Jeep Wrangler, My Best Worst Car Ever

One of my favorite cars of all time is the Jeep Wrangler. When I turned 45 and had my first midlife crisis, I bought one. My wife would tell you that I have had a ridiculous number of midlife crises. She’s probably right, but it’s just that every few years since I turned 40, the 20-year-old that lives in my head looks in the mirror and repeatedly asks “Who the hell are you?” This results in an attack of confusion, which leads to yet another midlife crisis. How does one fix such a problem? Why, buy a car, of course. But, I digress. Jeep Wrangler

My first Jeep Wrangler was a 1996 basic no-frills model with the convertible top. This was no “push the magic button and the top goes down automatically” thing. You had to unhook the front from the windshield frame, and then seriously damage a finger or two releasing strong plastic clips fastening the top to the sides above the doors. Then you would take out the rear side windows and the rear window by unzipping and un-velcro-ing (probably not a word), and then manually take the top down, folding it in place on top of the rear door. Putting the top back up required these tasks in reverse, and my wife and I did this more than once in a serious rain storm; not fun. Jeep Wrangler

We loved driving this thing around, top down, off-road or on winding country roads, so we put up with this inconvenience. This Wrangler also came with windows and doors that were easily removable, so you could drive around feeling like you were about to fall out. If you needed extra protein, you could also fold the windshield forward and drive down the highway picking bugs out of your teeth. I never did figure out the charm of that particular feature, although I’m sure there was a good reason for it. It may have been a carry-over feature from when the military stacked Jeeps for transport, according to one post on the internet. Jeep Wrangler

That 1996 Jeep Wrangler had a few frills, like a heater, A/C (an option), and a basic AM/FM radio (no CD player). It also had seats, but they had spared the padding and lumbar support. I had to call my chiropractor after an afternoon of joy riding. It sported a 5-speed manual transmission and the smallest, thinnest tires available for a Jeep. Jeep Wrangler

It did come standard with part-time 4-wheel-drive that you engaged with a lever, and included both 4WD High and 4WD Low. In 4WD Low, you could climb a tree (really cool, but pissed off the local birds). The three main problems with that basic model; 1) the radio sucked, 2) the small, thin tires didn’t have sufficient grip to take full advantage of the 4WD and 3) this part-time 4WD could not be used on dry pavement, which would have been useful for better cornering. The car was also a bit top heavy, so it got a little tippy when I tried to drive the curvy Virginia country roads like I was in a Porsche. Jeep Wrangler

I drove this Wrangler summer (top down, sometimes even in the rain) and winter (in heavy snow at times). My wife and I discovered an old logging and maintenance vehicle road up to the top of one of the Blue Ridge Mountains that was dirt, mud, gravel and often totally washed out. Locals in Jeeps and on dirt bikes would take it to the top of the mountain for the adventure. We did this a couple of times with my first Jeep, but those thin tires slipped on us in the mud, threatening to topple us off the mountain. Replacing the rims and adding more robust tires would have cost a lot, so we limited this activity until 2002. Jeep Wrangler

In 2002, I upgraded to a new Jeep Wrangler Sport. This one had comfortable seats with decent lumbar support (my chiropractor was sad), a nice radio with CD player and stereo bar overhead, genuine off-road tires for better grip, and a 6-speed manual transmission. I still injured my fingers every time we took the top down, and we still couldn’t use 4WD on dry pavement for better cornering. Jeep Wrangler

But I could sing my heart out (my wife would call it screaming) to my CDs with rock groups from the 60’s and 70s. Also, my ass didn’t fall asleep from a hard seat and no lumbar support if we took an afternoon joy ride. So, all was well. With genuine off-road tires and an even lower 4WD Low, we could take this Wrangler up on the mountain as often as we liked. We spent many fun hours climbing up and down that washed-out road. And, the views of a large lake from the top were spectacular. Jeep Wrangler

I had this Wrangler during the time that my middle daughter learned to drive. Being a great father (my daughters’ would probably argue, as they each have their own list of bad things dad did to them), I thought it would be a good idea to teach her how to drive a stick shift. The Jeep was our only vehicle with a stick shift, and this is where I erred. Jeep Wrangler

She quickly learned to drive a stick shift. In fact, she really liked driving a stick shift, and especially the one in my 2002 Jeep Wrangler Sport. She really, really liked that car. So, when it came time for her to head off to college, and she needed a car, she gave me the proverbial “face” that daughters are so good at. She also explained to me how much safer she would be in North Carolina, where it snows in the winter, with a 4WD vehicle. Needless to say, my 2002 Jeep Wrangler Sport went off to college to study meteorology. And there I was, Jeepless. I felt so naked. Jeep Wrangler

