I first sampled the new 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.”
Not everyone was so taken with the Wrangler‘s charms. After using the Jeep for a week’s worth of family duty, technical editor Don Sherman carped: “As a vehicle ill-suited to normal suburban use, the Wrangler Unlimited rivals that other silly Rubicon rumbler, Toyota‘s FJ.” His wife, Cheryl, was in rare agreement with her husband: “I just find no joy here. First gear is completely useless, reverse is hard to engage, and it’s not at all fun to drive.” And associate editor Sam Smith, who found many things to love about the two TJs his family has owned, was left with mixed feelings after spending five days in our Unlimited: “The smooth, strong, linear straight six is gone, replaced by a coarse, overtaxed V-6. Weight is up. The short wheelbase, even in the two-door model, is gone.
And a great deal of the purposefulness and old-school simplicity has disappeared, replaced by thick A-pillars, a modern SUV mentality, and a poseur-ish attitude. Yet I’ve enjoyed driving it. It’s still involving and quirky and somewhat stupid (in a good way) compared with most of what’s on the market. In other words, it’s still a Jeep.” Indeed.
And as for the Wrangler’s newfangled features? MyGig was appreciated by staff millennials who cannot leave home without their entire music libraries at their fingertips, even though the system’s modern touch-screen interface was incongruous in this utilitarian interior. The navigation system itself was castigated by some for its lack of sufficient map scales and its reluctance to allow you to drag and pull the map view. The Freedom Top was cool, in that it allowed us to individually remove panels above the driver and the front-seat passenger, but we chucked it entirely during the warm months in favor of the canvas roof, which turned out to be nearly as exasperating to use for most of us as it’s always been. At least the Sunrider mode allows you to quickly retract the canvas roof part way, and our drivers made ready use of this feature.
Despite our kvetching, the Wrangler is still a real Jeep, and that’s all the more important considering that the division recently has been saddled with several products that compromise the brand. We’d like to see a better powertrain and a tad more polish, but we’re grateful that the Wrangler is still without peer off-road (as our pictures indicate). It’s best to take the Wrangler at face value, anyway, as senior editor Joe Lorio did for a weekend jaunt to northern Michigan: “Breathes there a soul so dead as to scoff at the notion of a summertime road trip? OK, so we did the freeway portion with the roof up and the A/C on. But at the first post-freeway fuel stop, we stripped off the soft top (a multistep process, but not terribly difficult with familiarity) to experience the Wrangler au naturel. Driving in an open-topped Jeep is one of America’s great automotive experiences. Even with its doors on and the network of roll bars overhead, the Wrangler provides an experience that is far more open than that of most convertibles.”
And that is something you don’t have to go to Africa to find out.
First built in 1940, the Jeep’s forefathers were initially produced for the U.S. Army. The first civilian CJ2A was introduced in 1945 and built to the same basic mechanical specifications as the military version. It was equipped with a 60-hp in-line four and few options. By 1953, the CJ3A was topped by the CJ3B, which featured more power and subtle body changes. In 1954, the CJ5 was introduced with an entirely new body and chassis. A stretched version of the CJ5, called the CJ6, was available starting in 1956, followed fourteen years later by the legendary Jeep Renegade – a limited-production model with fifteen-inch wheels, a V-6, hood stripes, and a standard roll bar. In 1972, the CJ5 and the CJ6 got a new 100-hp in-line six and an optional 150-hp V-8. The 1976 CJ7 (the last new CJ) was longer and roomier. The Wrangler (YJ) debuted in 1987 with square headlamps, a bent grille, and a 2.5-liter four or a 4.2-liter six. Round headlights returned for the 1997 Wrangler (TJ). Ten years later, a redesigned Wrangler (JK) jettisoned its base four-banger for a standard V-6.
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
- Body Style 4-door SUV
- Accommodation 5 passengers
- Construction Steel body on frame
- Engine 12-valve OVH V-6
- Displacement 3.8 liters (2131 cu in)
- Horsepower 205 hp @ 5200 rpm
- Torque 240 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
- Transmission Type 6-speed manual
- Drive Rear-and-4-wheel
- Steering Power recirculating ball
- Lock-to-Lock 3.5 turns
- Turning Circle 41.2 ft
- Suspension, front Live axle, coil springs
- Suspension, rear Live axle, coil springs
- Brakes Vented discs/discs, ABS
- Tires Goodyear Wrangler SR-A
- Tire Size 255/75SR-17
- Headroom f/r 41.3/40.4 in
- Legroom f/r 41.0/37.2 in
- Shoulder Room f/r 55.8/56.8 in
- Hip Room f/r 55.6/56.7 in
- L x W x H 174.4 x 73.9 x 70.9 in
- Wheelbase 116.0 in
- Track f/r 61.9/61.9 in
- Weight 4360 lb
- Weight Dist. f/r 52.3/47.7%
- Cargo Capacity 46.4/86.8 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
- Towing Capacity 3500 lb
- Fuel Capacity 22.5 gal
- Est. Fuel Range 360 miles
- Fuel Grade 87 Octane
- OUR TEST RESULTS
- 0-60 mph 9.0 sec
- 0-100 mph 37.4 sec
- 1/4-mile 17.0 sec @ 80 mph
- 30-70 mph passing 10.3 sec
- Peak Acceleration 0.55 g
- Speed in Gears 27/47/71/98/105/100 mph
- 70-0 mph Braking 197 ft
- Peak Braking 0.97 g
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.