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.