Monday, November 29, 2010

Do You Want to Buy a Jeep? Probably Not.

A Jeep is a capable off-road vehicle.  But is it really practical as your daily ride to work in the city?  Pictured above is my 1948 Willys on the day I sold it.  It was a lot of fun, but certainly not practical!

We recently looked at buying another Jeep, and decided against it.  While they are a romantic vehicle and certainly make an image statement, as a practical vehicle, they really are not well suited to general transportation.

Before we hear howls of protest from off-roaders, I am not talking about off-roading.  And most Jeep owners, rarely, if ever, take their Jeeps off-road.  In fact, going off-road becomes a pretext for owning the vehicle, often after it is purchased.

Yes, they are a lot of fun - off road.  Yes, they are an "image" vehicle.  But no, they are not comfortable, practical or useful for most people.

And I say this from experience, having owned a Jeep, a Samurai, and a number of 4x4 vehicles over time.

Consider the following:

1.  Ride:  Although newer Jeeps have better ride quality than in the past, the short wheel base means it will never ride as well as a car.  So you will get a bumpy ride, and there is not much you can do about it.  While this is a sacrifice worth making to go off-road, probably 75-90% of all Jeeps never are taken off-road.  So is it a sacrifice worth making?

2.  Noise:  These are not quiet cars, and if you have the cloth top, there will be a lot of wind noise and flapping as you go down the road.  What's that you say?  Speak up, I can't hear you over the wind noise!  Oh, a hard top!  Yes, that helps, a bit.  But it also defeats the main fun aspect of a Jeep - that it is an open air vehicle.  Yes, the hard top comes off, with tools, and you have to have a place to store it, too.

3.  Room:  These are not large vehicles, so there is not a lot of room to store your "stuff" in them.  Want to pick up a piece of furniture?  A station wagon might be easier and more useful.  And there is no place to lock your stuff once you put in in there - a Jeep is incredibly easy to break into with a soft top - or even a hard one.

4.  Gas Mileage:  This is where Jeeps really fall down.  15 city, 19 highway.  Ouch.  Crappy gas mileage for such a small vehicle.  We saw one on the dealer lot parked next to a new Tahoe - guess which got the better gas mileage?  Not the Jeep.  Why this is, I do not know.  Perhaps pushing a brick against the wind is part of it.  Perhaps the gearing.  Perhaps the resistance from the 4x4 drivetrain.  All I know is, for the size of the vehicle, they are gas hogs.

5.  Pricing:  For what you get, these are amazingly expensive vehicles, and quite profitable for Chrysler.  A stripped Jeep, new is $22,000 and if you pay $21,000, consider yourself lucky, as there are few rebates, discounts, sales, or other price reductions.  For that amount, you can buy a pretty well loaded Camry with an automatic, A/C, power locks, and windows.  The Jeep doesn't even have A/C (a $900 option!).    You want one loaded?  You can option up a basic Jeep to $35,000 and still have a soft top!  And you want to take leather off-road?  You are paying a lot of money for basically an empty, noisy, tin box with four wheel drive.  Used Jeeps are no bargain either, as while they do hold their value, this means they also are no bargains.  Most cars depreciate 50% in 5 years.  Many folks have 100,000 mile clunkers 10 years old, and are asking 50% of new car prices.  To me, this is an inflated value for a vehicle that has more than half its service life behind it.

6.  Tow Capacity:  You'd think a small truck like this, with a V-6 (on the newer models) and crappy gas mileage, would have a good tow rating.  Think again - 2,000 lbs, and that's it.  Even the larger 4-door model is not rated to tow much.   These trucklets don't haul a lot of stuff inside, or by towing.

Tellingly, a LOT of jeeps these days are sold with hard tops, in four door models, with leather appointments and other luxury options.  The four-door models are even available in 2WD only, which tells you how often they expect to go off-roading.  These are image cars, sold to people who want to project an image of ruggedness and adventure, even if the only adventure they make is driving to ChiChi's on the weekend.

