2004 Jeep Wrangler Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
The original, and still champion, off-road vehicle.
Jeep Wrangler remains an icon, a symbol of 'go anywhere' adventure. It's been that way for a long time. Although it has been re-engineered at least a half-dozen times in the intervening 60 years, the Wrangler is still as close as you can get to a direct descendent of the World War II-era Jeep.
That said, if you haven't driven a Jeep since your Army days, you might be surprised by how civilized this 'general-purpose utility vehicle' has become. All but the most basic model now come with a six-cylinder engine. A four-speed automatic transmission is available on all models, eliminating the notoriously outdated three-speed automatic that Jeep buyers suffered with for years. You can order four-wheel disc brakes for much better stopping ability. The side mirrors have been massaged for less wind noise and a better view over your shoulder. And many convenience features are available.
This isn't the most practical everyday vehicle, however, and may not be the best choice for someone who likes it simply because it's cute. (And it is cute.) Getting in and out is awkward due to its ground clearance. The interior is spartan. The ride quality is rough by today's standards, though many young people won't mind that. And it doesn't handle very well, so care should be excercised, particularly in the rain.
The Wrangler is designed primarily for performance off the road. For extreme off-roading, Jeep offers the Wrangler Rubicon. Jeep looked at the aftermarket modifications off-road enthusiasts were making to their Jeeps, and engineered those same features into a turn-key vehicle you can buy (and finance) right off the showroom floor. Built along Jeep's 'Go anywhere, do anything' design philosophy, the Rubicon is a 4x4 gem. We found it performed admirably on Hell's Revenge, Cliff Hanger, and other challenging trails around Moab, Utah. Front and rear Dana Model 44 axles with locking differentials, and a transfer case with a stump-pulling 4:1 low-range give the 'Ruby' trail capabilities far beyond those of the average SUV.
Five models of the Jeep Wrangler are available for 2004: SE ($16,270); X ($19,335); Sport ($21,320); Sahara ($24,910); and Rubicon ($25,085).
SE comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual gearbox; a four-speed automatic, all-new last year, is optional. The SE is a basic machine. It comes with a padded roll bar, steel half-doors with side curtains, tilt steering column, a mini-console with cupholders, skid plates for the fuel tank and transfer case, gas-charged shock absorbers and P215/75R15 Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tires. But cloth upholstery, the rear seat, rear carpeting, any radio, and even wind-up windows, are extra-cost options. Options include air conditioning, cruise control, and a hard top.
The other Wrangler models (the X, Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon) come with a much more powerful 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine. A heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed automatic is optional.
Wrangler X comes with cloth upholstery, a fold-down rear seat, full carpeting (covering the rear seat area, cargo area and wheel housings), and a four-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with a digital clock.
Sport adds full metal doors with wind-up windows, a full-length floor console, courtesy and underhood lights, and other features. Options expand at the Sport level, also, and include fog lamps, side steps, a seven-speaker stereo, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror. And you can order the half-doors and side curtains, if that's what you prefer.
Sahara comes loaded with the high-zoot seven-speaker stereo, premium cloth on the seats, air conditioning, cruise control, leather-wrapped steering wheel, high-pressure gas shocks, monster tires (30x9.5xR15) on aluminum wheels, side steps, body-color fender flares (instead of black), and other features.
Rubicon comes equipped with diamond-plate sill guards, beefier front and rear axles (two Dana 44's, rather than the Dana 30 and 35 used in the front and rear, respectively, of other Wranglers), a heavy-duty transfer case with an ultra-low 4:1 ratio, driver-actuated locking differentials, a special off-road suspension and four-wheel-disc brakes. Also standard are 31-inch tall LT245/75 tires on 16-inch aluminum wheels. Despite its higher price, the Rubicon is not as luxuriously outfitted as the Sahara. Air conditioning and cruise control are optional, for example. So are roll-up windows. For the most part, Rubicon is comparable to the Sport for comfort and convenience equipment.
All models in the lineup include a fold-down windshield, removable doors and top, and a weatherproof interior. Drivers may choose the standard soft top, the extra-cost steel hard top, or a package that includes both, in matching colors. The hard top comes with roll-up windows, a rear wiper-washer and rear defroster.
Jeep Wrangler is an icon, one of the most widely recognized vehicles in the world. Its round headlights, jailhouse grille, and square-edged fenders all hark back to the 1940 original.
Bumpers are black on all models. Fender flares are black also, except on Sahara, where they are body color. For 2004, Sahara sports a new spare tire cover with the Sahara logo.
Rubicon features premium black fender flares and other special features to distinguish it from its fellow Wranglers. A 22-inch Rubicon nameplate is emblazoned on either side of the hood. Heavy-gauge diamond-plate sill guards are bolted to the body sides to protect the rocker panels from damage and dings from rocks and stumps in the backcountry. Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires are mounted on 16-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels with a dished face to protect them from debris and obstacles. Generous ground clearance helps the Rubicon traverse the trail.
One of the biggest decisions when buying a Wrangler is selecting the top. Purists prefer the soft top, a high-quality piece of equipment that can be configured according to the weather. Folding the top down takes only a third of the time it took before the top was redesigned for 2001. If a screwdriver is handy, the windshield can be flipped down for breezy, low-speed touring in the backcountry.
The optional hard top ($920) is more practical and offers better protection from weather and theives. The hard top comes with full-height doors and roll-up windows. Rearward visibility is better, and further aided by the rear-window defroster, wiper and washer. Wind noise is greatly reduced also. The hard top can be removed, though we haven't tried.
For those who want the best of both worlds, Jeep offers a package that includes both the hard top and soft top, in matching colors ($1,560). Either top is far easier to remove or install than those of pre-2001 models and provides much better sealing from the elements.
