TJ Wrangler Battles JK in ‘Cheap Jeep Challenge’

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The Fast Lane wants to know: the cheap but legendary 2.5-liter four-banger or the incredibly capable but expensive 4.0-liter straight six?

Jeep has been making the Wrangler for more than 30 years. Each generation of it has embodied the meaning of off-road capability, but there are obvious major differences between them. Time has a lot to do with those. Although earlier models of the Wrangler are less expensive than their descendants, they’re also less comfortable and technologically sophisticated. To find out which route to Jeep Wrangler ownership is better to take, The Fast Lane Car‘s father and son duo Roman and Tommy Mica pitted a TJ against a JK in a series called “Cheap Jeep Challenge.”

Given the age difference between the two Wranglers, they’re miles apart from each other in terms of cost. TFL Car got the TJ for $6,500, then put another $3,000 into upgrades, including a lift and 31-inch tires, bringing the TJ’s total cost to nearly $10,000. They spent $32,000 on the 2016 JK Sport, then invested $8,000 in mods such as a winch and beefy tires, making the JK four times as expensive as its predecessor.

jk-forum.com Cheap TJ vs. Expensive JK Jeep Wrangler Challenge

The flip side is that the JK‘s higher price of entry opens the door to a variety of more modern safety and convenience features, as well as more robust hardware. Just as important, the JK is only available with V6 power. Jeep offered the TJ with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and a 4.0-liter I6; TFL Car chose the former power plant to keep costs low, but ended up paying a different price on top of the TJ’s purchase price: regret. Up in the high elevations of Colorado, the four-banger struggles against the altitude and the TJ’s larger tires. As Roman puts it, “It’s a dog.”

jk-forum.com Cheap TJ vs. Expensive JK Jeep Wrangler Challenge

Both Wranglers sport Jeep’s signature seven-slot grille and have that unmistakable Wrangler look to them. There are definite physical differences between them, though – inside and out. The TJ shows its age through its small interior. As Roman puts it, “I think the biggest problem with the TJ is … it’s very tight. It’s a very small Jeep.” He’s 6’2″ and although he has plenty of headroom inside, he doesn’t have enough legroom to be comfortable. Back seat and storage space is also limited, especially when you consider that Jeep made a true four-door version of the JK.

jk-forum.com Cheap TJ vs. Expensive JK Jeep Wrangler Challenge

The TJ’s smaller exterior dimensions come in handy for off-roading. Compared to the larger JK, it’s easier to maneuver through tight trails. The catch is that TFL Car‘s TJ is missing a crucial component. Tommy says, “The biggest limiting factor in this Jeep right now is the open diffs.” Going down a snowy, rocky decline, both Wranglers have no problems with clearance or traction. It’s a different story for the JK going the other way; it finally gets to the top using sheer momentum more than traction.

Ultimately, both Micas agree about whether it’s better to buy a cheaper, older Jeep Wrangler or a newer, more expensive one. They choose the larger and more modern JK. The younger Mica puts a nice bow on it by saying, “The JK does everything the TJ does off-road, but it does the on-road bit so much better.”

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Derek Shiekhi's father raised him on cars. As a boy, Derek accompanied his dad as he bought classics such as post-WWII GM trucks and early Ford Mustang convertibles.

After loving cars for years and getting a bachelor's degree in Business Management from Texas State University, Derek decided to get an associate degree in journalism from Austin Community College as well. His networking put him in contact with the editor of the Austin-American Statesman newspaper, who hired him to write freelance about automotive culture and events in Austin, Texas in 2013. One particular story led to him getting a certificate for learning the foundations of road racing.

While watching TV with his parents one fateful evening, he saw a commercial that changed his life. In it, Jeep touted the Wrangler as the Texas Auto Writers Association's "SUV of Texas." Derek knew he had to join the organization if he was going to advance as an automotive writer. He joined the Texas Auto Writers Association (TAWA) in 2014 and was fortunate to meet several nice people who connected him to the representatives of several automakers and the people who could give him access to press vehicles (the first one he ever got the keys to was a Lexus LX 570). He's now a regular at TAWA's two main events: the Texas Auto Roundup in the spring and the Texas Truck Rodeo in the fall.

Over the past several years, Derek has learned how to drive off-road in various four-wheel-drive SUVs (he even camped out for two nights in a Land Rover), and driven around various tracks in hot hatches, muscle cars, and exotics. Several of his pieces, including his article about the 2015 Ford F-150 being crowned TAWA's 2014 "Truck of Texas" and his review of the Alfa Romeo 4C Spider, have won awards in TAWA's annual Excellence in Craft Competition. Last year, his profile of Wagonmaster, a business that restores Jeep Wagoneers, won prizes in TAWA’s signature writing contest and its pickup- and SUV-focused Texas Truck Invitational.

In addition to writing for a variety of Internet Brands sites, including JK-Forum.com and Ford-Trucks.com, Derek also contributes to other outlets. He started There Will Be Cars on Instagram and Facebook to get even more automotive content out to fellow enthusiasts.

Derek can be contacted at [email protected]

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