2009 Jeep Wrangler Expert Review:Autoblog
The Jeep Wrangler is designed to be one of the most capable vehicles on the planet. It can climb a 45-degree grade, tread through 30 inches of water and crawl down a rock-filled hillside – all with the top down and the doors off. Its shape hasn't changed much over the years, primarily because Jeep owners like the way the Wrangler looks and its aesthetic exists to support this rugged off-roader's functionality.
The Wrangler has stood the test of time, but an influx of capable and comfortable SUVs meant that the tried-and-true Jeep was in need of an update. To appeal to Wrangler enthusiasts who need more interior flexibility, Chrysler finally decided to pull the trigger on a four-door model. To the surprise of nobody, the Wrangler Unlimited has been one of the few hits from Chrysler in recent years, at one point prompting a dealer waiting list for the longest-running Jeep. We wanted to try the four-door Jeep for ourselves, so we welcomed a Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon into our garage for a week-long run.
All photos Copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
Our Deep Water Blue Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4X4 carried a price tag of $35,165. Opting for the Rubicon will add several thousand dollars to the base four-door's sticker, but you get all the standard equipment necessary to become a bona-fide Rock Star. The only major addition to our tester was DVD navigation, which came in at a reasonably-priced (for an in-dash unit) $1,275.
The beauty of the four-door Wrangler Unlimited is that it still packs the rugged looks of the iconic two-door, but in stretched form. As long-time admirers, we enjoy the Wrangler's looks, especially sans roof, and after driving it in its natural habitat (off the beaten path), the Wrangler's capabilities never ceased to amaze. But what we didn't know was what life would be like with a Wrangler as our daily driver.
The second set of doors came in handy and the added storage space was more than welcome. Chrysler's navigation is also simple to use and very adept at getting the driver from point A to point B. From there, life with the Wrangler Unlimited can be a Protestant affair. The seats feel like you're sitting on frozen foam, the head rest is reminiscent of a concrete pillow, the dashboard is cobbled together from Fisher Price plastic, and the ride appeals to the most masochistic among us. So why does this vehicle have so many ardent fans? Well, it really is a Jeep thing, and not everybody understands.
To get a sense of why the Wrangler has such a die-hard following, it's important to look at the vehicle's war-time roots. The Wrangler's foundation was laid with the Willy's Jeep in WWII. The original Jeep performed so well in European operations that Generals were praising it as one reason the Allied forces won the war. Soldiers, who grew to love their metal mules, were clamoring to have one in their civilian driveways. Since then, the Wrangler name has been synonymous with the freedom to drive anywhere and everywhere, with or without roads.
After a couple less than comfortable days with the Wrangler Unlimited, this blogger felt compelled to complain to the Autoblog staff. Fellow scribe Jeremy Korzeniewski implored me to take the Rubicon off-road and said the experience would change my mind. Unfortunately, I had pictures to take and posts to write, so the fun would have to wait until the weekend. Then it happened. On the fourth day with the Wrangler Unlimited, the skies opened up and it began to snow. Two inches in about an hour, and right in time for the morning commute. In most vehicles, the ride would have been hell. In the Rubicon, snow is nothing but an appetizer.
The massive, knobby 32-inch tires, which stood for nothing more than added road noise the day before, were now chewing up powder and spitting it out onto less capable transportation. Before long I was aiming for snow squals and seeking the slightest hint of a grade... wearing a dress shirt and slacks, with my laptop and bag lunch in the back.
That night we headed straight for some open land with a "take all the dirt you want" sign posted at the entrance. Hills, dips, mud, ice and snow were all there to enjoy, and enjoy we did. For 45 minutes, the Jeep took everything thrown at it. Not only was the Rubicon free of complaint, but it actually seemed happy, and the driver's seat somehow felt more comfortable. This is what Jeep owners are on about.
Back on the pavement, the Wrangler is less than comfortable and even worse. Its 3.8-liter V6 is cursed with being both anemic and fuel-thirsty. A zero to 60 time in less than ten seconds would have to be run downhill, and at 17.4 mpg, the Wrangler achieves full-sized SUV fuel economy. The four-speed automatic transmission doesn't help in the Jeep's failed quest to hit 20 mpg on the highway and the Wrangler Unlimited can barely get out of its own way on dry pavement. When driving a $35,000 vehicle, most expect far better, but the powertrain isn't where Wrangler development dollars reside.
