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Review: 2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4x4

2009 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon 4x4 – Click above for high-res image gallery

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.

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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.

View 19 Photos

All photos Copyright ©2009 Chris Shunk / Weblogs, Inc.

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