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$300 Jeep Cherokee Vs. $40,000 Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon

Allow me preface this post by stating how much I wanted to hate this fancy new-fangled Wrangler with too many doors. I had planned a long rant describing how my 1998 Jeep Cherokee easily matches off-road capability with the new Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Unfortunately, my Cherokee decided vomit out its cooling system (TWICE!), and it refused to keep its cool afterward. This left me no choice but to drive the Wrangler abomination for a day — and I totally fell in love with it.

Before I gush about the $40,000 Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited I drove, I need to discuss my poor hooptie. My $300 Jeep Cherokee with 361,000 miles had made its way to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado for the specific purpose of flexing its off-road muscles. Since our editor over here at Oversteer, Doug DeChicken, has yet to accept my 4×4 challenge with his Defender, I found another worthy adversary in the Wrangler.

Unfortunately, my Jeep must have a nervous stomach, as it couldn’t keep its fluids down. It first gushed a bunch of coolant in the driveway shortly after reaching our destination, and again the next morning while following my luxury SUVs up an easy trail. The first gusher came from the radiator cap, which was an easy fix, and it didn’t totally evacuate the cooling system. Unfortunately, the second one blew the upper radiator hose.

Both times, this happened right after the Jeep was turned off — and at normal operating temperature. My coolant was a nasty shade of brown — but not a milkshake type of consistency you would expect from a blown head gasket. The real culprit seemed to be neglect.

Yes, this dummy spent over $1,000 on a fancy off-road lift kit and tires — but I never checked the cooling system. A simple cooling system flush likely would have saved me this headache and embarrassment. At some point before my ownership, tap water was used to top off the coolant, which resulted in rust developing on some cooling system components. Even with a replacement hose and fresh coolant, I wasn’t out of the woods yet — because the Jeep refused to "burp."

Air was trapped in the cooling system, and none of the old tricks were working. I eventually gave up, left my Jeep in a parking lot overnight, and managed to get a few decent burps the next morning — but it was never the same. Under normal driving conditions, my Cherokee is totally fine — but on the trails, the temperature gauge starts creeping up.

I wasn’t keen on the idea of killing another motor in my hooptie fleet, so my options were to abandon filming — or drive the Wrangler that I was supposed to be challenging. I chose the latter, and I’m really glad I did.

Many years ago, I drove an earlier version of the Wrangler Unlimited, and I hated it. My biggest gripe was the horrible engine, which was shared with the Dodge Caravan, and heinously under-powered. Compared to earlier Jeeps, the suspension and manual gearbox felt sloppy and cheap. The horsepower issue was solved in 2012 with the upgraded "Pentastar" V6 engine — and the automatic gearbox in the 2014 Wrangler I drove seemed much better suited to the larger vehicle.

Including myself, the Wrangler sat five grown men comfortably while hitting some reasonably challenging trails, and it never complained. The longer wheelbase solves the high-speed stability issues the Wrangler is infamous for — and it doesn’t compromise the off-road performance very much.

Unless you’re doing some serious rock crawling, there’s no reason to buy the short wheelbase version over the Unlimited. Staggering resale value aside, those extra doors make the Jeep totally usable as a daily driver. And the hardtop offers fantastic T-top style removable panels for an easy open air experience. The one I drove even had side-facing third-row jump seats.

Unfortunately, the Wrangler Unlimited will never depreciate to the point where I’ll find one for $300 a few decades from now — so I’ll stick to my cheap old Cherokee. Time to go through this old Jeep properly so it doesn’t let me down like this again. It surely would have kept up — but it never got the chance. Next time, Rubicon … Next time … Find a 1998 Jeep Cherokee for sale or Find a Jeep Wrangler for sale

Tyler Hoover went broke after 10 years in the car business and now sells hamburgers to support his fleet of needy cars. He lives in Wichita, Kansas.
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