2007 Jeep JK Wrangler Sahara with Six-Speed Manual Transmission.
Pros: Body integrity. Gas mileage. Superior braking, forward lighting, traction and ground clearance. ESP stability. Wider track with an improved frame over previous generation (TJ). If you buy informed and respect its limitations, could be the best vehicle on the planet.
Cons: Full-instrumentation went away with the TJ. Option-rich Sahara equals added weight. Rear vision compromised by wide C-pillar. High-beam icon placement and intensity is annoying. Uninformed purchasers who buy ’cause it’s cute.
I was on my way to the dump and there it sat – our local Jeep dealer had its latest pre-owned Wrangler on the lot. The current generation JK in Rescue Green beckoned shiny as new – and a 6-speed manual, to boot! 1 test drive and 2 hours later, the 3-year-old Wrangler would be mine.
Five years to-the-day have passed since that happy marriage of man and machine. Six winters-worth of snow – both greasy and fluffy – haven’t deterred the Wrangler – nor has the steep and winding gravel drive to my hilltop abode.
The Wrangler’s 3.8 liter (231 cid) V-6 engine began service in 1991 powering Chrysler‘s minivans and cab-forward vehicles. The conventional push-rod powerplant propels the 3,900 lb. Sahara to highway speeds in an acceptable fashion. The 3.8 is mated to the Mercedes-sourced NSG370 6-speed manual transmission, which features gear ratios that enhance the engine’s available power.
A cylinder head upgrade for the JK application boosted the horsepower rating to 205. Its adequate power band – coupled with the relatively short-throws of the NSG370 – provides an effortless and enjoyable run through the gears. Following 20-plus years of dependable service, the 3.8 was retired in favor of the lighter and more sophisticated Pentastar V-6 – introduced to the Wrangler in 2012.
The current generation (JK) Wrangler is the previous generation (TJ) on steroids. Taller, longer and wider, the increased ground clearance is assisted by the 18-inch wheel option available only on the Sahara series in 2007.
Front passenger comfort has been improved dramatically. The hollowed-out tree stumps fitted to the TJ have been replaced by comfortable (albeit firm), durable (using Yes Essentials fabrics) and attractive height-adjustable buckets. Lumbar and lateral support have also been greatly improved. Due to the discontinuation of the TJ‘s clever fold-forward front passenger seat, access to the rear bench is problematic. Kids and pets will appreciate the challenge, while adults and claustrophobics may insist on riding shotgun.
With the rear seat removed, there’s enough room to run errands – though a trip to the big-box hardware store could be interesting should you forget your tape measure. The biggest item I’ve transported was a 51-inch television (in its original box), which just fit with the rear gate closed. The good news is that, unlike a pickup, none of your friends will ask to borrow it on moving day.
Sahara vs. Rubicon
The manly JK Rubicon is a Youtube favorite – they slowly scale boulders and waterfalls with their lift kits and push-button detachable front sway bars, while the Sahara‘s gig is one of all that plus creature comforts. Dedicated Wranglerites will mock the power windows, tilt-wheel and cruise control as unbecoming a true Jeep. In fact, the optional wheel package on my Sahara includes the Rubicon‘s Dana 44 axles and gas-charged shock absorbers – the best of both worlds.
Such optional largess does equal added weight. Air conditioning components, larger wheels and tires – along with an accumulation of gizmos like power window motors can’t help but make the Sahara a bit slower in the quarter-mile. Despite this fact, the current computer MPG readout is 24.5 – exceptional when considering its nearly two-ton girth. My initial disbelief resulted in a comprehensive mileage assessment, with the resulting computer-generated figures being deemed accurate. My TJ, with its 4.0 liter AMC straight-six, never does better than 18 MPG – in spite of its being 700 lbs. lighter.
The tall dash with center panel bump-out is frightfully reminiscent of my 1970s-era AMC Gremlin. The car-like instrument cluster features speedo and tach, flanked by temperature and fuel gauges. The left dial houses the Mini Trip Computer – which shows mileage, compass, outside air temperature and miles remaining with available fuel. The matching fluorescent green odometer includes two trip meters, for those simultaneous comings-and-goings.
Gone is the TJ‘s fantastically inaccurate and annoying “Upshift” illuminated idiot arrow which, if heeded, would surely result in premature engine/transmission failure. Sadly (and inexplicably) also gone is my TJ‘s superior full instrumentation, which appears to be unavailable on any JK model.
