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First Generation Jeep Wrangler Unlimited: Information and Road Test

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and standard Jeep WranglerSecond generation Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited stretches the length of the standard Wrangler by 15 inches, delivering 13 inches more cargo area (double the standard Wrangler) and two inches more second row leg room. Cargo volume went from 9 to 29 cubic feet.

Because of the ten-inch lengthing of its wheelbase, the new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited has more on-road comfort. Adding a tip and slide front seat to the driver's side (there was already one on the passenger side) helps rear-seat access, too. Even with the additional wheelbase length and increase in rear overhang, the Wrangler Unlimited maintains a 21 degree breakover angle for off-road driving (the standard Wrangler's short wheelbase increases its ground clearance when going over obstacles or crests, and also tightens its turning radius; its breakover angle is 28 degrees, and it has a turning radius nearly two feet tighter).

2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited top viewTowing capacity was increased to 3,500 pounds, the best in its segment, thanks to the longer wheelbase. Standard equipment includes the 42RLE four-speed automatic transmission - only recently available in Wranglers - and the 4.0-liter straight-six, now pumping out 190 horsepower (142 kW) at 4,600 rpm and 235 lb.-ft. (319 Nm) of torque at 3,200 rpm. Also standard are a Dana 30 front axle, a heavy-duty Dana 44 rear axle, 30-inch tall R15 Goodyear Wrangler GSA tires, 15-inch aluminum wheels, a 3.73 axle ratio, fog lamps, and tow hooks.

The Wrangler Unlimited debuts the new Sunrider™ soft-top, which gives a second, easier open-air option by folding the soft-top back completely over driver and front passenger to create a 45x23 inch sun roof opening -- larger than any typical glass sun roof. The sun roof can also be operated from the inside of the Wrangler Unlimited, once the vehicle is stopped. The Sunrider™ soft-top includes larger, deep-tinted side windows, giving second row passengers a better view outside. The Wrangler Unlimited is also available with a new hard top with added strength and larger, deep-tinted rear windows, as well as rear defroster and back glass wiper and washer. Other standard features are full-steel doors with deep tinted windows, padded Sport Bar, air conditioning, AM/FM stereo radio with CD, and a fold and tumble rear seat that allows for carrying large objects. An array of optional equipment is also available. Gas mileage is 14 city, 18 highway - rather poor given its size.

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited car reviews

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited side viewWe have a number of general Jeep Wrangler notes and impressions in our standard Wrangler review.

The added wheelbase and length of the Wrangler Unlimited tame the wild beast on the highway and add cargo space and rear leg room; but they don't change its character too much. The Wrangler remains one of the most fun vehicles you can buy, even as it becomes more practical; the only disappointment in the Unlimited is the absence of the manual transmission option, and the added enjoyment of the long-throw, very-mechanical manual shifter was missed.

The Wrangler’s firm ride is not tiring on the highway, providing some busyness to keep the blood circulating, but not so much as to be a strain on two-hourtrips.  The drivetrain is well suited to both city and highway use, with the low gearing and relatively light weight of the Jeep (given the power of the straight-six) providing rapid acceleration at stoplights, and the high top gear ratio keeping revolutions down at highway speeds. At 65 mph, the engine is just far enough from idle to provide some power, without being too noisy or inefficient.

car reviews jeep wrangler unlimited

Rapid acceleration is just a quick downshift away, even when the engine is quietly ticking along at low highway speeds, and the four-speed automatic downshifts very readily. It’s silky-smooth during slow acceleration, and very responsive when the throttle is pushed down. That’s a good thing, because, as we’ve mentioned, there’s no manual transmission option. The only fault of this transmission, other than reducing available power as all automatics do, is the fairly wide ratios between gears, which can cause some lag in shifts - fortunately not too much as the engine pulls strongly from under 3,000 rpm. The wide gear ratios are better than the alternative, which is either a higher first gear - for less off-the-line speed - or a lower first gear, for more noise, wear, and gas use.

The ancient AMC six has a pleasant sound when accelerating gradually, though it is loud and gruff at idle, and makes itself known when under hard acceleration.

Those who have owned older Wranglers may be surprised by the Unlimited’s ability to deal with highway speeds. The steering, a bit twitchy on standard Wranglers at high speed, is considerably smoother,  almost car-like; the engine has no shortage of power at any speed, and the overall feel at rapid highway speeds is one of surprising stability. Admittedly, the wind noise, especially with the soft top, is an issue, and the stereo has its work cut out for it, given the “has to go somewhere” location of the speakers and the unpredictable levels and types of ambient noise, varying by speed and weather conditions.

Going into the mechanical four wheel drive is easy and quick, requiring the pull of a conveniently located lever while in motion. Low gear four wheel drive requires a low speed and a much more purposeful pull, and isn’t likely to be used by accident. Going back to rear wheel drive is likewise easy but with a tactile feeling that provies a sense of accomplishment. Four wheel drive mode rather dramatically enlarges the turning radius, which is normal for this type of system.

Having a flat, nearly vertical windshield means that a large visible surface can be easily cleared by a small wiper, giving the Jeep an advantage in bad weather, not to mention long-lived wipers. We were also surprised by how quickly the heat came on; much faster than the previous champion, the Dodge Neon. The engine did not seem to notice when we put the powerful air conditioning on, a testament to its torque.

