Advantages and Disadvantages of Five Budget Jeeps to get you into the Lifestyle
Cheap and Jeep are two words that do not go together. The old adage “Just Empty Every Pocket” is very fitting, especially when buying a brand new jeep off a dealer’s lot, not to mention all the possible upgrades that you can do. Another disadvantage of spending a ton of cash on a brand new Jeep is that most people would rather not risk driving that amount of money over a trail that may do some body damage.
An expensive Jeep severely limits a four wheeling lifestyle for many. But if you are on a budget like most of us, and looking for a cheaper alternative, there is still hope for getting you into the lifestyle and on the trail without spending a King’s ransom for a rig.
Listed below are five cheap Jeeps that can still be found at a relatively low price if you look hard enough online.
#5 1941-1952 “Old Man Era” Flatties
There is NOTHING cooler than a Flat Fender Willys. If you want a vehicle that will garner the utmost respect and admiration of the Jeep world, an old man era flat fender is what you want to drive. There is an entire generation of old guys that, for decades, never bought a newer Jeep because nothing better was being produced.
The CJ5 was about the same size as the Willys, the CJ7 was too big, and there was no way they were going to buy a Jeep YJ with square headlights. But then, in 1997 when the Jeep TJ came out, the old guys were finally retired, had money and wanted a more comfortable Jeep that wheeled well. So they bought TJ’s galore and shoved the old Willys into a garage or barn. As that generation is slowly taking the old Jeep trail into the great beyond, their kids are selling off dad’s old Willys Jeep that has been sitting for years. Depending on your location, you can currently find old Willy’s for as low as $2,000 and ones in decent shape from $5,000 to $7500.
Over the years, many Willys out there have had upgrades done to them such as newer electrical and engine swaps. Look for those and stay away from the bone-stock ones unless you really know what you are doing and are good with a wrench.
Disadvantages: It will never be a daily driver. It is not the safest vehicle on the road. You will not be able to do 60 MPH on the freeway, in fact, you should stay away from driving it on freeways unless you want to risk life and limb. You may want to trailer it to get it to the trail. You WILL need to know how to turn a wrench and fix stuff. There is very little room for gear and driving it in bad weather sucks unless you luck out and get a really good after-market top.
Advantages: Like written above, there is NOTHING cooler than an old school Willys. People will want to bask in your presence and talk to you because you drive the holy grail of Jeeps. You will always meet people at gas stations, because people will always come over and ask you about your Jeep. It is also really fun to correct people that call it a “Will-ees” when it is actually pronounced “Will-is.”
#4 1966 to 1973 Jeep Commando
In the 1960’s, Jeep knew that it needed a vehicle to compete with the International Scout and the Ford Bronco, so the jeep Commando was born. The vehicle started as the “Jeepster” Commando in 1966, but then switched to just the “Jeep” Commando in 1971. While older Broncos, and to some extent, Scouts have recently shot up in price, you can find Commandos comparatively cheap. I have seen running Commandos in decent shape go for as little as $4,000.
Look for Commandos with the Dauntless V6, or late model ones with the AMC 304 V8. Double, triple check for rusted out panels, especially in the foot wells. Also look for ones that have had a mild lift, axle or engine swaps.
Disadvantages: Commandos are getting harder and harder to find by the day. Since they are also older vehicles like the Flat-fender, the safety aspect is not the greatest since they do not have air-bags or modern seat belts. This is another “you better have a lot of mechanical knowledge” kind of vehicle unless you are rolling in the big bucks and afford to take it to a shop, especially if you want to do things like an axle swap and lift it.
In my experience, rust seems to be a big issue with these types of Jeeps. Finally, many “normal” non-4×4 people will not even recognize it as a Jeep if that matters to you.
Advantages: While a Commando is not as cool as a Willys, it is still pretty damned frickin bad ass. The vehicle will be an attention-getter from both people that know Commandos and people that are wondering what the hell it is. They are not as coveted as early Broncos or Scouts, so the price point is usually lower.
Commandos are small enough that they make decent wheelers, they are not as lumbering as full sized Jeeps, and they handle well on tight trails. They have more room in the back for camping gear and supplies than a classic two door, open top Jeep. Biggest advantage: You can tell everyone that you are “going Commando” every time you are driving it.
#3 1984-1997 Jeep Cherokee XJ
If this was a personal decision, I would make the XJ the number one pick of this litter of Jeeps. I have never owned one, but I have always wanted one. Jeep Cherokee XJ’s littered the roadways in the 1990s, they were a very popular vehicle, and they are an excellent base vehicle as a wheeling rig.
There are many online groups and organizations like NAXJA that are filled with people that love these vehicles. If you live in an area with bad weather, a hardtop XJ that keeps the heat in can be a huge bonus. They are immensely popular in the Pacific Northwest as trail rigs. DO NOT confuse the Jeep XJ with a Grand Cherokee, the Grands did not have leaf springs in the rear, making them much more expensive to lift and not as good on the trail. Prices on XJ’s have gone up and down over the years, but I have seen running models for as low as $1,500-$2,000.
Look for ONLY the 4.0 Liter inline six engine. Those engines last FOR-EV-ER as long as they were moderately taken care of and the oil was changed. I know guys that have no problem buying Jeeps with that engine with well over 120,000 miles or more on them. Look for 1991 to 1999 models, I believe some early years even came with a dana 44 rear axle, which would be a huge plus.
