Used Car Report

Should you buy a used Jeep Wrangler?

The Wrangler is not just a vehicle: it’s a lifestyle statement

2014 Jeep Wrangler

Real Jeepheads are known for their dogged faith in the brand, despite – or perhaps because of – the Wrangler’s essentially rude disposition. That loyalty, along with Jeep’s association with extreme sports and the great outdoors, has produced rising profits for the franchise – which is why manufacturers have coveted the storied brand, too.

Consider the succession of corporate owners: Kaiser took over originator Willys-Overland in 1953; American Motors subsumed Kaiser Jeep in 1970; Renault purchased AMC Jeep in 1982; then Chrysler bought all of American Motors in 1987 solely for the Jeep nameplate.

The Germans “merged” with the Detroit automaker in 1998 to form DaimlerChrysler and then later sold Chrysler and Jeep to private equity firm Cerberus. When the Great Recession hit, the government brokered a marriage with Italy’s Fiat. Good thing U.S. General George Patton is dead because that news would have killed him.

Throughout it all, the open-top Jeep retained its body-on-frame construction, solid front and rear axles, and its instantly recognizable profile, in spite of several generational overhauls. After 75 years, Jeep ought to be enjoying a well-earned retirement, yet this war veteran shows no signs of slowing down.

Features and powertrains

Reshaping the iconic Jeep is no easy task, but Chrysler’s stylists pull it off regularly. Not only did they successfully advance an ancient design once again with an all-new architecture in 2007, but they also spawned a four-door model for the first time. That 2007 redesign has carried through to the present.

Underpinned by a stiffer, fully boxed frame, the redesigned Wrangler was 14 cm wider and rode on a wheelbase longer by 5 cm (two-door) or 32 cm (four-door Unlimited). While the agricultural live-axle suspension was intact, a new feature allowed the front anti-roll bar to disconnect by remote control to improve axle articulation for off-road use.

Exposed metal was banished from the cabin, which sported a variety of funky shapes in reasonably durable, but hard, plastic. The back seat in the two-door offered close quarters for two passengers and virtually no cargo space, while the expansive Unlimited provided a bench seat for three plus a useful cargo hold. Decadent features such as power door locks and windows, and a navigation system, were available for the first time.

The “Freedom” canvas top with plastic windows folded like a traditional convertible’s roof, while hardtop models featured full metal doors and roll-up glass windows that made highway jaunts more bearable.

All 2007 Wranglers used the same pushrod 3.8L V-6 engine, good for 202 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque. Transmission choices included a six-speed manual gearbox and an optional four-speed automatic. The standard four-wheel-drive system included low-range gearing and locking differentials, but it could not be left engaged on dry pavement.

Model year changes

For 2010, a redesigned soft top was easier to open and close, with fewer leaks. The Wrangler got a thoroughly updated interior in 2011, gaining enhanced materials, more sound insulation, larger rear windows and newly available features such as heated seats, Bluetooth and steering-wheel controls. As always, the doors could be removed from their hinges and the windshield folded down.

Significantly, 2012 models adopted Chrysler’s new 3.6L DOHC V-6; the aluminum “Pentastar” engine provided a healthy dollop of torque (260 lb-ft) along with 285 horsepower – an 83-hp boost over the wheezy 3.8L that finally had been banished.

Also new was a five-speed automatic transmission in place of the ancient four-speed slushbox. A six-speed manual gearbox with hill-start assist remained available. Wranglers came standard with four-wheel drive and high- and low-range transfer-case gearing, while Rubicon models incorporated extra-low gearing for goat-like agility off road.

Chrysler enhanced the driving environment again in 2013 by specifying more forgiving, easier-to-use seats and a premium Alpine sound system. Four-door models got a new soft top that was even easier to raise and lower.

“It makes for a very quiet ride – as much as a Jeep can be,” wrote the owner of a ’13 model. “It will never be confused with a sedan, but it doesn’t beat you up like the old Jeeps.”

For 2015, the number of stereo speakers grew to eight, and a handy Torx tool kit for removing the doors and hardtop became standard issue.

Driving the Wrangler

Serial Wrangler buyers welcomed the caffeinated 2012 models with Pentastar power: zero to 97 km/h came up in 7.6 seconds – almost four seconds quicker than the old 3.8L wheezer could muster.

You can take a Jeep out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of it. While incredibly adept off-road, the Wrangler is hamstrung in the city by its slow and vague steering, unrefined ride, copious body roll and low grip in the turns.

What has become known colloquially as Jeep “death wobble” can unnerve drivers who’ve hit bumps at speed and felt the front end lift, setting off violent suspension tremors and sending vibrations through the steering wheel. The condition is endemic to solid front axles as components wear with age.

“If you’ve experienced it before, one looks at the next bump in the road like a land mine,” one wary Wrangler owner wrote online.

Many drivers panic at the first sign of death wobble and steer towards the shoulder of the road. Using the brakes often exacerbates the shimmy, so drivers often coast to a very long stop to be safe. Death wobble is a Jeep thing that many people fail to find appealing.

Owner chatter

Every owner can recite the benefits of driving an authentic Jeep: its amazing off-road capability; enjoying doors-off, topless driving in the elements; and being part of the Jeep folklore. For these reasons the Wrangler commands a big premium in the used-vehicle market, rewarding owners with its slow rate of depreciation.

The bad news is there’s no shortage of mechanical weaknesses anyone contemplating a used Wrangler should take into consideration. Jeeps are susceptible to the same electrical faults that have plagued numerous Chrysler products equipped with faulty TIPMs (Totally Integrated Power Modules).

The TIPM is the nerve centre of a Chrysler’s electronics and it distributes power to everything from safety to ignition systems. TIPM failures can introduce a tsunami of electrical faults, including a no-start condition, dead instruments, no cooling fan (resulting in engine overheating) and stalling at random.

“It literally died at an intersection yesterday afternoon and I was nearly hit by a semi truck that was traveling down the highway,” reads one online account. The onus is on owners to pay for repairs; FCA charges more than $1,000 for TIPM replacement.

Early examples of the Pentastar engine came with a faulty left cylinder head that frequently required replacement. In addition, some owners reportedly found sludge accumulated in the radiator and heater core, which resulted in poor cabin heat.

More recent engines appear to have a faulty oil filter housing that can crack and leak engine oil on hot engine components. Other issues include short-lived clutches, chronically leaky soft tops and door seals, faulty air conditioners, failed sensors and early rust.

Not just the Wrangler but the Jeep brand itself is a perennial basement dweller in J.D. Power and Associates’ annual Vehicle Dependability Study. (See 10 Least Dependable Auto Brands.)

Owning a Jeep Wrangler is a lifestyle statement that appeals to a lot of people, but be forewarned: frequent and expensive repairs are an uncelebrated part of the experience. Hey, it’s a Jeep thing!

2007-15 Jeep Wrangler

Typical price range: $18,000-$36,500

Pros:

> Good acceleration with the 3.6L engine

> You can leave the doors at home

> Slow depreciation maintains its value

Cons:

> Gas guzzler

> Expensive TIPM failures

> Faulty Pentastar cylinder head

Things to Watch Out For:

> Random stalling at speed

> Electrical faults

> Defective cylinder head (Pentastar)

> Poor cabin heat

> Leaky top

> Weak air conditioner

> Rusty hinges and hardware

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