Instrumentation is fairly complete, with a full sized speedometer and tachometer featuring large numbers for quick reference, and an oil pressure gauge and voltmeter complementing the temperature gauge (marked in degrees) and gas gauge. The headlight stalk has a flash-to-pass feature, the wiper stalk a push-down-for-single-wipe feature. You can access computer error codes yourself to diagnose engine and transmission problems, simply by holding down the odometer button, moving the key to RUN (without starting), and releasing the button; codes will display in the odometer.

The old-fashioned climate control system includes air conditioning as standard, and has a/c control linked to vent choices. The lowest fan speed is actually fairly high.  Air conditioning is strong and effective.

Storage space is fairly good, with map pockets on both front doors, molded-in cupholders, and an incredibly deep central console. Both the glove compartment and console lock for the times when you leave the top off; those who like to go topless should also consider the optional SentryKey security.  

Getting in can be a bit of a climb, though we didn't need the optional side steps (which seem to be able to keep their grip even when wet.) Getting into the back seats is not too hard, thanks to flip and tuck seats on both sides (which, inconveniently, don't return to their original position). The rear door opens easily, but requires some space to open completely; soft top owners can easily unzip it to get in, while hard top owners have a more complicated process.

As with all Wranglers, the interior is designed to resist accidental water spraying; the small instrument panel looks fairly standard, but the odometer reset button has a water-tight gasket. Part of that is a high door lip to protect the interior from loose mud or water when driving off-road; these are good protection, but make getting in a little harder.

Our model came with the soft top and Sunrider feature. The Sunrider is easy to use, albeit harder than the typical car convertible top: you remove the two latches from inside, then unhook two firm plastic plastic pieces of weatherstripping, then carefully fold the bars back, following a rather vague diagram and set of instructions in the manual. (We miss the video which used to come with Wranglers; it was very helpful.) That opens up the roof above the driver and passenger, providing a larger opening than any sunroof we've seen. The rest of the room, along with the side panels, can be taken off, but with rather more difficulty (it's not easy to put them back on again, either). The plastic windows on the cloth top are all tinted, and seemed more resistant to scratching than past models, but still require care to avoid damage. The system is fairly flexible: you can open the Sunriser portion and remove the rear side panels, open just the rear panel for easier cargo-bin access, or take the whole thing off. The Velcro used in parts of the system is tough and seems ready for long-term use. We did not encounter any leaks in two major all-day thunderstorms, and with the top up, wind also does not penetrate into the cabin.

The optional hard top makes the Wrangler feel more like a regular SUV, though the wind noise and relative lack of sound insulation, not to mention the padded roll bars, give it away. (One roll bar holds the speakers, which hang upside down). In the summer, you can take off the hard top with relative ease (provided you have a helper) and put on the cloth top. Taking off the soft top is not too time-consuming, though rather difficult the first time thanks to poorly illustrated instructions; putting it back on, especially once it's well seasoned, can be rather difficult. The zippers, hidden under heavy flaps and often velcro-ed in, are heavy and can be hard to zip or unzip. This is the price of a cover that's relatively long-lasting and waterproof.

The Wrangler is a better off-road vehicle than many rugged trucks costing twice as much, (including any Ford), but there are natural tradeoffs. You get to take off the roof and doors and go over rocks and boulders, but the ride is very stiff on pavement. Acceleration is fine even with the automatic, but the engine is loud. The Wrangler Unlimited sticks to the road very well, but you really shouldn't take turns too fast. You can have a totally open cab or a nicely enclosed cab with terrific headroom, but wind noise is high, and the gas mileage is not.

Overall, the Wrangler Unlimited keeps the fun and tactile experience of the standard Wrangler, and, at the cost of a small amount of mobility, provides a more usable rear seating area and a substantial cargo bay, not to mention better road manners (particularly at highway speeds). The standard six-cylinder engine will make most drivers happy, but the standard automatic will disappoint some; still, we understand the need to standardize, given the relatively low production.  Unfortunately, the Wrangler Unlimited is fairly expensive, starting at the price of a well-outfitted Jeep Liberty - a vehicle which is far more comfortable, and which many argue is roughly as capable on off-road trails. It is also about the same price as a well-bargained prior-model-year Jeep Grand Cherokee. Of course, the Wrangler is a far different vehicle. It’s not meant for comfort, and it doesn't hide its mechanical underpinnings as much as most newer vehicles; and, it can be stripped of top, doors, and windshield, though doing this means losing the side mirrors.

The Unlimited is a real Wrangler, perfectly happy playing with rocks and in the mud and stream, but more civilized on the highway and capable of carrying four people and their stuff. It's a unique vehicle, and its owners like it that way.

Development story

The Wrangler Unlimited was put into production partly because Chrysler received over 300 comment cards from 2002 Camp Jeep(R) participants, overwhelmingly positive, asking when it would be made and how much it would cost. It only took 18 months to bring the Unlimited to market, largely because a stretched-wheelbase Wrangler had already been designed for Egypt. Though the Jeep people had been considering a longer wheelbase Wrangler, they didn't do it until Egyptian Jeep sellers asked for a longer TJ. The 22 inch longer wheelbase TJL was delivered to the Egyptian military in 2003, but, according to an Egyptian source was never retailed despite public demand. Chrysler said that the American version was done swiftly, and at nearly 20% less cost than budgeted, thanks partly to durability testing and on-road miles for Egypt. 9,000 orders were placed before the Wrangler Unlimited's debut.

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