The eye-level, center-mounted AM-FM 6-speaker radio (with cargo-area-mounted sub-woofer) is capable of playing one CD at a time. I assume it works but have never used this option. The radio itself sounds great, is satellite-ready – and originally came with a one-year subscription. Mounted lower are the climate settings, whose tiny icons and southern location divert too much attention to operate without thorough familiarization beforehand.
Unlike the TJ‘s conventional dash-mounted headlight switch, the JK has a column-mounted stalk that operates all illumination – including instrument, interior and fog lights. The wiper stalk also operates the rear window wiper – a vast improvement over the TJ‘s poorly located dash-mounted toggle.
The added weight, wider track and longer wheelbase give the JK a more substantial feel behind the wheel. Initially, the quieter engine, coupled with improved soundproofing made gas-clutch mixing precarious – especially with a Harley or two idling behind at intersections. Dual sway bars inspire confidence in corners – a surprise considering the high center-of-gravity.
On smooth roads, the JK is stable, comfortable and relatively silent (with the optional hardtop). On rougher roads, the solid-axle configuration can be precarious on washboard surfaces – due to the suspension’s excessive unsprung weight – whose physics require a longer component recovery. My current ice-age location grows a bumper-crop of frost heaves every winter – a situation the JK handles in stride, if not always an excess of comfort. Here, the TJ‘s lighter weight is somewhat of an advantage.
The vehicle’s Electronic Stability Program (ESP) came in handy when an oncoming gasoline truck forced me onto the shoulder during a snowstorm. Once back on the pavement, the computer intervened and corrected the resulting fishtail via a flurry of steering and anti-lock brake activity. For drivers who don’t believe in ESP, pressing the dash-mounted button above the center console will override this feature.
The favorable ratios of the 6-speed NSG370 transmission give the 3.8 an added edge in outright performance. With its short throws, pushing it through the gears results in better than adequate off-the-line acceleration without the four-cylinderesque power plateaus that plague some heavier vehicles. The assistance of six Bosch Platinum Plus 4 spark plugs installed upon purchase made the V-6 perform more like a V-8.
The most important improvement over the Wrangler TJ‘s closed box-beam frame is a more open design that can be kept free of accumulating dirt and debris. This, in combination with a yearly application of lightweight oil, will dramatically decrease the corrosion that has prematurely disabled many a TJ.
Benefits and Bugaboos
When an issue arises, the illuminating “Check Engine” light is accompanied by a klaxon horn audio prompt that’s impossible to ignore. There’s no need for dealer intervention, for a series of on-off-on ignition key manipulations will reveal the trouble code by way of the odometer – mine indicated a faulty left-side post-converter oxygen sensor. The procedure to accomplish this and a list of codes can be easily found online.
The early JKs are prone to premature ball-joint wear at around 60,000 miles. Through the course of dealer negotiations, my JK received four new ones – as well as an equal number of new tires, a complete brake job and state inspection sticker. After two years, I replaced the rear brake calipers due to excessive corrosion. The local dealer listed “improved” replacements for under a hundred bucks – so far, so good.
The funniest find so far was contained within the sizable air filter housing. My post-purchase inspection revealed a mouse nest, an expired blue jay and about a pound of wolf hair matted against the washboard-style disposable filter element. A square of bronze window screen formed over the intake and secured with wire prevented further invasion. Once remedied, the mileage improved from 16.5 to 22.7 MPG within the first ten miles of driving. The introduction of the aforementioned spark plugs has improved mileage even more.
Countless are the stories of ornery folks who purchased without performing the proper research. The Jeep Wrangler is a specialty vehicle, not a lowly Honda Civic that anyone can jump in and drive. Entry and egress require a moderate degree of agility and flexibility. The best fuel consumption numbers I’ve achieved are 26.9 MPG – about those of the 5-cylinder Volvo V-70. Be aware that examples equipped with an automatic transmission will not approach any of the mileage numbers mentioned here in regard to the 6-speed manual.
The Bottom Line – don’t buy one because you think it’s cute. Conversely, if you know what you’re buying and respect its limitations, the Jeep Wrangler JK is a handsome, all-weather, confidence-inspiring absolute hoot to drive. In my five years of ownership, it’s been a remarkably reliable and trustworthy go-anywhere wonder.