2018 Jeep Wrangler JK Sport S Rental Review - Time Machine

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

“It’s a Jeep thing; you wouldn’t understand.” That phrase might be a breathtaking bit of cultural appropriation at a level that shocks even your aging and decidedly hidebound author, but it’s not wrong.

Consider, if you will, the vehicle pictured above. It’s the old “Wrangler JK” — a vehicle which has had a decade-plus run as talisman, touchstone, profit center, and Jurassic-DNA-in-mosquito-frozen-in-amber for Chrysler in no fewer than three corporate iterations. From the moment you touch the rough plastic of the pushbutton exterior doorhandle, it’s absurdly plain that everything on this vehicle was designed from the outset to cut costs, only to have more costs cut as the years go on. Not that the bones of the thing aren’t fit for purpose — they are — but my God has there been a Great Cheapening going on in Wrangler-land over the past few years.

“Listen, dummy,” you’re no doubt saying, “of course this is going to be cheaped-out. It’s the final form of the model, kept in production until recently for the rental fleets, the skinflints, and the people who are both allergic to change and unable to get themselves to a dealership during an entire year’s worth of new-for-2018 Wrangler publicity. What did you expect? A ‘Golden Eagle’ luxury model?” Well yes, I did expect that, and they did in fact make some, but that’s not the problem here. Nor is it the fact that Jeep ran the old model for an extra year. That was a groundbreaking practice in 1996 when Ford did it to hedge its bets with the jellybean ’97 F-150, but it’s become fairly common in the two decades since then. Birds do it, bees do it, Malibus do it. (A bit of trivia for you: Ford had planned to do that as well with the 1986 Taurus, by keeping the aero Fox LTD in production at the Atlanta plant, but as the zero hour approached they decided to go all-in on the new car. What a disaster that would have been.)

No, my beef with this coupon-clipper old-shape 2018 Jeep is as follows: It ain’t cheap.

With the assistance (okay, he actually did everything) of my racing crew chief, the well-known and well-loved Bozi Tatarevic, I managed to obtain two window stickers — one for the 2018 “Sport S” model I rented this past week, and one for the 2012 Wrangler Sahara six-speed that was custom-ordered in lime green by an ex-girlfriend of mine a while ago. (You can read a little bit about the girl, and the Jeep, in my 2016 Wrangler review.) Let’s talk a bit about the general vibes of the two Wranglers, and then we will evaluate their prices.

[Get new and used Jeep Wrangler JK pricing here!]

2018 Wrangler Sport S — a coal-black misery pit seemingly designed to suck the will to live right out of your soul, containing precisely zero surprise-and-delight features, with cloth seats that look like they were going to be used in the 2002 Neon before Amnesty International got involved to stop it. Infotainment designed to mimic the “Star Wars” LED watches sold to children in 1978. HVAC controls that have only the most indifferent advisory power over what’s happening in the cabin.

2012 Wrangler Sahara — comfy dark brown heated leather seats, upscale appointments, uConnect with a big screen, chrome tips on buttons, dual-zone climate control.

Alright, let’s roll tape on the price:

2018 Wrangler Sport S: $35,530

2012 Wrangler Sahara: $35,550

How’s that for a head-scratcher? Both vehicles have the hard top, but the new one has the additional expense of the Nineties-era Benzo five-speed automatic. Oh, did I mention that the girl’s Sahara had 18-inch wheels and a limited-slip diff?

I know, I know. News flash — cars become more expensive over time — film at eleven! But this is particularly egregious because you’re just paying about the same money to get a lot less truck. We all expected this sort of thing back when Jimmy Carter was the president and inflation was so rampant that GMAC was running prime-time television ads offering 12.9 percent financing, but automotive pricing has been reasonably flat over the past five years. The cynic in me says they’re just jacking up the price so they can offer bigger rebates. And the “real” 2018 Wrangler costs a couple grand more. Maybe I should quit complaining and actually review the vehicle. Let’s do that.

What do you get for your thirty-five grand, anyway? Well, you get that rarest of things in $THE_CURRENT_YEAR: a vehicle which is not entirely at ease on the freeway. Speeds above, say, 75 mph have the Wrangler wandering a bit in its lane. The Sahara doesn’t do that, but I promised I wouldn’t talk any more about the Sahara. Nota bene that the Wrangler Sport S has upgrade wheels; the plain steel-wheeled Sport must be a real annoyance on the Interstate.

While I doubt that it would tip in normal service — this ain’t a CJ-5 — it never fails to feel tippy and unhappy. At least it gets up to speed in reasonable if not spectacular fashion. I know the old Jeepers don’t much care for the Pentastar, but it truly is the 3.6-liter Atlas that shoulders this ancient-feeling vehicle onto the barest precipice of modern usability. It’s better with the six-speed manual, but how could you not know that already?