It's safe to say Chrysler didn't spend an inordinate amount of development dollars trying to pamper owners, but Jeep engineers made sure the four-door Wrangler was every bit as capable as its two-door sibling. When it comes to rock climbing tech, the Rubicon has got the goods. With a 44.4-degree approach, a 40.5-degree departure angle, and 10.5 inches of ground clearance, few things are an obstruction. The Wrangler's Rock-Trac 4WD system includes Tru-Lok front and rear lockers and a 4:1 gear ratio in low providing purposeful grip and incredible torque when the need arises. Further traction is provided by electronically locking front and rear differentials that balance speed between the left and right wheels. The flip of a switch on the instrument panel can lock the the front, rear axle or both, and you can disengage the sway bar while going under 18 mph in 4WD low, giving you more flexibility to climb and crawl to your heart's content.
The classic Jeep bumper sticker reads "It's a Jeep thing, you wouldn't understand." We may not fully comprehend the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, but we've gained a whole new respect for the most capable vehicle in the Jeep lineup. Its tough-guy looks, fat tires and removable top look like a lot of fun, and when you're away from pavement, it really is.
We get that the Wrangler is supposed to be rugged, and we understand that the Rubicon's off-road talents mean that on-road comfort gets compromised, but we'd like a more inviting cabin. The Wrangler doesn't need leather seats or soft-touch materials, but comfortable seats, a better arm rest and more visual appeal than the inside of a tool box shouldn't be too much to ask. If you're the outdoor adventure type who just happens to have a couple kids, though, the Wrangler Unlimited may be the answer to your prayers.
All photos Copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.
Last year, we compared the dirtside manners of the Hummer H2 and Toyota Land Cruiser. Both trucks did everything we asked of them, but at the end of the excursion we were left with another question begging to be answered: could the Hummer H3T stand up to the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon? These cruiserweights live on a fatter part of the buying curve, and any time a Jeep is summoned to the ring, the other vehicle is inevitably the challenger. Even though the H3T is still relatively new to the world, it came time to find out if it was ready to stand up and fight for its place. Follow the jump to see how it held up.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
In one corner, we have the 2009 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited and in the other, the 2009 Hummer H3T fitted with the Adventure Package that adds such off-road accoutrement as 33-inch tires and a locking front differential. Get the two together for stats and weigh-in, and this is what you come up with:
|Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon||Hummer H3T w/ Adventure Package|
|Engine||3.8-liter V6||3.7-liter inline-five|
|Transmission||Four-speed Automatic||Five-speed manual|
|Peak HP @ RPM||202 hp @ 5,200 RPM
||239 hp @ 5,800 RPM
|Peak Torque @ Rpm||237 lb-ft @ 4,000 RPM
||241 lb-ft @ 4,600 RPM
|EPA Mileage (city/hwy)||15/19 mpg
|Curb Weight||4,442 pounds||4,911 pounds|
|Length||184.4 inches||212.7 inches|
|Width||82.8 inches||85.1 inches|
|Wheelbase||116 inches||134.3 inches|
|Ground Clearance||10.1 inches||10.2 inches|
|Approach||44.4 degrees||38.7 degrees|
|Breakover||20.8 degrees||20.2 degrees|
|Departure||40.5 degrees||30.6 degrees|
|Suspension||Solid axle with locating arms,
coil springs, track/stabilizer bars,
gas-charged monotube shocks
|(Front) Independent SLA torsion bars,
gas-charged monotube shocks,
tubular stabilizer bar, (Rear) multi-leaf
semi-elliptic dual-stage leaf spring,
gas-charged monotube shocks, stabilizer bar
|Additional||Electronic sway bar disconnect,
front and rear locking differentials,
Dana 44 Heavy Duty front and rear axles,
4.10:1 low, 3,500-lb max tow rating
|Locking front and rear differentials,
4.03:1 low, 4,400-lb max tow rating,
1,090-lb bed payload capacity
The H3T is materially more vehicle, and it shows everywhere. You get more room inside, a better ride, and more power, but you lose out on things like approach and departure angles due to the Hummer's overhangs. Would it matter? We thought it time to find out.
