, the clutch throwout bearing failed. Since we were taking the transmission out anyway, we did a story on converting the factory four-cylinder AX5 to the stronger six-cylinder AX15 even though the stock five-speed shifted perfectly. We’ve suffered a small leak in the upper radiator hose, lost a fan belt, and the brake cylinder pin snapped off the passenger-side rear drum backing plate. And we recently found a snapped centerpin on the Rubicon Express driver-side rear leaf spring, which we had to replace just before Moab. Other than these issues, we change the oil about once every two years and beat the snot out of it the rest of the time. On the whole, it’s an anvil.

The ’07 Rubicon has led a hard life at the hands of the Jp staff who regularly drive it. It’s suffered two dead power steering pumps: The original failed and now the replacement is dying. The steering box sector shaft bushings are worn and allowed the pitman arm to kind of flop back and forth, which is why the JKS double-sheer upgrade was added. The rear locker doesn’t always disengage, and we’re not sure if that’s because the factory housing is bent or if it’s a result of shoddy work by the dealership which had to replace the stock ring-and-pinion under warranty when the vehicle was newer. Although the front axle has an upgraded Dynatrac ProRock housing, the ball joints are factory Mopar units and they’re dead, resulting in periodic death wobble and shimmy. The factory exhaust manifolds both developed substantial cracks, so we replaced them with aftermarket shorty headers that were a disaster. The headers cause a whole host of problems, from melted plastic to burned plug wires to a fried ignition module. All that is our fault for doing headers, and after we put factory manifolds back on and replaced all the fried stuff it’s been fine—except the replacement manifolds are now cracked just like the originals. The clutch slave cylinder creaks and groans, the throwout bearing squeals, and the NSG370 six-speed has slowly lost First gear. The tranny jumps out of first taking off from a stop even if you’re holding the shifter firmly in gear with your hand and the tranny makes a loud whining sound in sync with the engine rpm drop between shifts. In short, it needs a tranny rebuild. The engine burns about 1-quart of oil every 1,000 miles (down from 1-quart every 250 miles) and we change the synthetic engine oil every 7,500 miles. The vehicle has gone through several sets of aftermarket and factory control arms. Although it’s never been lifted very much, the control arm bushings egg, break, or wallow. We’re hoping the high-quality JKS control arms we recently installed will be the permanent solution, and so far they’re holding up beautifully.

Winner: The YJ was cheaper to purchase initially and took some elbow grease and money to bring up to mechanical snuff, but once that was done we consider it more durable than the JK and when fixes are required they’re generally easier and less expensive than the newer Wrangler.

With no carpet to foul, the ’89 YJ has been treated like a pickup to haul engines to the dyno or bring axles home from the junkyard. It still has a rear seat so it can be a family vehicle to haul kids to school or baseball practice and without a center console or nice fabric seats the kids can just climb straight into the back without any fuss. If necessary, the four-cylinder is economical enough to serve as a commuter to making the 250-mile round-trip drive to the office without putting us in the poor house. We’ve used it to move a heavy wakeboard boat and car trailer around, but it usually has to be put it in low range to get the job done and with no power steering it’s a chore. With the lift, gearing, and lockers it’s off-road-capable enough to have fun almost anywhere, yet civil enough that novices can still drive it on-road. It’s not very high on creature comforts, but if you’re in a bare-bones kinda mood (which we frequently are), it’s a fun ride. That said, if you’re in a big hurry, the four-cylinder can tax your patience.

The few times we’ve used the ’07 Rubicon to haul greasy stuff didn’t turn out well, culminating in a tipped-over tranny and spilled 90W oil that stank so much we had to throw away the rear cargo area carpeting. So with cloth seats and carpet remaining in the passenger areas, it’s not such a great substitute for a pickup. The rear seat is comfy, but the fold-forward function and integrated seatbelts of the two-door’s front seats makes ingress and egress to the back seats frustrating. Otherwise, the satellite radio and 17-ish freeway mpg makes it the commuter vehicle of choice for long hauls and the ability to lock the doors and set an alarm means it’s the best rig to drive to the mall or leave in the airport parking lot. The JK serves as a better trailer moving mule because its more powerful engine and power steering let you squeak trailers in and out of spaces more easily. We’ve used the Warn winch to pull tree stumps and straighten a gate that a careless delivery driver hit.

