We Don't Need No Stinkin' Roads!
by Rusty Blackwell
"It's just yer frame," said a spotter, peering beneath our Four Seasons Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, moments after it crashed to a stop atop the pile of rocks that we deliberately drove onto. We cautiously eased forwa . . . kachunkKACHUNKwham!
"It's just yer skid plate," the spotter reassured us, squishing the sentence into a single syllable.
Although it felt - and sounded - as if the earth were swallowing our ride, this is exactly what Jeeps are built for. That rock pile was the first of countless obstacles that we encountered over two rainy but fun-filled days at the Oak Ridge Jeep Jamboree near Arrington, Virginia. Along with some fifty other Jeeps, our Wrangler forded wide, rushing tributaries of the James River. It splashed through mud puddles large and deep enough to have their own tide, threaded its way through tight groves of trees, climbed mud-slickened hills, and crept through gardens of sharp rocks. And our Jeep - and we - made it through in one piece.
That's not to say that this Four Seasons steed breezed easily through the Jamboree, the first of thirty-one such events in 2008: The Wrangler required assistance from winches on three separate occasions - once to help it up a steep, slippery hill of red clay and twice to tug its back end away from seemingly magnetic trees. Two other times, another Jeep had to pull us out of trouble by our front tow hooks. Heck, a trail guide even had to push us, by hand, up a greasy incline.
Nonetheless, our Jeep came away with only minor scuffs and scrapes, par for an off-roading course. Upgraded tires, perhaps from the Rubicon trim level, would have improved off-road grip, but the stock Goodyear Wrangler SR-As on our Sahara performed OK considering their highway-biased tread pattern. But no rubber could change the fact that the big, heavy four-door Wrangler is more difficult to maneuver than its smaller predecessors. In the woods, next to its nimble forebears, the Unlimited simply looks gigantic and overgrown. (At least our vehicle's tires, extra space, and longer wheelbase made the road trip from Michigan to Virginia more comfortable.)
Sure, the Wrangler is still one of the crudest vehicles on the market, but it's hard to care about refinement when it's such a blast to drive through the river and over the woods.