Disadvantages: The biggest negative for many is that the XJ is a uni-body, it is not a body-on-frame, so that turns many people off. They have square headlights and are not considered by purists as real “Jeeps”. In the words of rock crawling legend Jeff Mello, “If no one is waving at you, it is not a real jeep.” Most have the C-clip Dana 35 rear axle which is notoriously weak, so you will want to do a D44 axle swap if you intend to do more than just moderate wheeling.
Another disadvantage is the lack of a roll cage, and if you do get one fabbed up, there is no tying it into the frame.
Advantages: As I said above, the 4.0 liter inline six is a GREAT engine. This is the first vehicle on this list that you could actually daily drive. There is way more room for camping gear and storage than in a regular Jeep. While your wheeling buddies in normal Jeeps like Wranglers and the like are pressed to find room for gear, you can pack nearly everything. Furthermore, the hardtop keeps the dust off you and protects you from the elements.
While they will never admit it, there will be a lot bit of jealousy from them because of those two facts, so they will try to make up for it by going on and on about how your rig is a uni-body. When that happens, just sit in your rig, turn on the heater, and ask them if they are cold. There are also of aftermarket parts and lift kits available since the XJ is still relatively newer than the Jeeps that have been listed so far. They are also not overly large vehicles and do very well on the trail.
#2 1987-1995 Jeep YJ
In 1987 Jeep came out with the square headlight YJ, and the Jeep community threw a fit. Square headlights? Really? Despite the hate of an insignificant cosmetic factor, the YJ is a great starting platform for a trail rig. While it has several weak points like the axles, a front Dana 30 that is just “meh” and a rear Dana 35 C-clip which is “Yuck!,” it is still a leaf-sprung rig that works well on the rocks.
They are easy to work on and modify, and there is still a ton of after-market support for them. You will not have to be a total mechanic to get this thing into hardcore wheeling shape, but you will want to have at least enough knowledge to do a basic axle swap.
Stay away from the 2.5 liter 4 banger and look for a YJ with the 4.0 liter engine. While you “could” make due with the 2.5 liter, you will be kicking yourself down the road for not buying the inline six engine which is MUCH better. Anything pre-1992 with have the old school “kid-killer” cage, so if you intend to have passenger in the back seat, buy one made after 92. One common fault with manual transmission YJ’s was a leaking clutch slave cylinder, which is inside the bell housing and a PITA to replace, but in 1994 they moved the slave to the outside making it much easier to get to.
So in summary: look for a 1994 or later YJ with the six cylinder engine. Again, prices vary depending on location, and they have gone up in price a little lately, but you can still find running YJ’s starting around $5,000.
Disadvantages: The axles suck. Especially the rear C-clip Dana 35. A common upgrade for many on YJ’s is to swap in Dana 44s, do a very easy spring over axle lift (which is cheap to do), buy a longer driveshaft with a slip yoke eliminator, get a rear locker, and BAM! You can do some serious wheeling in your YJ and will be able to walk the Rubicon with ease. You only need a little bit of mechanical skill to pull this off, but if you mechanical talent tank is empty, this is not the rig for you.
If you have more than two people in your rig when wheeling, good luck finding anyplace to stuff gear. Even with just you in the rig, you will be hard pressed to fit everything in it without a Rubicon rack.
Advantages: The 4.0 liter engine is awesome and will run forever. Leaf springs are old technology, but they work very well on the rocks. This is the second vehicle on this list that is also potentially a daily driver. There is a huge amount of after-market parts and goodies that you can buy for these things. Despite the square headlights, it is still a Jeep. You can take the doors off and drop the windshield. They are VERY easy to wheel and make a great rig for someone that is just getting into the lifestyle. Even without the suggested upgrades, and even with a Dana 35, the vehicle still makes a decent moderate wheeler.
And now……drum roll please…. FOR THE NUMBER ONE CHEAP JEEP!
#1 1997-2006 Jeep TJ
In 1997 Jeep released the TJ, which was a huge jump in comfort from the relatively spartan Jeep YJ. One of the biggest changes was a modern, coil-spring suspension which made for a much more comfortable ride. The interior was also more passenger-friendly and the signature round headlights of its ancestor’s came back. The biggest change however, came in 2002 with the Rubicon model.
You can argue and disagree many things that I have written in the article, but there is one thing that anyone would be hard pressed to disagree with: the Jeep Rubicon is hands-down the best off-road vehicle that you can buy off a dealer’s lot. With Dana 44 axles, locking differentials front and rear, and a 4:1 transfer case, the Rubicon model included many upgrades rock crawlers were already adding on their rigs. It’s a real jeep, it has round headlights, its great on a normal road, it’s comfortable, and it wheels well, especially if it is a Rubicon model. What more do you need?
You can find TJ’s for as little as $7,500 while many in great shape may be closer to $10k. Rubicons are more expensive, but if you intend to go wheeling and do not feel like throwing a good chunk of change at a regular model for upgrades, it may well be worth the cash. Like other types of Jeep, try to stick with the 4.0 liter inline six.
Disadvantages: The TJ is the most expensive of this lot, especially the Rubicon model. That is about it for disadvantages.
Advantages: You can daily drive it, it is more comfortable, it is safer than older model Jeeps, it works well on the road and the rocks, and there is a MASSIVE assortment of after-market parts available for these things. A Rubicon model with a mild lift and decent tires can do about just any trail aside from routes that are run by full-on buggies. It’s plug and play, ready to run and full of fun.
Get yourself a “cheap” Jeep and join the ModernJeeper fun to be had!