The stereo is utter garbage, crippled even further by AUX circuity that appears to route the signal through an Ibanez “Tube Screamer” mounted somewhere behind the fascia, but the wind noise is severe enough to render it a non-issue even with the hardtop. The seats are capable of inducing little aches and pains in the first hour, and I say this to you as someone who has driven a Corvette with fixed-back Sparco Evo racing buckets from Venice Beach to central Ohio. The windows roll down all the way in all four doors, a feature which is truly appreciated by children and any rear-seat passengers who are prone to carsickness. Visibility is, by modern standards, disturbingly good. The cliff-face dashboard and flat-panel doors go a long way towards making you think of today’s cars as deranged slaves of fashion, right up to the point that you realize that it’s the Jeep, not the Camry or CR-V, that truly imposes a distorting aesthetic on its packaging.

The new Wrangler, as you’d expect, makes significant improvements in this area, just as this JK did over its predecessor.

Do not let any of the preceding make you think I don’t like the Wrangler JK. I do like it. It’s easy to make the argument that Jeep has been far more careful and adept with its heritage model than, say, Porsche has been with the 911, although both the JK and the 991 have a touch of the ol’ interior-dimension elephantiasis about them. Furthermore, the Wrangler really does pack some useful off-road hardware under the retro skin. I know from experience that these vehicles can do tremendous things, even in stock or close-to-stock trim.

My problem is that I don’t like this particular Wrangler JK. Get yourself a Golden Eagle, or a Sahara, or even a Rubicon. Get the six-speed. Buy the upgrade diff and anything else you can get in the way of factory-fitted off-road hardware; as with Porsche’s X-Whatever Powerkits, they pay off both in daily use and at resale time. Then feel free to enjoy the heck out of the thing. You’ll be far happier than you would be in this po-faced charcoal-cavern sorrow-wagon that commands a premium price for a coach-class experience.

Ah, but the more I think about it the more I think that the nice people at Jeep are a lot smarter than I am. They know that this “Sport S” model is a sack of misery. But they also know that there is a sort of cachet that attaches to the purchase of a “bare-bones” Jeep. There’s an assumption that your off-road intentions are somehow purer than those of my ex-girlfriend in her cocoa-interior, uConnect-equipped Sahara. The Sport is kind of like the Carrera T to the Rubicon’s GT3RS; the “cheap” model that says something a little bit flattering about its owner.

You pay extra money for the Carrera T, so it’s no wonder that this Sport S also costs a pretty penny. So here we are, looking at a bare-bones hair shirt on wheels that costs about the same money as a Lexus-lite Camry XLE. The misery of it isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. I told you. It’s a Jeep thing. I don’t understand.

[Images: Jack Baruth/TTAC]

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Pete Zaitcev Pete Zaitcev on Jul 20, 2018

    I have to take an issue with any sort of report that finds a difference in the "highway behavior" between two JKs, especially when both have the same engines. The undercarriage is exactly the same in all of them. The weight difference in transmissions is not enough. For all the cred of a real racer who can sense car behavior, I suspect Jack gives in to subjectivity at this point.

    • See 8 previous
    • RHD RHD on Jul 23, 2018

      @danio3834 Ken used to have a Jeep, but he had to sell it to keep up his alimony payments.

  • Danio3834 Danio3834 on Jul 20, 2018

    I have one of the final JK Rubicon Recons made earlier this year. Let me summarize. Bad: -Terrible wind noise and sloppy handling on the freeway -Pretty lousy fuel mileage, 17.2 avg mpg probably 70/30 split hwy/city -The soft top is a pain in the a$$ -Any stone chip in the flat windshield will spider crack all over within days Good: -Super excellent in off-road conditions - I have many mountain trails within and hour from my house from mild to challenging and it eats everything and drives home. -Super fun to cruise with the top down and tunes blaring -The Recon has a good stereo to make sure everyone knows what kind of music you like -Chicks dig it. Seriously.

    • Pete Zaitcev Pete Zaitcev on Jul 20, 2018

      Hrm. My 2010 has a bunch of chips and 120k miles, the windshield is still original. Maybe the quality went down in the final years.

  • FreedMike Well, here's my roster of car purchases since 1981: Three VWsTwo Mazdas (one being a Mercury Tracer, full disclosure)One AudiOne FordOne BuickOne HondaOne Volvo I think I hear Lee Greenwood in the background... In all seriousness, I'd have bought more American cars had they made more of the kinds of cars I like (smaller, performance-oriented).
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X I'll gladly support the least "woke" and the most Japanese auto company out there.
  • Jmo2 I just got an email from the dealership where I bought my car and it looks like everything has $5k on the hood.
  • Lou_BC I suspect that since the global pandemic, dealerships have preferred to stay with the "if you want it, we will order it" business model. They just need some demo models on hand and some shiny bits to catch the impulse buyer. Profits are higher and risks lower this way.
  • Probert When I hear the word "patriot", I think of entitled hateful whining ignorant traitors to democracy. But hey , meant to say "Pass the salt."
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