But first we'd have a snoop around the two trucks. The Rubicon's styling gives only the merest nod to the word "design" – it's two rectangles with fender flares and bumpers. And for that, we like it. As with most Porsche products, the Jeep's exterior styling hasn't changed much over the last few decades – form follows function, and to good effect. If someone pulled up in a Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon and asked if you wanted to go for a bite, they might mean heading to the local Ruby Tuesday's or driving to the Pampas to slay some Argentine beef. The Rubicon, especially with a liberal coat of mud, is just that kind of contraption.
However, the rest of the Wrangler doesn't venture far beyond that level of nuance. In our previous review, we noted the Rubicon's asceticism and called it out for being "a Protestant affair." That's a fair description at best and, depending on how long you drive or where you're sitting, you might replace that with "penitent."
The original Willys Jeep was made in response to World War II. The Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited appears to have been made in preparation for World War III. Assuming that such a conflict transports us back to a quasi Stone Age, here is a quasi Stone Age vehicle with which to tackle that retro future. There is nothing wrong with it – it's just radically basic. Even though the seats were wrapped in cloth, the interior screamed "Clean me with a hose," something the Rubi's owners would be all too happy to oblige.
Get on the move and you'll discover, as one of our fellow drivers remarked, "Every road is bumpy in the Rubicon." The short-ish wheelbase, high ride height, and a suspension tuned for Battlefield Earth will have you experiencing more good vibrations than you ever wanted. And that's if you're sitting in the front seat. If you're unlucky enough to be banished to the rear bench, with its Lilliputian bolsters and crippling lack of leg room, the encounter could give you PTSD and violent flashbacks every time someone mutters the word "Rubicon."
Yet the Rubicon knows its chosen habitat, and it knows its customers: Jeep-o-philes want a vehicle capable of doing the beat in town and capable of going anywhere off-road. Make no mistake: this is that truck.
The H3T is not merely a horse of another color – it's an entirely different breed of equine. Hummer also knows its customers: They want to go anywhere and will pay a little more to get a little more. The nearly 500-pound weight difference doesn't just come down to footprints: there's a great deal more finish in the cabin: a thick, leather-wrapped steering wheel, more tactile controls, a six-disc CD changer, rear view camera, and a proper rear bench with great seating for two and just enough for three. And the ride is actually pleasant.
The H3T's giant 33-inch rubber certainly doesn't hurt, but the extra inch over the Jeep's BFGs isn't the only thing responsible for its vastly smoother road manners. Heavier and with a longer wheelbase, the H3T is planted where the Rubicon is petulant, and the extra cabin materials make for a more serene experience when ambling along at speed.
Unfortunately, getting up to those speeds is far less pleasurable. While the H3T has no issues gobbling up flat expanses, the inline-five needs a walker and a case of Red Bull when the time comes to get uphill quickly. Inclined roads suck the gumption out of the H3T and while downshifting is the only solution, when you finally reach peak output, the cabin fills with the din of internal combustion exertion. This truck will go, but it won't be quiet about it.
The complete package is wrapped in a look that's unmistakably Hummer. In a word: chunk. Lots of it. And while we enjoy the H3T's looks, at least two of our companions agree that although it's attractive, they couldn't deal with the badge. "I like it and I could even see having one," our grizzled bunkmate told us, "except... it's a Hummer."
The key, then, was to get both trucks to the kind of lonely, boulder-strewn playing field where brand judgments are dropped and the only measure of worth is arriving at the destination in one piece. Our chosen arena was the seven-rated, 23.5-mile Pleasant Loop Canyon Trail in the Panamint Range, adjacent to Death Valley. It peaks at 7,400 feet, with a trailhead of 300 feet. Between those two checkpoints were rocks, ruts, side slopes, trenches, a narrow and vertiginous bridge made of logs, and mud. Lots and lots of mud.
