The Jeep Wrangler received a lot of changes for the 2011 model year, most notably a much-improved interior with actual padded door armrests(!). Unfortunately, Chrysler decided to hold off giving the Wrangler the new Pentastar 3.6-liter V-6 that has recently spread throughout most of the rest of Chrysler’s corporate lineup, so Jeep’s icon retains the 3.8-liter V-6 that’s remarkably similar to the engine in my dad’s old 1995 Dodge Grand Caravan ES. The four-speed automatic in this test Wrangler (hmm, just like my dad’s old minivan, too) does this hoary engine no favors, either.
Still, I can’t help but love the Jeep for its innate goodness: a convertible top, room for four friends, classic looks, legendary capability (as we proved with our Four Seasons test of a 2007 Wrangler), and simple intangible fun. I signed out the Jeep during a brief February heat wave, so I popped off the Freedom Top’s front roof panels and fully enjoyed a 40-degree open-air ride home. (All the better to distract me from the truck’s primitive driving dynamics.) Of course, it took several minutes to remove these panels, as the Wrangler remains true to its tradition of difficult-to-master roof management.
The Wrangler may seem outdated and tired to some observers, but it’s important to note that this was the Chrysler Group’s fourth-best-selling vehicle in 2010, behind only the Ram pickup and the Chrysler and Dodge minivans. Clearly I’m not the only person who loves the Wrangler.
– Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor
Thank God beleaguered Chrysler has Jeep, and especially the Jeep Wrangler. No other automaker in the world has anything like it. Yeah, it could use a more modern powertrain, but powertrain refinement is not what the Wrangler is all about. I think they did a great job with updating the interior without making it too fancy. I first saw a styling buck of the changes to the instrument panel back in December 2008 at the Chrysler design dome, when Chrysler invited journalists into their design studios to prove that they had lots of good stuff in the works, even though they were on the verge of going out of business during those dark days. I like how the passenger’s-side grab handle now says “Jeep” and “Since 1941.” Hey, if you’ve got heritage, flaunt it.
One thing I do note is that the headlights are not the greatest. They have a decent amount of reach but not a very broad beam. They illuminate road signs that are far ahead, but there’s not a lot of depth to them. Historically, Chrysler had crappy headlights, and they have fixed them in most of their vehicles, but the Wrangler seems to have been left behind on that front.
– Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor
Aren’t convinced that Chrysler group products are moving in the right direction? The interior of this 2011 Jeep Wrangler Sahara should be all the evidence anyone needs. It still has the poor ergonomics that we’ve come to accept in the Wrangler but the fit and finish are leaps and bounds ahead of Wranglers of the past. For the first time, the interior is not the Wrangler’s Achilles heel and it actually looks like it belongs in this $30,000+ vehicle. (The as-tested price of this particular example is $36,310, and it has optional two-tone leather-trimmed seats.)
Despite the newfound refinement inside, on the road the Wrangler still feels a bit like being behind the wheel of an oversized ATV. Translation: steering, throttle, and brake inputs are a bit slow to take effect. But it’s an acceptable price to pay for the iconic Jeep’s unrivaled off-road capability and the intangible coolness that it embodies.
– Jennifer Misaros, Production Editor
After being teased with two sunny days where the mercury eclipsed the 50-degree mark, we were slammed with seven inches of snow. Fortunately, the Wrangler is perfectly equipped to handle both extremes. Its four-wheel-drive capabilities need no repeating, and, if so inclined, you can open up the entire passenger compartment to the elements. Our Wrangler was equipped with the three-piece hardtop (which is now painted body color on the Sahara model for 2011), and it’s possible to open the front row to the skies above in only 5 minutes with no tools needed. Stripping the remainder of the top is a little more involved (you’ll need to undo several bolts and you’ll also need a second person). Remarkably, it’s still possible to both remove all four doors and fold the windshield down, but it’s highly inadvisable to do so outside of dune blasting or trail riding.
Even ignoring the fancy leather seating (and powerful seat heaters) in the Sahara trim package, the Wrangler Unlimited is surprisingly civilized and comfortable. The four-door’s long wheelbase is a boon for ride quality, and the interior is straightforward and littered with nifty storage cubbies (there are actually bespoke spots for the aforementioned roof bolts in the rear cargo hold).