Winner: We hate to say it, but in terms of versatility it’s a tie. The YJ does better as a greasy parts hauler, and the JK noses ahead as a long-range bomber, but they’re both Jeeps and at their core are designed to serve many masters as anything from a driver to a utility tool.

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The YJ buzzes, rattles, vibrates, and shakes over 60 mph. It’s a visceral experience to be sure. Even though the seats are supportive and vision is good, longer highway drives can be fatigue-inducing simply due to the cacophony assaulting your eardrums. The YJ is rarely the vehicle of choice if we’re heading very long distances. Slow back road and around-town driving is another matter, however. The seating position in relation to the pedals and transmission shifter just feel better and more ergonomic. It delivers a pleasurable ride whether to the grocery store or ice cream shop.

The JK is much, much more refined. Our upper-level-trim Rubicon has intermittent wipers, rear wiper and defrost, satellite radio, a darn good sound system, and working A/C. Unlike the YJ, all features that ensure you arrive at your destination refreshed and not stinking of sweat and unburned hydrocarbons. One gripe we do have is that the tranny tunnel interferes with the driver’s right leg so you find yourself sitting a tad cockeyed in the seat which on longer trips can cause some knee or hip pain. But despite some slightly unbalanced tires and the aforementioned intermittent death wobble and shimmy and First gear jumpout of the tranny, just set the cruise and let the miles fly by.

Winner: With creature comforts like A/C, power windows, squishy seats, and a hard top, the JK takes the gold here. The mileage delivered by the 3.8L V-6 is comparable to that delivered by the YJ’s 2.5L four-cylinder.

Even with the track bars and antiswaybar removed the YJ will lift a tire in the twisties. And with only a 3.83:1 First gear ratio, 2.72:1 T-case low, and 4.88 axle gears, its 50.83:1 crawl ratio is barely adequate for heavy rock use even with little 31-inch tires. But it’s fairly lightweight at around 3,200 pounds and feels nimble and lithe whether you’re throwing it up dune at 5,000 rpm, playing prerunner down a twisty wash, or idling up and over Moab slickrock. The interior is so basic you don’t get stressed out if mud, dust, or dirt gets plastered all over everything. And there’s no computer-controlled tomfoolery to mess with you if you’re trying to kick the rear end out around a corner or run your locker just in 2WD.

The Rubicon is a purpose-built rock machine, so its high range is a bit too high and the low is a bit too low for sand. The NSG370 has a 4.46:1 First ratio, a 4:1 T-case low, and 4.10 axle gears for an excellent 73:14 crawl ratio. Plus, the Rubicon package tosses in niceties like electronic-disconnect swaybar and front and rear electric lockers. Unless you’re running an aftermarket programmer the electronic nannies will severely limit your fun in high-speed driving and you’ll be getting some unwanted ABS or ESP interference depending on what range you have the T-case in. The flex is better than the YJ, but the stability isn’t as confidence-inspiring when climbing or at angles and (at least the way we have ours set up) you slap bumpstops in the front if traveling washes quickly.

Winner: While the JK Rubicon takes the win in terms of flex and whiz-bang components, the YJ is just a nicer rig to enjoy a the trail in. It’s not quite as pillowy soft as the JK over small rocks and chatter, but the lightweight nimbleness and analog interface between driver and vehicle is a joy. We’d have to add power steering for it to be completely pleasurable, but even without, it’s our go-to Jeep for most off-road Wrangler adventures.

