TJ Wrangler Battles JK in ‘Cheap Jeep Challenge’
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.
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.”
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.
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.”