Jeep Wrangler fans rejoiced with the arrival of the Unlimited model a couple of years ago. The longer-wheelbase model not only gave the Wrangler a better ride and better steering feel, it restored full functionality to the legs of back-seat passengers, who were until then folded like origami into the Wrangler's midget back bench.

Now the Unlimited is being reinvented in the mold of the new Wrangler. And for the first time it's a four-door - the first four-door Jeep Wrangler ever. Not only that, it's still a convertible, too, one capable of seating five, hauling their off-road gear, and fighting off the advances of the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Nissan Xterra, and HUMMER H3 upon the young and adventurous set.

Derived from the new two-door Wrangler on the Detroit auto show floor earlier this year, the four-door Unlimited shares its engine/transmission combos and available four-wheel-drive systems. The sole U.S. engine is a 205-hp, 3.8-liter V-6 with 240 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed manual transmission is standard, but a four-speed automatic transmission is available. Outside North America, Jeep will offer a diesel engine with a five-speed manual gearbox.

Two-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive models will be on the order sheet, of course. Midlevel X and Sahara models will offer a Command-Trac part-time 4WD system. The returning Rubicon edition gets a hardcore Rock-Trac system mated to Dana 44 axles front and rear for supreme off-road talent. An available active sway-bar system disconnects the front stabilizer bar for even better off-road articulation.

The Unlimited's body has been upgraded to deal with the dual sun and off-road fun missions. The frame's 100-percent stiffer, Jeep says, and the suspension has been improved for better ride. Steering remains of the recirculating-ball type. And for obstacles, the critical numbers are all in the right range: the Unlimited's approach angle is 44.4 degrees, breakover is 20.8 degrees, and the departure angle is 40.5 degrees, which Jeep says is best in class. The Wrangler will tow 3500 pounds.

Several safety features that Wranglers have been doing without now make it onto the spec list. Stability control with roll mitigation and anti-lock brakes are standard; side airbags are optional.

Now a mid-sizer officially, the Unlimited rides on a 116-inch wheelbase - 20.6 inches longer than the two-door's 95.4-inch wheelbase. The Unlimited sports nearly three times the cargo space of the two-door, and rear-seat passengers will be much happier with the extra pair of doors, not to mention 37.2 inches of legroom. The back bench splits 60/40 and folds flat to endow the Unlimited with 83 cubic feet of cargo hold - which is augmented by a lockable bin under the cargo area floor.

The niftiest feature of the new four-door Jeep is its open-air attitude. The standard Sunrider canvas top can be flipped back to expose just the seats, or all the way back for full convertible bliss. Full or half-doors can be ordered and the windshield folds down, too. The hardtop models get a three-piece Freedom Top, which will please Sean Hannity fans and folks who want more weatherproofing. The top allows the driver and front passenger to remove the vehicle's lid on their sides and store it in the vehicle. The large rear hard panel can't be stowed in the car, but it is removable.

The three-model range includes Unlimited X, Sahara , and Rubicon. Sixteen-, 17-, and 18-inch wheels will be offered, as will a 368-watt Alpine stereo with an MP3 player jack and an optional navigation system.

The Unlimited goes on sale in the fall.


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