First-up: the Wrangler. Jeep absolutely owns this metier – lords over it – and the experience is as basic as the SUV itself, but shorn of its rough edges. Or rather, you don't notice them because – let's face it – you're crashing over everything.
Things getting a little tough? Put it in low and let it go. Things getting a lot tough? Hit one or both buttons and lock the diffs. Need – or just want – a little bit of sway? Press the buttons to release the bars and live a little. We wouldn't have minded a more substantial steering wheel, but the wheels don't need ham-fisted guidance if you know what you're doing.
Part of the Rubicon's basic-ness is its engine bay, where the V6 has so much room there's a good view of the ground underneath. While this was nifty in The Good Old Days, it wasn't so nifty when mud flew up and settled unevenly on the fan, causing the propellers to elicit a wobbling racket that made little sense to deal with until we got out of the mud... which took a while. Nothing a shroud couldn't fix, but we were surprised it wasn't included in the standard packaging.
Nevertheless, it was a quintessential Jeep experience. The Jeep asks no questions; it only delivers answers, simply saying, "Sure, I'll do it." The Wrangler is the ultimate no frills off-roading device, allowing you to feel what you're doing intimately and unabashedly.
The experience in the H3T in many ways mirrored that of the H2 in our previous comparo. The H2 was called "The off-roader for idiots" because all that's required is to point and press the gas. Rocks appeared to turn to jelly beneath it, so you didn't feel much in the process.
The H3T didn't quite have the juggernaut factor, but it did get plaudits from all its occupants for being a markedly different beast than the Jeep. Specifically, it was capable and comfortable. Nice cabin, big plush seats, slightly bigger wheels, larger, firmer stance and plenty of suspension travel meant a little less time thinking about what you were doing, a little more time enjoying what you were doing.
But the Hummer's slightly wider track could prove to be its undoing. Approaching a sign that warned "narrow bridge, tight turns" the route book warned that the coming section was "not recommended for extra long or wide vehicles." Because the ascending switchback was so thin, if you committed to going up, it was going to be a hellacious experience getting back down if you needed to back out.
Naturally, we went up.
Who knew 2.3 inches – the difference in width between the Jeep and the Hummer – could mean so much? The road had been blown out decades ago, and what remained wasn't generous. The path and the bridge predated the birth of the consumer-grade Hummer and the widebody SUV, proving that the log book was both up-to-date and wasn't lying about the narrow passageway. Getting across the bridge and the rest of the trail, then around a tight, right-hand, off-camber turn that leaned to the left was a matter of tucking one's mirrors, thinking of nothing but following the spotter's instructions, and tres doucement on the throttle.
The Hummer's width, though, would play the opposite way when we got to rutted sections. While the Jeep's passengers leaned into it, the H3T was wide enough to stay level, straddling the dips in the road. Does that make a difference? By itself, not really. It's just another situation where you can be slightly more comfortable and it adds up over a full day on the trail.
And speaking of a full day...
Having allotted the recommended 6.5 hours to cover the course and taken a short lunch to ensure we wouldn't be digging in the dark should a snafus arise, we ended up getting done well ahead of time and without, to our mind, ever having really exercised the vehicles. We aren't sure if the trail was rated before regular four-wheel drives got this good, or if these two trucks really are just this competent. But the ending came too soon, before we even realized we'd covered the thrilling bits.
However, that's not to say it was boring. There were plenty of moments where the boulder soup was thick enough to require a spotter, the ascent elicited full extension from both vehicles' suspensions numerous times and the slip-n-slide mud sections, including an almost tropical set in a cut on the descent, were equal parts thrills and "Pay attention!"
All of which is to say that just because we wanted more doesn't mean these SUVs didn't give us plenty. For both the Jeep and Hummer, the question isn't, "Can they do it?" It's "How do you want to do it?" They both got in the ring, fought the whole fight, and didn't need more than a sponge off if asked to do it again. The overhang issue never came up and we were never left wanting for more.
So, why would you buy the Jeep? You want something that will go anywhere, that will do it simply, and that will be easy to fix. You might want to rock crawl and that's where the two-door Wrangler comes in. For some, you want something that doesn't say Hummer on it. But you'd be mistaken if you're buying a Jeep because you think it's better out of the box than the Hummer.
