Piston Slap: JK-ing Around With LED Headlight Upgrades?

Sajeev Mehta
by Sajeev Mehta
TTAC Commentator Anchorman33 writes:


I’ve read with great interest your columns on aftermarket HID conversions for various cars that have composite headlights. I have a similar, related question that hopefully has enough daylight (pun intended) between those responses and this question that it’s worth your time to answer.

I’ve recently married into a Jeep family. It’s a 2016 Wrangler Unlimited Sport that’s basically stock… for now. Eventually it will be getting the typical steps, wheels and tires and some cosmetic alterations. For now, it’s used as a daily driver and rarely sees terrain much rougher than a poorly maintained dirt road. It’s fine and my new wife loves it. The biggest problem is the headlights. When we go out, I typically drive and it’s getting to the point I dread taking her vehicle if there’s a chance the sun will set before we go home. As noted basically everywhere, the headlights are atrocious and border on dangerous.

I’ve done some research into the LED drop in replacements, both OEM and aftermarket and prices range from about $100 a pair to about $800 a pair. I don’t want to spend an arm and a leg, but I don’t want to make the problem worse with either blinding lights for oncoming traffic or units that fail every six months.

  • How would you recommend balancing the price/performance metric?
  • Is there a particular set of specs or features I should be keying in on?

I’ve noticed a few with anti-flicker features and most seem to be putting out the “DOT approved” intensity of light for low and high beams.

Sajeev answers:

After dabbling with cheap LEDs from eBay/China, I’m confident you get what you pay for. That said, the cheap crap works great when neither a beam nor flash is needed: interior, side marker, CHMSL, license plates, cornering lights, etc. They are a godsend for brittle wiring harnesses baked over decades… another story for another day.

Regarding Jeep JK Wrangler LED headlight upgrades: I shouldn’t can’t recommend a specific LED product, so let’s survey the current–this WILL become outdated–landscape, putting these into five categories:

  1. Terrible LED bulbs: there are eleventy billion of these for sale across the Internet, most have inferior light output than the factory bulb (beam shape, output, blinding, lack of focus, etc) and likely won’t take the heat without losing output. The really old designs will be bulky (poorly engineered cooling fan, heat sinks, etc) causing fitment issues on some vehicles.
  2. Halogen-mimicking LED bulbs: I’m still skeptical until an OEM-worthy manufacturer makes these (EDIT: Philips makes some, but they are not street legal?) , designs with LED chips claiming to match the OEM bulb’s filament geometry exist. Some have a rotating head to situate the LEDs exactly as the factory halogen bulb sits in the factory housing: YouTubers suggest these designs are not blindy (technical term) in some applications, but at well over $100, that’s a lot of cash for such a risk.
  3. Copycat 7″ Round LED Reflector & Projector Assemblies: these are knock offs of an established LED light manufacturer (GE, JW Speaker, etc) and their inferior wiring, heat sinks, bulbs, lenses, housings/projectors suggest inferior beams, heat management issues, and questionable durability. Look for the newest design not the cheapest, as copycats get better at benchmarking as time progresses. Or not?
  4. LED Reflector Assemblies: these are the GE Nighthawk LEDs of the world. You’re gonna be out several hundred, but they are a known quantity with the benefits and pitfalls* of LED assemblies. The reflector design is generally inferior to projector LEDs, hence the following level.
  5. LED Projector Assemblies: Mopar and JW Speaker make a beautiful set, odds are the former is made by the latter. You’re spending well over $700 but the OEM seal of approval (and the YouTube videos, ‘natch) prove you are buying the best.

But we are neglecting one of the better options: higher-efficiency halogen bulbs. Yes, really!

Their lifespan is shorter than OEM bulbs but examine their glassy bits back-to-back: the extra capsule dimensions makes it clear you’ll get more light.

After using several, I’m consistently impressed with the increased output for such a modest asking price: consider the Osram Night Breaker (or Night Breaker Laser), GE Nighthawk (or Nighthawk Platinum) and Philips Xtreme Power (or Xtreme Vision). Given your financial apprehensions, I’d do an Osram/GE/Philips Halogen upgrade first, and make sure everything’s aligned as per previous Piston Slap.

Weren’t expecting that answer, were ya?

*Pitfalls? Expect LEDs to never run warm enough to melt ice from your headlight assemblies, which might be a problem where you live. The good manufacturers offer lense upgrades with heating elements (self contained), but you gotta pay!

[Image: Mopar]

Send your queries to sajeev@thetruthaboutcars.com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

Sajeev Mehta
Sajeev Mehta

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3 of 34 comments
  • Golden2husky Golden2husky on Oct 27, 2018

    One other source of less than stellar light output is the lamps often receive lower voltage than what the electrical system can provide. This is typically from resistance in the light switch, wiring, etc. A company called SUVLights offers a relay kit where the headlights are powered directly from the battery; the headlight switch just closes the relay contacts. A volt and a half loss is a significant percentage when you are looking at 14 or so volts as a max...

    • MBella MBella on Oct 27, 2018

      Pretty much all vehicles have had headlight relays for more than two decades.

  • Lightspeed Lightspeed on Oct 28, 2018

    Aftermarket or OEM, I am finding all LED and LED projectors to be dangerously blinding to me. Acura/Honda seems to be the worst.

  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.
  • GregLocock Car companies can only really sell cars that people who are new car buyers will pay a profitable price for. As it turns out fewer and fewer new car buyers want sedans. Large sedans can be nice to drive, certainly, but the number of new car buyers (the only ones that matter in this discussion) are prepared to sacrifice steering and handling for more obvious things like passenger and cargo space, or even some attempt at off roading. We know US new car buyers don't really care about handling because they fell for FWD in large cars.
  • Slavuta Why is everybody sweating? Like sedans? - go buy one. Better - 2. Let CRV/RAV rust on the dealer lot. I have 3 sedans on the driveway. My neighbor - 2. Neighbors on each of our other side - 8 SUVs.
  • Theflyersfan With sedans, especially, I wonder how many of those sales are to rental fleets. With the exception of the Civic and Accord, there are still rows of sedans mixed in with the RAV4s at every airport rental lot. I doubt the breakdown in sales is publicly published, so who knows... GM isn't out of the sedan business - Cadillac exists and I can't believe I'm typing this but they are actually decent - and I think they are making a huge mistake, especially if there's an extended oil price hike (cough...Iran...cough) and people want smaller and hybrids. But if one is only tied to the quarterly shareholder reports and not trends and the big picture, bad decisions like this get made.