To rent a car from Alamo can best be described as combat car renting. There are far too few clerks, and too many fellow tourists trying to choke you out to queue first. They had the cheapest 2020 Jeep Wrangler Sahara I could find, and Kauai is heaven for open top experiences. I decided to move quick, and throw elbows to get it.
I’m a cheapskate and Alamo is the cheapest rental agency. Their line of Jeeps available consisted of seven or so mostly JK models. A careful eye steered me away from them towards a JL. The telltale signs of hard miles always being sun damaged soft tops, and a film of red dirt, mostly on the wheels, that does not disappear after a wash. If it has a red dirt film, keep walking, it’s already been ridden hard. To think some poor soul will actually buy one of these when they’ve been thrashed by drunken tourists!
The Jeep I found for us was a 2020 Wrangler Sahara. None of the obvious visible signs were present. It appeared wet behind the ears with a mere 1600 miles on the clock. This would be a good choice; it probably wouldn’t be full of sand. The color is some sort of pastel grey. I don’t care what FCA calls this color, it is grey, and everyone has some stupid name for their new colors (lead foot grey… feet aren’t grey). What stood out most is the interior. Jeep is killing it with their new interiors. Chrome trims, rubbery textured things, and everything appears willing to survive summers with the top off. The interior is cramped, but still willing to swallow the entire pile of luggage my family of four wanted to feed it.
The drive from Lihue to Poipu is all too familiar at this point. You pass mountains, and fields where Jurassic Park was filmed, through the tunnel of trees, and finally arrive at quite the best place on the island for weather. Poipu is an anomaly. It can be raining everywhere else, but for some reason the clouds will avoid this area. It does rain. It does stay green. It doesn’t feel nearly as rainy as the vegetation would lead you to believe.
If you’ve never been to Kauai, or Hawaii period, I can sum up the weather quite simply. Anywhere in the north and east there will be more rain and green scenery. The south and west will be dry, more desert like, with longer, and larger stretches of sand. There are of course exceptions to the beaches, with Kauai having some epic north shore beaches such as Hanalei. The climate however is easy to figure. A first time visitor could think the north has perfect weather due to a lucky stretch of full sun for several days, or you could be that honeymooning couple that had their entire week rained out. You are in Hawaii after all - life isn’t that bad, the rain is warm, and the beer is cold.
For two to three days, I loved this Jeep. I explored the Jeep website, curious about how much a Rubicon would cost. I found that the Jeep I’d want could be had for around $55,000. That’s fifty-five thousand dollars for a Jeep… was I in love or lust? It was not love. The feeling wore off once I spent some time on the highway.
At the Hawaiian speed limit of 50mph the Jeep wanders. It is a tail wagging, whey-ward dog. The steering wheel requires constant input. There is around two inches of play in the wheel, but even the play feels like it affects the steering. It doesn’t, but the feeling is there. You constantly want to move the wheel. The variations in the Hawaiian pavement (to stay it politely) don’t help the Jeep either. I’d be willing to say the appalling steering is 80% Jeep and 20% patchwork pavement. It is still the Jeeps fault.
So we’ve got a nice looking four-by-four with steering by Top Ramen. It is a flavorful, cheap, wet noodle. Where the Jeep lives its best life is at slow speeds (great turning radius) and off road. I was very eager to climb some hills, and drive it onto Polihale State Beach. My wife on the other hand had visions of being stuck five miles down a bombed out road with two children aged five and three.
I tried to convince myself that my survival skills, airing down tires, and the lucky penny in my pocket would save us. I am not that naive. I decided this was not the time to rock crawl the Jeep. If you want a full off-road review, someone else will have to give it to you. I can give you my thoughts on the 99% of the life a Jeep will see, not the 1% you want.
I could drive one of the worst roads in Kauai to see how the Jeep will respond. Lower Mana Road is the best third world road in Hawaii. It is epically terrible. The holes are on average from 4-8” deep and nearly three feet in diameter at times. It closes at times due to becoming more of a hazard than an attraction. The guy driving the motor grader to improve this road must have arms like Popeye. Pictures do not do this road justice.
My first time to Kauai was on my honeymoon, and we drove this road in a Jeep Compass. The road at that time was in much better condition – more washboard than craters. The Compass bumped at an oscillation so fast it felt like it floated, the door panel vibrated to a mechanical song, and the suspension screamed a squeaky death.
The Wrangler on the other hand had none of these issues. It handled the bumps much better at a faster speed than slow, but this being a rental, it was much faster than anything I had at home. It accepted its gentle abuse with pride. For being stock, I was impressed. There are few stock vehicles that could take the punishment better (Raptor?!). Any new average pickup would give you cause to believe the suspension was about to rip from underneath and leave you stranded miles from the paved security of civilization.
The JL Jeep Wrangler is a toy. It does everything it was designed to do with enthusiasm. It is not a vehicle I would want as a daily driver. The Jeep is a weekend warrior, a lifestyle, the car you talk about with buddies and drink beer around in the garage. It is not something you want to pick up kids, go to the grocery store, or make a commute (auto stop/start is slow and dumb). I have been to Hawaii far too many times at this point, but I will come back, and I will rent another Jeep.