I got some relief from my Jeeplessness when my wife and I took a vacation to Hawaii, to the Big Island. I was pleased to discover upon our arrival that many of the best beaches were really out there, and only accessible by 4WD. When I told my wife that I wanted to treat her to the best vacation possible, which meant taking her to some of those “best beaches”, she just rolled her eyes. “Let me guess. You want to rent a Jeep.” She always could read me like a book. Jeep Wrangler

So, we rented a Jeep Wrangler. I must say, this one was a 2008 model, and I noticed some things. This Wrangler no longer had the old military workhorse straight-6-cylinder engine, and the canvas top, snaps and connectors all felt cheap; several of them were broken. I later discovered that in 2007 Chrysler redid the Wrangler, and in my opinion screwed it up. (Hey, I’m entitled to my opinion, right or wrong.) But, they did eventually make one serious improvement that I’ll discuss in a couple of paragraphs. Anyhow, we rented a 2008 Wrangler and headed out one morning for the “best beach on the island”. This required that we travel up an old dried up river bed. Jeep Wrangler

I’m cruising along in 4WD Low, going slower and slower as the rocks turn into boulders. The going got really rough, but I was determined to get my wife to that great beach (and having a blast rock crawling). However, when the boulders became larger than the Jeep, I remembered the old adage, “when the going gets really tough in a rented Jeep, turn back unless you want to buy the thing”. I turned around, my pride was hurt, and we had to settle for a lesser beach. But, I didn’t have to return the Wrangler to the rental company in pieces. We made some truly memorable memories that day. Jeep Wrangler

We returned from our island paradise adventure, and I went into a deep depression, suffering from “lack-of-jeep-itis”, or maybe it was “missing-Jeep syndrome”. Anyhow, I’m convinced that the cure came through divine intervention when I was driving through Roanoke, Virginia one fine, sunny summer afternoon. Jeep Wrangler

As I passed a used Chrysler dealership, I saw something magical out of the corner of my eye. I slammed on the brakes of my Subaru Outback, pulled into the lot, and lo and behold, a used 2006 Jeep Wrangler Anniversary Model. As I mentioned earlier, I had done considerable research into Jeep Wranglers and discovered that the 2006 Wrangler was the last year before the Chrysler VPs decided to screw around and redesign the vehicle. They added a Chrysler engine, a new design, and seemingly cheaper convertible top and parts. So, here sat a vintage 2006 Wrangler, and me suffering mightily from “lack-of-jeep-itis”. Jeep Wrangler

I rushed home and told my wife that God clearly wanted me to have this vintage Wrangler to cure my suffering, and that since it was a 2006 it would also increase in value with age. (One of the symptoms of “lack-of-jeep-itis” is clearly delirium). Fortunately, my wife really likes Jeep Wranglers too, although she still rolled her eyes when I told her it was a great investment. So, we bought the 2006 Wrangler. It was in good condition, an Anniversary Model. This was a special Sport model with heavy duty transmission usually found in the Rubicon, comfortable seats, a great sound system, and the original straight-six-cylinder engine. Taking the top down still resulted in injured fingers, and the 4WD was still part-time, but I was in Jeep Heaven. Jeep Wrangler

 Here’s where humility rears its ugly head. I told you I did quite a bit of research on Jeep Wranglers, including the 2006 thing. However, I somehow missed a critical part of Jeep history…very critical…life-threateningly critical. This 2006 vintage Jeep came with special, knobby off-road tires, albeit used knobby off-road tires. I mysteriously drove the Wrangler home from the dealership with no problems. Jeep Wrangler

But, come the weekend, my wife and I took a long ride on a wonderful curvy Virginia country road. We’re about a half hour into the ride, cruising along, not a care in the world. Then, I went around a curve, hit a bump, tried to straighten out the wheels, and the front end started to shimmy. No, that’s not a strong enough word. More like “wobble”, actually “wobble violently”. It took all I had to stop the vehicle without running off the road, through a farmer’s fence and paying a surprise visit to a bunch of cows.” Jeep Wrangler

Apparently, I had not done as thorough a job of researching as I thought. As a result, my poor wife and I got to experience the “Jeep Wrangler death wobble” first hand. It seems that those older vintage Jeeps had solid front axles. If something was off with one of the tires, or something happened to make one of the front tires vibrate, it was immediately transmitted to the other front tire through the solid axle. Those used knobby tires weren’t all that well balanced, and coming out of that curve and hitting a bump resulted in one of the tires vibrating. This caused the entire front end of the car to wobble, which aimed us at the aforementioned herd of cattle. Jeep Wrangler