If you really have a NEED for a four-wheel-drive (as opposed to concocting one by unnecessarily going off-road for "pleasure" and just damaging the wilderness) then a Jeep might be the ticket.  If you live in a wilderness area, on a ranch, or whatever, a Jeep might be useful.  If you are a recreational hobbyist and go rock climbing or mud bogging, then a highly modified Jeep might be useful.  If you dwell in a cubicle and want to impress people with your manly prowess, who are you kidding?

The reason we looked at the Jeep is that yes, they are FUN cars.  And we live on an island and go to the beach a lot, and it seemed like a good sized vehicle to take two people, the dog, and our beach chairs to the beach, with the top down (or a bikini top).  Of course, to fit all that in, we'd have to remove the rear seat, so right off the bat, some of the practicality of the vehicle is lost (forget passengers!).

But the idea of owing not one, but TWO four wheel drive vehicles (again) as our only source of transportation is troubling to me.  Also troubling is the idea of owning two sub-20-mpg cars in an era of uncertain gas prices and potential inflation.

My first 4x4 was a Samurai.  It was a tinny piece of junk, although it was fun.  But at highway speeds, the flapping of the canvas top was annoying, and the short wheelbase meant you were rocked back and forth by even the smallest bumps.  And it had no amenities.  It barely had carpeting.  I sold it and bought a used Camry with air conditioning, power windows and locks, a smooth running, powerful and quiet engine, and a comfortable ride.  For driving to work, going to the store (with a lockable trunk) and carrying three friends around, it was a far more practical car.  And it got good mileage, too.

Yes, on the five occasions when I could drive off-road, I missed the old Samurai.  But owning an off-road vehicle when you rarely, if ever, go off-road, makes no sense.

We also had a 1988 Toyota 4x4 Pickup, which was a fairly capable off-road vehicle until I high-centered it in a ditch one day.  4x4's are not invincible, that's for sure.  It was a fun truck, but it was cramped, didn't haul much or tow much for that matter. 

Similarly, we bought the 1948 Willys to travel down our private road and go off-road at the farm.  Now there was a REAL Jeep, not some plastic imitation they sell today.  It was also a lot of fun to drive, but you would never want to take those early Jeeps in the highway - they topped out at 45 mph!  Later Jeeps were a little more practical, although we all remember the CJ5 fiasco.  Narrow track, leaf springs, and a sales promotional campaign aiming them at the average consumer ended up causing a world of woe for many.

And if you plan on going off-road, seriously, you'd better be prepared to spend thousands of dollars modifying your Jeep accordingly, even if it has a "trail rated" sticker on it.  And every piece of off-road gear you add to the Jeep makes it that much less enticing to drive on the road.  Pretty soon, you are commuting to work in the equivalent of a tractor.

Like I said, they are a lot of fun.  But I am not sure they are the most practical of vehicles for most folks.  In terms of cost of ownership, gas mileage, functionality, and even insurance rates, they lag behind more pedestrian vehicles.  It may seem like a keen idea to own an off-road vehicle as your daily ride.  But the noise and discomfort do get to you after a while.  And for the money involved, you can buy a sedan or wagon with a LOT of features and a quiet and comfortable ride - and pay less at the gas pump.

Jeeps are not for everyone!

UPDATE  November 2016:   We decided against the Jeep and bought a Hamster instead - with air-conditioned leather seats, a panoramic moonroof, blue tooth and all that jazz, for less than the cost of a stripped Jeep.   Did I miss the Jeep?  Well, we live in a State Park and it is illegal to go off road here.  The Hamster is more practical to drive to the beach, and certainly more comfortable, and gets over 30 mpg on the highway.   Yes, a Jeep would be a "romantic" vehicle, but not a practical one.   And I don't need to groom my image by pretending to be something I'm not.   So I had my Jeep fun, but certainly wouldn't want to own one for daily driving, thank you.