Bottom Line
The YJ wins in terms of reliability and durability and off-road, the JK takes the win in terms of on-road performance and ties the YJ in versatility. The YJ is less expensive to build and purchase, but the JK is better if you’re a novice and/or don’t do your own wrenching and maintenance. The JK is also a currently produced platform and one of the most supported vehicles by the aftermarket ever, so any trinket you can think of is available for it.

If you’re looking to add a Jeep to your fleet as a weekend plaything or an auxiliary or supplemental vehicle just for fun, it’s hard to go wrong with an older Wrangler or even a CJ. However, if you’re going to make a Wrangler your one and only vehicle and use it for daily driving, weekend warrioring, and everything in between, a new JK will certainly over-deliver happiness on all fronts.

So, bottom line, what’s our pick? Since we have an arsenal of other vehicles at our disposal for virtually any use, unless we were going on a long road trip, the YJ would be the set of keys we grab off the peg.

Side-by-Side Specs
Here’s a list of all the parts these Jeeps have been upgraded with over the years, plus a representative purchase price you can expect to pay for a vehicle in similar mechanical condition and mileage. We’ve also included an an up-to-date price as found on the Web for the parts installed on each.

Vehicle 2007 Wrangler Rubicon 1989 Wrangler
Mileage 97,000 170,000
Avg. MPG 15.5 16.5
Est. Used Price $22,000 $3,500
Engine 3.8L V-6 2.5L four-cylinder
Transmission NSG370 six-speed manual Advance Adapters rebuilt AX15 transmission and conversion components ($1,899), Centerforce I clutch ($300)
Transfer Case NVG241OR, 4:1 low NP231 upgraded with JB Conversions Super Short slip yoke eliminator ($299), wide chain kit ($225), and full rebuild kit ($200)
Driveshafts Stock front; JE Reel CV rear ($550) Tom Wood’s Custom Drive Shafts front and rear 1310 CV shafts ($600)
Front Axle Dynatrac ProRock 44 housing ($2,500), stock 4.10 gears and Tru-Loc locker, RCV chromoly CV axleshafts ($1,200), setup labor ($500) Stock high-pinion Dana 30, Superior Axle & Gear 4.88 gears ($190); 30-spline Eaton E-Locker ($855); Superior Evolution-Series chromoly axleshafts ($980), setup labor ($500)
Rear Axle Stock Rubicon Dana 44, 4.10 gears and Tru-Loc locker Dana 35, Superior 4.88 gears ($190), Super 35 30-spline upgrade with Eaton E-Locker ($1,300), Superior truss ($500), setup labor ($500)
Suspension Daystar 1.75-inch spacer lift ($160), front shock extensions ($35), JKS front and rear upper and lower control arms ($1,745), Bilstein 5100 rear shocks ($170) 2.5-inch Rubicon Express Standard Duty suspension system ($780), extended shackles front and rear ($159)
Steering JKS steering reinforcement system ($375) Stock, manual
Engine Mods aFe Scorpion Package: cold air intake, after-cat exhaust, programmer ($975) Home-built cold air intake system ($20)
Exterior Upgrades Shrockworks front bumper ($578), Warn PowerPlant winch ($1,700), Synergy rocker guards ($475), Synergy undercarriage skidplate system ($1,055) Warn Tabor winch ($660), Smittybilt winch plate ($69), Smittybilt rear bumper ($230), Quadratec (now by Big Daddy Off Road) aluminum rocker armor ($248), Bestop Supertop tinted window kit ($255), Spiderwebshade bikini top ($100), Bestop RoughRider tire storage system ($130), Omix mirror relocation brackets ($23)
Interior Upgrades Daystar dash tray ($27), Catch-All floor mats ($106) Bestop TrailMax II front and rear seats ($601), Omix replacement steering wheel ($99), GenRight YJ rollcage kit ($1,400)
Wheels & Tires Five 305/70R17 Goodyear MT/R ($1,560) and 17x8.5 AEV Pintler ($1,565) Five 31x10.50R15 Kelly Safari TSR ($905) and 15x8 Summit Racing Series 50/51 aluminum ($499)
Total Cost $37,276 $18,216

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