I first sampled the new Jeep Wrangler two years ago in South Luangwa National Park in sub-Saharan Africa. The romanticized safari setting most definitely played to the vehicle's off-road strengths while neatly sidestepping its on-road weaknesses. During two days of very difficult off-road adventures through inspiring Zambian landscapes, the new Wrangler proved to be as unshakable in the rough stuff as anyone could expect a production-spec four-by-four to be, despite the fact that it is considerably wider and longer than its predecessor. Even the all-new Wrangler Unlimited, the first-ever four-door Wrangler, easily tackled the harsh African terrain.
But when I returned to America, everyone here at Automobile Magazine wanted to know how the Wrangler drives in the real world. I was forced to admit that I hadn't a clue. Although I'd forded rivers and plowed through ten-foot-tall elephant grass with aplomb, I'd never put a wheel to the pavement in Zambia. Clearly, a Four Seasons test was needed to see how the Wrangler would fare in Michigan's less exotic but equally demanding conditions, and only a four-door Unlimited model would do. It arrived in March 2007, looking the part of an off-roader in its "rescue green" paint and equipped with both canvas and hard-top roofs. With more than $4000 in options, our Sahara model checked in at the not-insubstantial price of $31,545, lofty territory for a Wrangler.
We were predisposed to like the new Wrangler. Many staff members own or have owned Jeeps, and we all appreciate the Wrangler's honest, unassuming role in the automotive firmament and its place as an iconic American vehicle. But we were also eager to make sure that it hadn't gone soft. After all, even the two-door Wrangler grew in length by 2.6 inches, and both the two- and four-door models are more than five inches wider than the previous-generation vehicle, which was known within Jeep and by aficionados by its platform name, TJ. Would the new Wrangler, code-named JK, be as chuckable, as unpretentious, and as true to itself as the TJ, even while boasting fancy new options like a three-piece Freedom Top, a MyGig entertainment system, and navigation? And how did Jeep's switch from its venerable old in-line lump of a six-cylinder to a smaller V-6 engine bode for the Wrangler?
Our staffers wasted no time in delivering their verdicts. Here's resident Mopar freak, copy editor Rusty Blackwell, at 1770 miles: "I was afraid that the larger, more modern Wrangler would disappoint, but that's not the case. The Wrangler's classic feel and spirit are intact; there are just more cool features and more room." "The Wrangler is remarkably old-school," added another young staffer. "Unfortunately, feeling old isn't always a good thing. Case in point: the thrashy V-6. It sounds and feels horrible and delivered only 17 mpg on the freeway to Chicago."
Those two comments pretty much set the tone for our year with the Jeep, twelve months in which we at once appreciated that the Wrangler is still very much a Wrangler yet bemoaned its lack of powertrain refinement and the way it sniffs around the margins of the SUV mainstream. What, exactly, was the point of ditching the 4.0-liter straight six for a completely undistinguished 3.8-liter V-6? It sure wasn't for fuel economy, as our 16-mpg overall average over 22,367 miles proved. It wasn't for performance, either, since the V-6 produces a paltry 205 hp, enough perhaps for the two-door Wrangler but barely up to the task of propelling our four-door Unlimited, especially when it was towing or heavily loaded. We skipped the four-speed automatic for the standard six-speed manual, and although its short gearing (with the optional towing package's 4.10:1 axle ratio) helped make the most of the fairly torquey V-6, the gearbox proved to be an utterly agricultural device. Wait - that's unfair to most of the tractors we've driven, which have had gearboxes with more precise movements than this one did.
"The engine's torque and the short gearing help hide the V-6's lack of power," remarked road test editor Marc Noordeloos, "but if you don't need to tow or haul a lot, you'd be better off with the taller, standard 3.21:1 axle ratio." West Coast editor Jason Cammisa did note, though, that "the clutch take-up and throttle calibration are spot-on." That said, one cannot help, when driving the Wrangler, but think of the powerful, refined V-6 that Toyota mates with either a five-speed automatic or a slick six-speed manual in the FJ Cruiser.
Not that the FJ possesses half of the Wrangler's street cred. Noordeloos elaborates: "Toyota would love it if the FJ Cruiser had ten percent of the Wrangler's character." "The Wrangler's ruggedness makes every run to the grocery store feel like an adventure," added production editor Jennifer Misaros. Another twenty-something editor also found our Wrangler to be "rugged and tough. I think I'd actually buy one of these things. It makes me wonder why Jeep doesn't weld on the roof and throw the Liberty on the scrap heap."