I'm in Zambia, Africa, in South Luangwa National Park. I'm bringing up the rear of a caravan of eight Jeep Wranglers that are being directed, one by one, down a steep river embankment and over the boulders of the riverbed below. The seven Jeeps in front are moving very slowly, if they're moving at all. I can hear the shouts of the spotters, who are leaping among the rocks and mud and pools of fetid water, helping our small group of American journalists guide the all-new, 2007 Wranglers over, around, and between obstacles that would defy anything this side of a Land Rover Defender. This is wicked terrain, and I'm not encouraged by the excited voices echoing off the riverbank. Good grief.
I came here to gaze at giraffes and baobab trees through the Wrangler's open roof, not to prove to the guys from the four-wheeling magazines that I'm anywhere near as proficient at this boulder-dodging business as they are. But the shouts and the sickening scraping sounds rising from the river suggest that differential cases are kissing boulders, mufflers are being crushed like tinfoil, and fender flares are finding new homes on the river bottom. It's going to be a long time before we get to our lunch spot next to the hippo lagoon.
As the hot African sun beams through the Wrangler's open top, I idly wonder if I'll be the one to hurtle a Jeep end-over-end into this river, plunging into my own personal heart of darkness. Forgive the angst. Just yesterday, one hapless member of our contingent jacked a Wrangler sideways while climbing a boulder, and the vehicle flipped side-over-side and tumbled down an embankment, landing on the passenger's door. Both occupants--Chrysler employees--were unhurt, but the incident underscored the fact that Jeep had flown us 9000 miles to test these Wranglers to their limits.
There's no more time to worry about such things, because Duncan Barbour, the amiable Scotsman serving as our chief trail guide, is beckoning me to come on down. I hit the switches to lock the front and rear differentials and disconnect the front antiroll bar, and then I ease the black four-door Wrangler over the embankment's edge until Barbour tells me to hold up. I set the brake, lift myself from the seat, and peer over the edge of the Wrangler's folding windshield. Barbour is standing way, way down there, directly in the Wrangler's path, which is not where I would be if I were him. He waits for the vehicle in front of me to claw itself out of the way, and then he gives me the go. Palming the shifter into first and inching down the rocky riverbank, I realize I'm not headed toward potential doom, because in the process of already having guided seven other vehicles down this particular assemblage of rocks, Barbour has gleaned the perfect path down the thirty-degree slope. Before long, the Wrangler and I are sloshing through the river bottom, and I'm following vehicle development engineer Mark Luscomb's advice to "let the throttle pull you along on its own. Keep your foot out of it." Hey, this is easy, I think.
Nothing is really easy in Zambia, a beautiful country of open skies, vast plains, and exotic wildlife that's straight out of the pages of National Geographic but whose populace shares the ills that afflict so much of Africa, from poverty to HIV and malaria to limited educational opportunities. Yet the locals we encountered displayed only enthusiasm and curiosity for our unlikely caravan of Jeeps as we paraded through the settlement of Mfuwe and paused in small villages full of thatched-roof mud huts. A Westerner's pangs of guilt for driving a vehicle that costs more than most Zambians will earn in a lifetime are somewhat ameliorated by the knowledge that tour companies such as our hosts, Robin Pope Safaris, maintain good relations with residents and are major contributors to local economies. One of our local guides was astonished to learn that our preproduction, prototype test vehicles were destined for the crusher once they were shipped back to the States. "Leave them here," he offered, "and we'll make good use of them."
The Wrangler's newfound civility begins with a frame that's twice as stiff in bending and 50 percent stiffer torsionally compared with the 2006 model's, a wheelbase that's two inches longer, and a track that's 3.5 inches wider. Black plastic fender flares in place of body-color flares help disguise the fact that the Wrangler is nearly half a foot wider overall. The additional width results in a more surefooted vehicle with more room for shoulders and hips, plus space for the new, seat-mounted side air bags to deploy. The longer wheelbase allowed chief engineer Jim Issner to position the fuel tank ahead of the rear axle, a crash-regulation necessity, and it also translates to a better ride and a bit more rear-seat legroom. Overall cargo volume with the rear seats folded grows by thirteen cubic feet, to 56.5 cubic feet, and with the rear seats upright there's still 17.1 cubic feet, eight more than before. The vehicle's increased width didn't seem to be a liability when I threaded my way through some of the tighter off-roading situations, but miles of elephant grass and narrow two-tracks lined with gnarly trees and shrubs badly scratched the body sides of our Wranglers.