Why would you buy the Hummer H3T? That's like asking "Why would you want to be able to go anywhere off-road and be comfortable?" And after performing a variety of feats in the mountains, the desert, the streets, and in the Baja 500, all we can say is, these Hummers have the goods.
However, we're not about to declare it the outright winner. Depending on what you require from your 4x4, size could matter. But the H3T is just as good as its Pentastar foe on the trails and even better on terra firma. And if WWIII does come around, we're going to be looking for a combination of go-anywhere capability and comfort when the zombies finally attack.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Jonathon Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
The quintessential off-road vehicle.
Few vehicles are better off-road than a Jeep Wrangler. This is the one that started it all. Traceable to the original Jeep, the Wrangler is the very symbol of off-road capability.
The Wrangler was redesigned for the 2007 model year. At the same time, the four-door Wrangler Unlimited was added to the lineup. The four-door doesn't change the character of the Wrangler but makes it easier to own and more practical for many. It's much more comfortable and convenient, offering more cargo and rear-seat passenger space.
Still, the traditional two-door Wrangler has its charms. We enjoy all of them, including the entry models with skinny tires.
The 2009 Wrangler has only minor changes over the previous year, including a couple of new colors and some minor interior storage features. Hill Start Assist, which makes it easier to get moving from rest while heading uphill, is standard equipment, and the optional Trailer Tow Group includes Trailer Sway control, which monitors vehicle movement relative to the driver's intended path and initiates the activation of the electronic stability control if the trailer begins to sway to an excessive degree.
The Wrangler is available in a very wide range of models and trim levels and with an extensive array of optional equipment and features. This makes the possible number of combinations much more than we can cover here. To have the most complete information on the Wrangler that would best suit your purposes, you would do well to visit your local Jeep dealer.
All Wranglers have a 3.8-liter V6 engine; there is no four-cylinder engine available. The standard six-speed manual fits the Wrangler's personality, but the optional four-speed automatic is more convenient. We can't imagine getting a Wrangler without the highly capable four-wheel-drive, a part-time system that includes low-range gearing, but there are two-wheel-drive Unlimited models available.
The 2009 Jeep Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited are offered in Wrangler X, Sahara and Rubicon trim. In all versions, the 3.8-liter V6 engine develops 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. Four-wheel disc brakes with ABS are standard. A four-speed automatic transmission is optional ($825).
All two-door models come with four-wheel drive (4WD). The Unlimited X and Unlimited Sahara are available with rear-wheel drive (2WD) or 4WD. Rubicon models come standard with four-wheel drive.
The Wrangler X ($20,460) comes with the basic soft top, vinyl upholstery, center console, theft deterrent system, folding rear seat, locking glove box, 12-volt auxiliary power outlet, tilt steering wheel, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo, skid plates to protect the transfer case and fuel tank, and P225/75R16 all-terrain tires on steel wheels. Options for the Wrangler X include air conditioning ($895), a Black Appearance Group ($620), a Chrome Edition Group ($920), and a 3.73:1 axle ratio ($50) instead of the standard ratio of 3.21.1. The Wrangler X S trim level ($23,445) adds P255/75R17 tires on alloy wheels, and its options include a limited-slip differential ($295), the Dual Top Group ($1,695), Sirius Satellite Radio ( $195), tubular side steps ($395), Infinity sound system ($395), front seat-mounted side airbags ($490), tinted windows ($300), the Power Convenience Group (power windows, power door locks, and remote keyless entry; $585), an AM/FM six-disc in-dash DVD/MP3 player ($350), and trailer towing ($320). Wrangler Sahara ($26,045) adds a height-adjustable driver's seat, front-seat map pockets, monotube shock absorbers, stain-repellant fabric, air conditioning, Infinity sound system, and P255/70 R18 tires on machined alloy rims. Options for the Sahara include remote start ($185), and the Uconnect navigation system ($1,275).