The exterior mirrors are made of plastic, which Jeep engineers say holds up better than metal when going off-road.
Getting into a Jeep Wrangler requires a tall step up. (Running are not available as they'd be vulnerable on rough trails.) Once inside, the cabin is spartan but highly functional.
The new seats and fabrics that appeared last year make it more comfortable. The new front seat offers 20 additional millimeters of rearward travel, allowing taller drivers to sit a more comfortable distance from the steering wheel. Also new last year, a more easily removable fold-and-tumble rear seat is equipped with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and upper Tethers for CHildren) system for mounting child safety seats directly to the structure of the seat. Also, the seatbacks are higher, which improve safety for taller people. It's a long reach to access gear stowed in the rear seats, so don't attempt it while driving.
A dark gray or khaki interior, four-spoke steering wheel and padded sport bar give the Wrangler its unmistakably utilitarian look, while a simple dash with a 12-volt power outlet adds functionality. On all models, the interior is weatherproofed, and can be cleaned with a hose, thanks to drain plugs in the floor.
The Wrangler remains miles away from luxurious. Recent improvements, however, make the interior more comfortable than it used to be. Softer trim pieces inside offer improved head protection. An electrochromic rearview mirror with map lights and compass display (standard on Sahara, optional on Sport and Rubicon) should help keep you on the intended route. The mirror automatically dims when headlights shine on it; this bit of luxury technology may sound out of place in a Wrangler, but it's an important feature when the top is off. Radio controls are located in the center stack. Corner pods located just behind both B-pillars house interior lamps, providing theater lighting.
Research firm J.D. Power and Associates gave the Wrangler high scores for the quality of its interior features (such as the seats, windshield wipers, door locks, heater, air conditioner, and stereo system), and those features have only gotten better in the three years since then.
Few vehicles can match the Jeep Wrangler off road and certainly none in this price range. Driving a Wrangler every day on the road, however, requires some concessions.
The tall tires and off-road suspension, which add capability in the backcountry, become a liability around town. This is particularly true of the Rubicon. The ride is harsh and choppy. On the plus side, however, is a torque-sensing limited-slip feature on the rear axle for better traction on the road.
We sampled both the smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission and the well-geared five-speed manual, and both match up well to the power and torque curves of the inline six-cylinder engine that comes on most models.
Jeep's inline-6 produces ample power in all conditions. It's rated at 190 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque. The inline-6 gives up some fuel economy to the inline-4 around town, but gets 18 mpg on the highway vs. 20 mpg for the manual-shift four-cylinder.
The Wrangler SE with the four-cylinder engine is an appealing vehicle. It does not offer much power and we wouldn't want to drive all the way across the U.S. in one, but we still like it. There's something poetic about its simplicity, right down to the skinny tires. The low-cut doors and soft top are cool. And the basic SE is more comfortable than the pre-2003 model. The low price is attractive, assuming you can resist adding a lot of options. The SE's 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine is rated 147 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 165 pounds-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. That's 25 percent more horsepower and 18 percent more torque than the 2.5-liter four-cylinder that Jeep used through 2002. The new engine works well with the standard five-speed gearbox, a heavy-duty unit with a synchronized reverse gear and a single-rail shift system for good shift quality in cold weather. A four-speed automatic, all-new last year, is also available. Still, the SE does not offer thrilling acceleration. If you don't want a rear seat, don't mind the easy-to-clean vinyl upholstery, and don't feel the need for speed, then the SE is a good vehicle for fishing, hunting, exploring. Having one attached to the back of your motor home comes in handy when tooling around small towns in the American West.
The Rubicon model offers the ultimate in off-road capability. The Rubicon is designed to reflect the original vision realized in 1940, when the Jeep was invented as the world's first lightweight, go-anywhere, four-wheel-drive utility vehicle. This specialty model was named for the Class 10 Rubicon Trail on the California-Nevada border, a location that has been part of Jeep's evaluation for all its vehicles. Jeep re-created sections of the famed Rubicon Trail at its proving grounds in Michigan to test the durability and capabilities of its newest offering.
We've found the Wrangler Rubicon to perform flawlessly in the rough and rugged. It boasts a cadre of 4WD technology that includes a transfer case designed with a 4.0:1 low range (the low ratio in the standard transfer case is 2.72:1), which delivers more torque at the slow speeds required for off-road driving. Locking differentials, actuated when the driver presses a switch on the dash, prevent power from being directed away from the tires with the best grip. Dana Model 44 axles, considered by enthusiasts to be the cream of the crop, come standard on the Rubicon and are strong enough to handle all manner of off-road conditions.
Boasting Big Foot stature in a mini footprint, the Rubicon wears aggressive Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires that help it achieve 10.2 inches of ground clearance on a short wheelbase (93.4 inches). That makes it a nimble vehicle in the backcountry. Added to that are laudable approach (45.1 degrees), departure (34.4 degrees), and ramp breakover (25.8 degrees) angles of all Wranglers. This means you can drive up, down and over steep grades, tall boulders and fallen logs with greater ea.
Jeep Wrangler is a classic symbol of summer cruising and off-road rambling. The Wrangler is the icon of the Jeep brand, and there are no direct competitors. As Jeep says, there's only one.
Jeep calls the 2004 Wrangler Rubicon the ultimate off-road rig. The Rubicon is the long-awaited answer to enthusiasts' prayers, as capable as some modified rock-crawlers, but available right off the showroom floor.
Other versions of the Wrangler are all still legitimate sport utility vehicles; in fact, these archetype SUV's may not easily take to the highway, but they will happily take drivers as far down the trail as they want to go.
Jeep Wrangler SE ($16,270); X ($19,335); Sport ($21,320); Sahara ($24,910); Rubicon ($25,085).
Options As Tested
air conditioning ($895).
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon ($25,085).
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