As others have noted, the 3.8-liter V-6 is absolutely anemic, especially when saddled with the current four-speed automatic. Sources suggest to me that Chrysler’s 3.6-liter Pentastar V-6 is due to arrive here within the next few years. That may resolve complaints about acceleration, but I wonder whether it will help fuel economy. Currently rated at 15/19 mpg (city/highway) by the EPA, the Wrangler averaged just above 17 mpg for me during a mostly freeway trip from Howell to Grand Rapids and back. Given that performance, and today’s fuel prices, I think fuel consumption is the primary reason a Wrangler isn’t serving as my daily driver. If only we could get the European-spec turbo-diesel…
– Evan McCausland, <emWeb Producer
Just as the right sports car can turn every traffic circle into a skidpad and every stoplight into a drag strip, a really cool off-road vehicle transforms every curb and snowbank into trail that must be conquered. I hope my downstairs neighbors understand then, why I took a shortcut across our front yard to get to our driveway, where I then flattened a small mountain of hard-packed snow left by a snowplow. I probably didn’t need to go into 4-lo for this maneuver, but I did anyway. The Wrangler is just that cool.
This measure of coolness, heritage, and capability makes it hard to be upset about some minor flaws and inconveniences, which is good, because the Wrangler has its share of them. The old-school powertrain works hard — and lets you know it’s working hard — to keep up with city traffic. The steering wheel now looks and feels very nice along with the rest of the interior, but it seems like it’s communicating with the front wheels via a game of telephone, as every input seems to have an effect slightly different from what you intended. One can only imagine what Fiat/Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne thinks when he hops out of a Ferrari, Maserati, or Alfa Romeo and climbs into one of these.
Let us pray though, that he never changes it. The Wrangler is one of an ever-dwindling pack of automotive icons still rolling off the line, and it remains the proof text against which all new Jeeps must be measured. Every vehicle the brand builds, no matter how refined, should give you that irresistible urge to go climb something.
– David Zenlea, Assistant Editor
I’ve never driven or even sat in a Jeep Wrangler before. Perhaps that explains why most of my thoughts don’t line up with those of my colleagues. I find the archaic 3.8-liter and antiquated four-speed automatic to be well mannered and torquey enough to move around town without complaint. That’s not to say the Wrangler shouldn’t receive a thorough mechanical reset, though. When you’re accelerating onto a highway or looking to make a pass on a two-lane road, the V-6 really shows its age. Chrysler’s 3.6-liter V-6 and (at the very least) the five-speed automatic would go a long way to making the Jeep Wrangler more civilized. And despite what others might say, more civility is exactly what the Jeep Wrangler needs.
I’m not arguing against the live axles or ugly-yet-functional exterior. Those elements are what make a Wrangler the iconic Jeep. But there’s nothing in the Unspoken Off-Roading Rules Book that mandates old technology simply for the sake of being old. The Wrangler needs the broad powerband of a modern V-6, a smoother transmission, and at least one fuel economy number above 20 mpg. Let’s see rack-and-pinion steering. The interior update is decent, but there’s still significant room for improvement. Beyond the ergonomic inadequacies of the center stack, the primary dash material is still too glossy for anything except Chinese-made toys. As impressive sales of the Wrangler suggest, people buy this Jeep for far more than its off-road capability. Isn’t it time Chrysler delivers something more?
– Eric Tingwall, Associate Editor
2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4×4
Base price (with destination): $30,695
Price as tested: $36,310
3.8-liter V-6 engine
6-speed manual transmission
Electronic stability control
Hill start assist
Shift-on-the-fly 4-wheel drive
3.21 rear axle ratio
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
18-inch aluminum wheels
Tire pressure monitoring system
Sunrider soft top
Infinity sound system with subwoofer
7-speakers, 368 watts
Sirius satellite radio
Remote keyless entry
Tilt steering column
Leather-wrapped steering wheel
Two front tow hooks, one rear tow hook
Options on this vehicle:
Dual top roof — $1625
Freedom top 3-piece hardtop
Freedom panel storage bag
Rear window defroster
Rear window wiper/washer
Media center 430N CD/DVD/MP3/HDD/NAV — $1035
Hard disk drive
6.5-inch touch-screen display
Two-tone leather-trimmed seats — $900
Heated front seats
4-speed automatic transmission — $825
Hill decent control
3.73 rear axle ratio
Supplemental front seat-mounted airbags — $490
Connectivity group — $385
Remote USB port
Electronic vehicle information center
Uconnect phone with voice command
Remote engine start system — $200
Air conditioning with automatic climate control — $155
Key options not on vehicle:
Rubicon trim level — $2800
Limited-slip differential — $295
Trailer tow group — $270
Fuel economy: 15/19/17 mpg (city/hwy/combined)
Size: 3.8L V-6
Horsepower: 202 hp @ 5200 rpm
Torque: 237 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Curb weight: 4294 lb
Wheels/tires: 18-inch aluminum wheels; 255/70R18 Bridgestone Dueler all-terrain tires