Wrangler Rubicon ($28,565) is the model for serious off-roading. To the Sahara, it adds an electronic-disconnecting front anti-roll bar, the Rock-Trac heavy-duty transfer case, a heavy-duty front axle, Tru-Lok electronic locking front and rear differentials, a 4:10 axle ratio, rock rails and other equipment intended for the serious off-roader. The Rubicon is also available with the same options as the other models.
The four-door Unlimited X has either 2WD ($22,815) or 4WD ($23,990). Standard equipment includes all that the two-door X offers, plus cloth upholstery, height-adjustable driver's seat, split-folding rear seat, Sunrider soft top, heavier-duty Dana 44 rear axle, 21.6-gallon fuel tank, and air conditioning. It offers all the options as the two-door X and two-door Sahara.
The Unlimited Sahara 2WD ($27,520) and 4WD ($28,695) are equipped like the two-door Sahara, except power door locks, power windows and remote keyless entry are standard.
The Unlimited Rubicon ($31,840) might be considered the ultimate family 4X4, and it will carry up to five people where any Land Rover or Hummer can go, for about half the price.
Safety features that come standard include dual front airbags, tire-pressure monitor, anti-lock brakes, traction control, electronic stability control with rollover mitigation. Seat-mounted front side airbags for torso protection are optional.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most widely recognizable vehicles in the world. The latest generation looks quite similar to the previous version, which ended production with the 2006 model year. Most important, Wranglers have always had a distinct family resemblance to the original Jeep of World War II fame.
Up front you'll find the classic round headlamps, Jeep's seven-slot grille, and a front bumper with integrated fog lamps. The upright fold-down windshield is slightly curved for better aerodynamics and reduced wind noise.
Along the sides, all Wranglers have assist steps under the doors to make climbing in easier, and fender flares that are bolted on, so they can be easily taken off for repair or replacement.
The standard soft top is relatively easy to remove and install. The Sunrider soft top slides back half way, like a huge sunroof over the front seats. The optional three-piece modular hardtop (Freedom Top) has two front panels that easily pop on and off like a T-top, and can be stored behind the rear seat. The third panel over the rear seat can be removed separately and stored in the garage. The Freedom Top yields a total of six open-air possibilities.
Under the body, there's a boxed frame with seven crossmembers. Wide-spaced frame rails cradle the fuel tank between the wheels. Three skid plates protect the fuel tank, transfer case and automatic transmission oil pan.
Wranglers have traditionally been known as cramped inside. The current Jeep Wrangler two-door is a lot roomier inside than pre-2007 models, thanks to its increased width. The comfortable high-back front seats offer more shoulder and hip room than previous-generation models, and the removable rear seat provides more shoulder, hip and leg room for each of the two passengers. There's also more space behind the rear seat, which folds to provide nearly twice the cargo capacity as before.
The larger Unlimited offers more than 80 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded flat. The headrests flip back, so they don't need to be removed, making it easy to switch between cargo and rear-seat-passenger modes. In the rear seat, the Unlimited offers 1.6 more inches of leg room and a whopping 12 inches more hip room than two-door models. That huge difference is because, in the two-door model, the rear passengers sit directly over the axle and between the wheel wells; in the Unlimited, the axle is located behind the passengers. That also greatly improves the ride for rear-seat riders in the Unlimited.
The layout of the clean instrument panel is excellent, against a background of dull (neither flat nor gloss) plastic. The instruments, including the optional compass and temperature gauges, are easy to read, and the controls are simple. The solid square buttons look good and are easy to understand and operate. There's a nice four-spoke steering wheel, with a short cruise-control stalk that's out of the way on the right side. The materials are made of sturdy plastic that works well in the utilitarian Wrangler.
The optional 368-watt Infinity sound system comes with seven speakers, including a subwoofer. That's a lot of speakers for a Jeep, but we think this is a good thing. It comes with Sirius satellite radio, good for keeping up with the news when out in the boonies. Located under the sound system controls are big climate-control knobs, with buttons for available power windows above that.
Between the seats are the shift lever, a short four-wheel-drive lever, two cupholders, emergency brake handle, and a console that's wide and deep, if not long. The locking glove box is pretty big and there's a convenient grab handle above it. This is a Jeep, after all, so the grab handle will be used on bouncy roads – or where there are no roads at all.
