Review and road test of the Jeep Wrangler 'JK' (2007-2018)
WRANGLING A BARGAIN
By Jonathan Crouch
Bigger, better built, with a far better ride and a diesel engine option at last, the 'JK'-series Jeep Wrangler proved to be something more than a novelty plaything. True, it's still hardly the most practical SUV unless your idea of practicality is wallowing in mud, but in this form, it's usable in Surbiton as well as across the Serengeti. And if you're prepared to put up with a slightly utilitarian feel, it'll reward you with a unique character all of its own.
(2dr/4dr SUV - 3.6 petrol, 2.8 diesel 4x4)
Back in 1938, the US government's original brief for a 'light reconnaissance vehicle' resulted in the development of the Willys Jeep, and the subsequent production of 368,000 of them for use during World War 2. General George C Marshall described it as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare". The spiritual successor to the Willys Jeep is the Jeep Wrangler.
Much separates the two designs of course. What's ideal for a theatre of war doesn't necessarily work for a family trip to the cinema and over the years, through CJ, YJ and TJ Wrangler models, as different company owners have come and gone, Jeep designers have struggled with the need to develop this icon without losing its distinct appeal. Their biggest challenge came with this 'JK' version, launched in 2007 with the need to justify its existence in a modern SUV market that claims to have an answer to every need. Jeep's response was offer two Wrangler 'firsts': five doors and diesel power.
What You Get
The 'JK'-series design is unmistakably a Jeep Wrangler. Iconic features like the seven-bar grille, the fold-flat windscreen and the removable doors are all present and correct and the two-door short wheelbase model should do little to upset diehard enthusiasts. Sales growth though came from the four-door Unlimited version introduced with the 'JK'-series design, a car that looks something like a mini-Hummer and is 50cm longer and 12.7cm wider than its stablemate. Out back, the two-tier tailgate opens to reveal a boot capacity of either 1310 or 2320-litres, depending on whether you fold the 60/40 split rear seat.
That extra half a metre's length makes possible a back seat with room for two adults or maybe three kids in a space that though not generous, is perfectly adequate. No, it's not super high quality inside but least you no longer feel you're piloting something that would pass muster as an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum: there's everything you need and nothing you don't with loads of wipe-clean surfaces that encourage you to use the car in the way it was intended, rather than making you feel worried every time you get in with muddy boots. It's really all rather refreshing compared to the SUV norm.
What to Look For
Most Wrangler owners we surveyed seemed pretty happy with their cars, but inevitably, there were some buyers with issues. The most serious one we came across was a petrol model that stalled for no obvious reason at 55mph. Plus it had a ticking noise from the engine. One highlighted ABS and traction dash warning lights that he said come on constantly. Another complained of a rattling back speaker fitting. There were some issues with the Uconnect infotainment screen (glitchy audio set-up and sat nav problems). On one car, the passenger seat belt broke. One owner had a leaking fuel tank. Another had an auto transmission that wouldn't shift from 1st gear. Another owner had engine knocking. Otherwise, it's just the usual things; check the alloys for kerbing and the underside for over-enthusiastic off road use.
[based on a Wrangler 2.8 diesel - 2012] As you might expect for a car of American origin, parts are not particularly cheap. However, there is a well-established dealer network so it should be reasonably easy to track spares down. To give you a guide based on the 2.8 diesel model, an air filter would be around £12-£18 and an oil filter around £8-£24. Front brake pads would be around £35-£8 a set; rear pads around £27-£48. Front brake discs would be around £82 but pricier brands are in the £137-£148 bracket; rear discs are around £85. Wiper blades sit in the £7-£10 bracket. A timing belt is around £40. A water pump is around £54, but pricier brands can be up to £194.
On the Road
Previous Wranglers never had to be very good on road. As long as they didn't shake your fillings out on the way to your surf shack, all would be forgiven once you set a tyre on the rough stuff. But Marlboro men are in short supply these days and to keep this car in customers, Jeep had to appeal beyond those who might use their cars as weekend mountain playthings when it came to developing this 'JK'-series model.
So they started again with the chassis for this car. The JK chassis is 100% stiffer than that of the previous 'TJ'-series model, so the whole thing doesn't bounce about so much on country roads. Extra torsional rigidity and an upgraded five-link suspension system help too. Don't get us wrong, this is no RAV4 but it works a great deal better on the tarmac than something like the Toyota does on the mud. Even more important is the 174bhp 2.8-litre turbo diesel engine that was fitted to virtually all UK Wranglers, though a 3.8-litre V6 petrol unit was also offered.
The diesel offers a hefty 410Nm of torque but the pulling power is available only in quite a narrow band between 2000 and 2600rpm, so you have to swap cogs around the 6-speed manual gearbox quite often to make full use of it. Body roll is not surprisingly greater than you'd find in a 'school run' SUV but you might be surprised to find that it's quite possible to cruise at 80mph and hold a civilised conversation. Cutting to the chase, yes, if you wanted to, you could reasonably happily live with this as an only car.
But if you think that means this Jeep has gone soft for rough terrain work, then you'd be wrong. Switch from two to four wheel drive, make full use of the low range transfer case and you'll find that it's as capable as ever thanks to vast ground clearance, improved approach and departure angles over the old 'TJ' model for steep slopes and a clever brake lock differential system that can slow down a spinning wheel to equalise torque across an axle and so boost traction just when you need it most. The only thing we'd change is the low-mounted rear numberplate, which can be quickly dislodged by proper mud-plugging.
You've still got to be serious about hardcore off-road driving to consider a 'JK'-series Jeep Wrangler - but not quite as serious as you had to be before. The 4-Door model makes a decent fist of providing versatile family transport for the user who doesn't mind making a few sacrifices at the altar of comfort, ride and handling. It's got a style all of its own and its heart and soul remain on the Rubicon Trail rather than on Staples Corner. Thank goodness for that.
Jeep Wrangler 'JK' (2007-2018) review by Jonathan Crouch