Tuesday, January 17, 2012

So why a Jeep?

There are many off-road capable vehicles out there to choose from, so why did I choose a Jeep?  My four primary criteria were the following:

1)  Affordable - obviously the most important factor, since a vehicle isn’t even worth considering if I can’t afford it.  A big car loan takes money away from the modifications budget for many years.  I factored in both initial purchase as well as modifications to meet my other requirements.  Everyone’s budget is different, so only you can determine what works for you.

2)  Comfortable - if I’m not going to enjoy driving it, the vehicle isn’t even worth choosing.  I’ve had my share of hardcore rockcrawlers in the past; this time I wanted a vehicle that could comfortably double as my daily driver, and keep the friends and family who ride with me happy.  I found that I needed a bigger vehicle because I was oftentimes making trips with 2 or more people joining me.  Add in our gear, and my Suzukis were quickly becoming entirely too small for everyone.  Although less expensive to purchase, older vehicles don’t ride and drive like late-models do, so more expense would be directed towards modernizing those options’ running gear.

3)  Capable - the ability to easily conquer the Rubicon Trail meant the vehicle could take me anywhere I realistically wanted to go with it.  I can’t see any point in investing in something that will struggle to meet this benchmark.  I set my baseline higher than do most people for their daily drivers, but my goal here is to reduce my fleet of vehicles and build a true do-everything vehicle.  This means selectable lockers, and only a few vehicles come with those from the factory.  They can be added to many of the popular 4x4s, but at a big expense.  And if their axles aren’t engineered for lockers from the factory, then their strength and reliability will be compromised.  Independent suspension is also a big limiting factor in articulation and strength, which is a severe limitation to achieving this goal.

4) Manual Transmission - without a good old-fashioned 3-pedal manual transmission, any potential candidates are immediately stricken from the list.  There are countless reasons why, but they all boil down to my own personal ownership satisfaction; automatics limit gearing flexibility, shift when I don’t want them to, cost more, are less reliable, are more costly to repair and maintain, and reduce performance.  I’ll admit that there are certain situations in which automatics perform well, but anyone skilled with manual transmissions has no problems.  I’ve never been satisfied with any automatic transmission vehicle I’ve owned, but I derive pure joy from driving a manual.

There are a few vehicles that meet these four requirements to varying degrees, but some require a lot more modifications than others to meet the same benchmark.  Modifications cost time, money, and reliability - all of which must ultimately factor into the equation.  The cream that floated to the top was:

1980-1987 Toyota FJ60 Land Cruiser
Inexpensive and capable off-road, but comfort is lacking.  Lots of expensive mods would be needed to meet off-road and comfort benchmarks.  Reliability on an older vehicle is a concern.  Been there, done that.  Later FJ62’s aren’t eligible because their archaic 4-speed automatic ruins a perfectly good TLC.

1984-1985 Toyota 4Runner
Inexpensive and capable off-road, but comfort is lacking.  Nearly the perfect size, but the lack of rear doors severely limits utility.  Been there, done that.  Lots of expensive mods would be needed to meet off-road requirements, and reliability on an older vehicle is a concern.

1993-1997 Toyota FZJ80 Land Cruiser
Inexpensive and exceptionally capable off-road when equipped with the optional diff locks, but some expensive mods would be needed to meet off-road requirements.  The lack of a manual transmission nearly booted this vehicle from the list, but aftermarket options exist with foreign-market Toyota parts, at a significant cost.  Reliability on an older vehicle is a concern, especially considering the fact that it’s a challenge to find one nowadays with less than 200,000 miles on the clock.

2002-present Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen
Strong drivetrain, solid axles with difflocks, and comfort that maxes the scale, but it has little aftermarket support, no U.S.-market manual transmission, questionable German reliability along with huge repair and maintenance bills, and is out of my price range to purchase.  Axed from the list.

2007-present Toyota FJ Cruiser
Reasonably capable off-road, especially when equipped with the optional rear diff lock, but their fragile front and rear drivetrains along with wimpy independent front suspension are cause for concern.  There exists a decently sized aftermarket for upgraded parts, but extensive and expensive mods would be needed on top of an already expensive vehicle.

2005-present Nissan Xterra
Reasonably capable off-road, especially when equipped with the optional rear diff lock, but the fragile front diff and wimpy independent front suspension would require expensive mods.  The limited aftermarket support makes upgrading the vehicle to the minimum requirements more challenging for a vehicle that’s already fairly expensive to purchase.

2004-2006 Jeep Wrangler TJ-L Unlimited (a.k.a. LJ)
Exceptionally capable off-road, especially when equipped with the Rubicon package’s deeper gearing, upgraded front axle, and diff locks front and rear.  It’s nearly the perfect size, but the lack of rear doors severely limits utility.  Huge aftermarket support provides any possible upgrades deemed necessary, but high demand and low supply means this modern-day Scrambler is priced higher than the sum of its parts.

After years of thought, research, and introspection, I finally made my final decision when I found a deal that couldn’t be passed up on a used 2010 Jeep Wrangler JK Rubicon Unlimited with only 26,000 miles and no sign of ever having been driven off-road.

It doesn’t have the fancy Pentastar V6 that’s new to the 2012 models, but I got everything I needed and saved roughly $14,000 versus buying new.  It has the manual transmission, deep gears, a pair of proper solid axles front and rear, differential locks, and all the size and utility I could need, along with the reliability that comes with a nearly-new vehicle.  There is no vehicle on Earth with more aftermarket support, and maintenance & repair costs are incredibly low.

I have had wonderful experiences with numerous Toyotas, Suzukis, and other vehicles in the past, but today’s choices are extremely limited.  Most vehicles cater to a crowd more interested in image than in actual off-road performance.  I wound up choosing a Jeep because it’s the only vehicle available today that was designed around true off-road ability with the addition of the comforts needed for long-distance trips and daily-driving utility.

As great as it is from the factory, the Wrangler JK Unlimited doesn’t perfectly fit my needs.  That’s where the aftermarket comes in, so that’s where you can expect this blog to go next.

I encourage you to share your comments below!

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