The modular Freedom Top for the Unlimited features sections that easily lift off and can be stored behind the rear seat. The larger section over the rear seat can also be removed but can't be stored in the vehicle; you'll have to leave it at home. We found storing the two roof panels eliminates most of the cargo space. Cargo space is not unlimited in the Unlimited. We couldn't fit four carry-on-sized bags behind the rear seat. And watch out for the rear glass on the Freedom Top; it rises on its own when opened, and will whack you on the chin (or forehead, or nose) if you forget to step back.
If you've never owned or driven a Wrangler, you might think it's twitchy and choppy. But it's a relative thing. Compared to earlier versions, the current model feels like a luxury liner.
Compared to the last-generation Wrangler, the wheelbase is longer and the front and rear tracks are wider, the chassis has been stiffened and the suspension redesigned. All these things yield significant improvements in the ride and handling, but still, on city streets, the Wrangler is pretty bouncy, and out on the freeway it can feel squiggly over pavement changes. On rougher surfaces the driver needs to pay attention to keep the Wrangler going in a straight line.
That said, we drove the Wrangler at speeds up to 85 miles per hour on the open freeway and, when the pavement was smooth, it was stable and surprisingly quiet. If the road was even slightly rough, the ride would quickly deteriorate.
However, it's important to note that our Sahara had the 18-inch wheels with on/off-road tires and high-pressure gas-charged shock absorbers. The Wrangler X uses 16-inch tires, also on/off-road, but the shocks are low-pressure, so that combination might offer a slightly smoother ride.
The 3.8-liter V6 engine has overhead valves and makes 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. Acceleration is good, but on those long uphill 75-mph grades between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe, the automatic transmission kept kicking down out of the fourth-gear overdrive, until we turned the overdrive off. More torque at lower rpm might have prevented this. We didn't have the opportunity to test the standard six-speed manual transmission, but we're inclined to suggest it might be more compatible with the Jeep than this four-speed automatic.
The Wrangler Unlimited would have been a different animal on this road. The ride is significantly smoother and the handling more stable, thanks to a wheelbase that's 20.6 inches longer. The Unlimited also weighs more, so the engine will work a bit harder. However, all 4WD Wranglers are EPA-rated at 15 city and 19 highway miles per gallon.
When we drove the Unlimited around Lake Tahoe, there were a lot of other Jeeps on the road, and our four-door never failed to turn heads. At the view points, Jeep owners would ogle and marvel, and many of them expressed a strong interest in having a Jeep with four doors.
We were also behind the wheel of an Unlimited with the six-speed manual transmission on the rugged Rubicon Trail, where its capability was downright dazzling. In low range and first gear on the most challenging sections, we drove without using our feet; merely steering over daunting obstacles and letting the vehicle do the rest. The two-door Wrangler should be even more capable.
The only limitation with the Unlimited was its turning radius of 41.2 feet versus 34.9 feet with the two-door. Six feet is a big difference. In San Francisco, we used the two-door's tight turning radius to make a U-turn in the middle of a street to snatch a parking space on the other side.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most capable off-road vehicles available today. Its four-wheel drive system also offers all-weather capability and its convertible body style offers open-air fun. The Unlimited body style has greater cargo capacity, making the Wrangler more practical. You'll give up a lot of ride and handling prowess, as well as fuel mileage, but the Wrangler is fun.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses drove Wrangler models up the Rubicon Trail, through San Francisco and around Lake Tahoe while preparing this report. Kirk Bell reported from Chicago.
Jeep Wrangler X ($20,460); Sahara ($26,045); Rubicon ($28,565); Unlimited X 2WD ($22,815); Unlimited X 4WD ($23,990); Unlimited Sahara 2WD ($27,520); Unlimited Sahara 4WD ($28,695); Unlimited Rubicon ($31,840).
Options As Tested
front seat side airbags ($490); automatic transmission ($825), Trac-Lok limited-slip rear differential ($295), six-disc DVD/MP3 player ($350); Dual Top Group ($1,585).
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara 4WD ($28,945).
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