I used part-time 4WD to get us out of the ditch, drove home slowly to avoid any further near-death experiences, and called the dealership. He said, “Oh, you didn’t know about the Jeep death wobble? I just assumed that anyone looking at Jeep Wranglers knew about the problem. Here’s what you do to fix it.” Turns out, the appropriate steps included replacing all four tires with a new set of Michelins, having them rotated periodically and making sure the treads were in good shape and the front tires always carefully balanced. So much for the vintage Jeep. It’s my understanding that in 2017 Chrysler finally replaced the solid front axle with independent axles, solving the death wobble issue. Jeep Wrangler

I got another surprise with this 2006 Anniversary Model Jeep Wrangler. At the time, our other car was a 2010 Subaru Outback. One weekend we had a humongous snow storm, almost two feet of snow, unusual for Southern Virginia. The driveway from our garage to the street was long, gravel, and on a steep slope. I got up early that Saturday morning, and had a thought (my wife would argue that’s never a good thing). Anyhow, I wondered which vehicle would do better in that deep snow getting up our driveway, the Wrangler or our Outback. Jeep Wrangler

I started with the Outback, with symmetrical AWD, putting it in X-mode for extra traction control in the snow. It walked (actually it rolled) right up that hill in two feet of snow without so much as a wheel spinning. It was early morning, the snow plows had not been out yet, and I drove several miles on the highway in the deep snow with no trouble. Jeep Wrangler

I returned home, put the Outback in the garage, and tried the Wrangler on the steep driveway in part-time 4WD Low. Much to my surprise, the Jeep experienced quite a bit of wheel spin, and even slid sideways a little before finally climbing to the top of the driveway. I drove the same span of highway with no problems and returned the Jeep to the driveway. So, while I am confident that the Jeep would have won a rock-crawling contest, much to my surprise the Subaru Outback won the hill climb in deep snow competition. Jeep Wrangler

Overall and in spite of a couple of negative things mentioned above, I enjoyed the hell out of this 2006 Jeep. However, at one point my wife and I had four cars at home for reasons I still don’t understand to this day. One of our daughters had moved to NYC, and didn’t need a car, I like cars, and I guess I got carried away? Anyhow, we needed to sell two of them. We decided to keep two Subarus and sell the Jeep and my daughter’s Subaru that she didn’t need. (I know, it’s confusing.) Jeep Wrangler

When I went to a place that buys cars, I pointed out that this was a vintage 2006 Jeep Wrangler, the last year before Chrysler re-designed that model. Therefore, it should be worth a lot. They pointed out to me that this was an old 2006 Jeep Wrangler with transmission problems, and had not, in fact, increased in value. I was wrong again. Jeep Wrangler

I sadly said goodbye to the car, and that was my last Jeep. The good news, I really enjoyed my Jeep Wranglers. The bad news, I discovered the Subaru WRX, which is awesome fun and also the #1 car in the U.S. for receiving speeding tickets. That nice state trooper in South Carolina explained to me that there’s usually a 20-something male driving a WRX recklessly because the car isn’t all that expensive and popular with the younger crowd. When he saw my old raggedy face, he just gave me a warning (for once, I was glad to look old). Need I point out that I mentioned earlier that 20-year-old in my head? Jeep Wrangler

So, the Jeep Wrangler has been my best, worst car. It’s best because it is a blast to rock crawl, climb mountains on washed out gravel roads, drive anywhere you want (off road, beach, gravel, deep snow, mud, shallow creek, possibly up a tree in 4WD Low) with the top down and doors off; a real feel of freedom. The Wrangler is like a Swiss Army knife, it does what it was made to do very well. Jeep Wrangler

It’s the worst because the Jeep wobble almost killed me, taking the top down is hard on the fingers and an all-around pain, the gas mileage is awful (15-20 mpg on highway less in town), the rough ride on the highway is hard on the spine and it’s tempting, and hazardous, to try to corner fast. And, driving down I-95 with the top down and doors off, surfing between tractor trailers, is terrifying. Jeep Wrangler

My current “toy” is a Subaru WRX. Unlike the Jeep Wrangler, it’s comfortable, fast, corners like a Porsche, is AWD, and is designed for rally racing, thus it’s comfortable on dirt and gravel roads. However, when it comes to rock crawling, the thing’s so low to the ground most curbs and concrete parking blocks will take out the entire undercarriage. And, the only way to drive around with top down and doors off is to use a can opener or cutting torch. So, there’s that. I might also mention that I now live in Florida, near a beach that you can drive on with 4WD. Jeep Wranglers look great driving on the beach, and there are Jeep Wranglers everywhere. I miss my Jeep. Jeep Wrangler   

If this post made you laugh, and you like mid-life crisis cars, you’ll enjoy reading PLEASURIA: TAKE AS DIRECTED and MURDER BY ROAD TRIP. PI Longfellow has his little red rocket, among others. Get the links to buy the books on Amazon, B&N or Indie Books at