Old Jeep Wrangler Vs. New Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
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.