For the past couple years, the Wrangler has been the bestselling Jeep, which is kind of fitting. True, the new Grand Cherokee is off to a roaring start and might retake the top spot, but whether the Wrangler is in first or second place, it is the heart and soul of this brand.
Which is why it’s good to see that Chrysler is not neglecting this all-important vehicle. The Wrangler’s last major redesign, in 2007, was its most extensive to date, and saw the addition of the four-door, Unlimited model. (Previously, the Unlimited had been a stretched two-door.) It also saw the introduction of the Freedom Top—basically, that’s the hard top with two removable panels up front. The panels remove fairly easily—that is, no tools are required. Those over 40 might liken them to T-tops, the rakish roof system of our cheesy youth, but there is no bar in between them. It’s a neat open-air option when one doesn’t want to undertake the considerable chore of taking off the hard top. (Similarly, the soft top lets you open up just the front section, although putting down the full soft top isn’t nearly as daunting as removing the hard top.)
With a wheelbase 20 inches longer than a standard Wrangler’s, the four-door is one big boy. You’ll notice it when trying to maneuver, as the turning circle is quite large. The upside is room in back for adults, and way easier access than you get with the two-door. It’s a big climb up, though—particularly in the Rubicon, with its 32-inch off-road tires. The Unlimited’s extra length also makes for a bigger cargo area. The good news back there is that it takes just one motion to fold the rear seats, headrest and all. The less good news is that the folded soft top stack is seriously in the way when you’re trying to load cargo.
One item that was added for 2010 was optional leather upholstery; unfortunately, my test example didn’t have it. It did have the UConnect navigation system, but Chrysler’s menu logic is not the best, so it often takes several very precise stabs at the touch screen to get what you want. That takes a lot of concentration in a bouncy Jeep.
Probably no other car has ever cried out for steering-wheel-mounted controls more so than the Wrangler, and the good news is that it’s finally going to get them, as part of an interior upgrade coming with the 2011 models. One hopes the cabin redo will also usher in some soft-touch materials, because there’s nothing charming or cool about rock-hard plastic door and center armrests.
Unfortunately, the Wrangler will roll into 2011 with the same 3.8-liter V-6 it’s had for a while. It’s a groaning underachiever in the power department, yet quaffs gasoline at a 15/19-mpg rate (city/highway). The optional automatic is only a four-speed (!)—you don’t often see those anymore. Obviously, the six-speed manual is the better way to go.
Let’s hope Chrysler (Fiat?) keeps the improvements coming for the Wrangler, and directs its attention next to the powertrain. The Grand Cherokee just debuted a vastly more powerful, and more efficient, V-6. That engine needs to find its way into the Wrangler, as does an automatic transmission with a few more gears. Jeep cannot afford to let its icon get rusty.