The five-passenger Wrangler Unlimited inhabits its own new market niche: the four-door convertible. (The 2004-06 long-wheelbase, two-door Wrangler heads into automotive history, ceding the Unlimited badge to the new four-door.) Its 116.0-inch wheelbase is up twenty inches over the standard model and thirteen inches over the previous Unlimited. There's 86.5 cubic feet of cargo space if the rear seats are folded and 46.0 cubic feet when they're in place. The rear seats aren't stretch-out roomy, but they made for a decent viewing perch for a five-hour safari drive.
Jeep wisely ditched the old four-cylinder engine, which was altogether inadequate for pavement use. The in-line six is gone, too, replaced by Chrysler's stalwart 3.8-liter V-6, here making 205 hp and 240 lb-ft of torque. Jeep purists might find it difficult to wrap their heads around the notion of a minivan engine, but the demise of the old 4.0-liter lump is hardly worth misty eyes. They'd do better to complain about the lack of an optional five-speed automatic (a four-speed is offered), but at least the manual has six forward speeds.
Jeep beefed up the Wrangler's solid front and rear axles, key components of its off-road arsenal, for the top-of-the-line Rubicon, which was the only trim level--of both long- and short-wheelbase vehicles--that we drove in Zambia. The suspension links, coil springs, and recirculating-ball steering of all models have been massaged, and now when you're in the new Wrangler, you feel like you're driving a real vehicle rather than piloting a small farm tractor. This effect is, unsurprisingly, magnified in the four-door.
Both two- and four-door Wranglers will exit Jeep's Toledo, Ohio, factory with either Command-Trac (X, Sahara) or Rock-Trac (Rubicon) four-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case, but the four-door Unlimited also will be offered with rear-wheel drive only, in an acknowledgement of its expected role as an urban lifestyle conveyance in the Sun Belt. The differences in ride comfort between short- and long-wheelbase Wranglers were obvious when our caravan bounced and jounced along a trail across the Lundu Plain. Since Zambia's rainy season had ended, the self-churning clay that had been worked up by the feet of elephants and hippos and cape buffalo had dried into an unforgiving moonscape that threatened to pitch occupants of the short-wheelbase Wranglers onto the piles of roadside dung, while those of us in the long-wheelbase models sipped ginger ale and changed CD tracks.
The Lundu Plain probably isn't recognized by the optional new navigation system, which has a virtual-breadcrumb feature for retracing one's off-road steps. It's just one of the Wrangler's nods to modernity. Others include power windows and locks, stability control, and a surprisingly good six-speaker stereo capable of storing 2500 songs in its hard drive.
The Wrangler embraces the new without forgetting what it is that makes a Wrangler a Wrangler. That's why you can still fold down the windshield, pull the pins out of the exposed hinges and remove the doors, and peel away all or part of the roof to expose yourself to the admiring world. The latter exercise is made easier by new top and door combinations such as the three-piece Freedom Top, which has separate, removable panels over the driver and the front-seat passenger. In the past, the Wrangler's hard top was an all-or-nothing, garage-clogging proposition.
The long, slow, but successful crawl through the narrow, rocky riverbed is finally over. Our patience is rewarded by a different riverbed, this one a meandering ribbon a hundred yards wide and carpeted with a thick layer of loose, dry sand. I've left some space between my Wrangler Unlimited and the rest of the caravan, so I feel like I'm all alone in the world's largest sandbox, and instead of aimlessly pushing a Tonka Toy, I'm at the wheel of one of the world's best off-roaders. I hit the accelerator, bounce over sandbars, careen from side to side, and head for the hippos.