2007 Jeep Wrangler

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.

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