Don't be fooled by the Wrangler Unlimited. It's softer than the first generation, it handles better, and it has more room for passengers and for cargo; but it's still better off-road.
Originally demanded by (and designed for) Egypt, a good Jeep customer, the first four-door Wrangler was all too clearly a quickie.' Off-road capability was compromised by the design, which lengthened the wheelbase but not enough to push the wheels to the edges. The new version was designed from the ground up to be its current length; the wheels are right at the four corners, and it appears that even with the softer ride, the new Unlimited has far better off-road capability than the prior generation - and may even be able to run with the prior "standard" Wrangler.
See our review of the 2010 Wrangler Unlimited
Rubicon with manual transmission
With this generation, the Jeep Wrangler has softened up considerably. The beloved, throwback, stiff automatic and torquey, noisy, durable straight-six engine have been replaced by a modern Chrysler automatic and minivan V6; the four cylinder is gone entirely; wind and engine noise have been cut back; and modern conveniences like power door locks and windows are finally available, with a quick-disconnect plug to allow owners to remove the doors as in days of old. As with the standard Wrangler, the Unlimited is unique in letting you lower the windshield and take off the doors by yourself.
The Wrangler is instantly recognizable, with the parking lights returned to their 1960s position, but the four-door Unlimited was mistaken by some bystanders as a Hummer; the side profile is more Hummer than Jeep, at least for the moment (that's changing as Jeep moves to more squareness). Even the Rubicon looks wide and low, though it isn't either one.
While the Wrangler Unlimited is always built with considerable off-road prowess, the Rubicon has special tires, a higher suspension, skid plates, and other modifications designed to make it easier to cross streams and drive over big rocks. The Rubicon is the ideal choice for those who are truly dedicated to off-roading or who live in inaccessible lands, but its optimization for forest and quarry make it somewhat unsuitable for living on land. While the EPA doesn't see a difference, we think your gas mileage will be considerably better in a standard Wrangler, as will your cornering and your wallet. The Rubicon costs quite a bit to begin with ($8,000 more!), but those special tires can put quite the bite on your budget too.
Without the Rubicon package, the Wrangler Unlimited is a bargain when compared with the Hummer H3, its nearest competitor. With the Rubicon package, it's similar in price, with a less ergonomic interior but a considerably more powerful engine and 4x4 features unmatched in the TrailBlazer-based counterpart.
The standard Wrangler Unlimited includes more streetable tires, and is lower (but not too low) making entry and exit easier and improving cornering and presumably real-world gas mileage; and the suspension is more of a compromise between on and off road, but it provides pretty much the same level of fun while making driving easier. For those who need a Jeep to drive through heavy snow and over dirt roads with the odd mud-hole, the standard Wrangler Unlimited should be the more sensible choice.
With this new generation, which appears to be even more mobile than the previous Wranglers, owners will give up less on-road comfort and cornering to keep their boulder-climbing, river-crossing, agile Jeeps. Around town, even the Rubicon version of the Wrangler Unlimited is surprisingly civil, with a softer ride and a fairly quiet, well-behaved engine; even the off-road tires used on the Rubicon are only a bit noisy, and not ragged or uneven. Though busy, with minor bumps and jiggles transmitted through, the ride is cushioned, a far more pleasant experience than past Rubicons (washboard roads can still get through, and highway speeds over concrete pavement can make your teeth chatter). Confidence around turns is increased, though intelligent drivers will probably not test the Wrangler's road adhesion around sharp turns (at least not in the Rubicon model). On one sharp turn that didn't feel too dangerous we encountered the "ESP activated" light; the system adds a bit of extra cornering capacity.
The old straight-six was loud, rough, and brutish, giving a nice kick in the butt when provoked, and we loved it. The quiet, refined 3.8 liter engine provides a much more civil experience, partly because it doesn't hit you with as much torque in the lower revs (which also means you have to wait a little longer for passing power); the transmission is smooth and modern, easily the equal of any foreign automatic, and it downshifts quickly on demand but without jolting. The engine can rev higher than the old one, which partly compensates for the loss of instant kick, at least in terms of numerical performance (which remains similar to the 4.0 models). The Wrangler powertrain has become gentler and quieter, appears to be about as fast in sprints if not in passing, and has reportedly gained a little gas mileage, though that doesn't show up in EPA testing. Many will be disappointed in the loss of some trademark Jeep character from that throwback engine (which, it should be noted, remained reliable and powerful to the end), while others will like the noise reduction and added comfort. Not everyone buys a Wrangler for the same reason; some people just like to ride in tall convertibles.
Gas mileage is worth some note, considering how poor it is - albeit identical to the Hummer H3! Part of the problem is the shape and styling, which are not particularly aerodynamic; part is the weight of all the various four wheel drive gear. The stick-shift does provide a boost over the automatic, and slowing down to legal highway speeds can really boost the mileage. Also, unlike the Hummer H3, the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited can actually go uphill - quite easily, too - even with the Rubicon package. The 3.8 liter V6 had power to spare, and never left us wondering what they were thinking. Hills were no match for the engine; whereas in our H3, even with a manual transmission, we found mild hills slowing us down to 55 mph or less, regardless of downshifting.)
Acceleration was always sprightly. When we stuck to gentle acceleration, our gas mileage shot up to EPA estimates, and the transmission was happy to keep shifts smooth and silent, acting almost invisibly; instant acceleration was still just a stomp away, with quick and firm downshifts helping the engine along.
In the end, for many people, it comes down to "Will this thing get me to highway speeds before I'm clobbered?" That question is easy to answer if you have any sense, yes. The Wrangler accelerates quite well with the 3.8 V6. We do strongly suggest that no matter which engine you get, you consider the stick-shift. No, it's not needed for acceleration (it does add to the gas mileage), but it sure adds to the feel of the truck, and gives more of that authentic Jeep experience. This isn't a car for people who want a commuting appliance, and that extra effort of the stick-shift will be repaid with interest.
While the interior has also been modernized again, the Wrangler has had a contemporary interior for as long as we can remember, and the modern conveniences are sometimes, well, convenient. The four-speed automatic uses Chrysler's AutoStick display, showing the gear (when in first or second) as a 1 or 2 in the D box; third is also selectable by using the Overdrive Off button. The trip computer shows average or instant gas mileage, distance to empty, a compass/temperature; and the odometer/trip odometer is on separately on the other side.
The trip computer button is awkwardly positioned on the instrument panel, and reaching requires a stretch around the steering wheel and turn signal stalk; depending on your dexterity and positioning (including where the tilt-wheel is), using the trip computer to switch between, say, compass and gas mileage, is difficult or dangerous. On the other side, the end of the wiper/washer control stalk is blocked by the center stack barrier. One wonders whether the designers ever actually worked with a physical mockup before going into production, or if they just studied CAD/CAM displays.
The dashboard is basically bland-modern, though the Wrangler screams for a key-in-the-dash and a dash-mounted headlight knob. The door lock switch is a bit hard to find - black color in a sea of black plastic, not lit at night, and protected on each side by a same-color barrier - and the climate control, hidden in the bottom tier of the center stack, is partly cut off by the reverse steppes of the center stack. The controls were also a bit small for use with gloves.
Gauges are clear though small, with a sensible 100 mph speedometer and tachometer, a small gas gauge and thermometer on either side, and standard analog pointers with a plain, legible typeface and white backlighting (all other backlights are the traditional green).
The new corporate stereo is used, with a six-disk CD changer in our test vehicle; because an electronic mirror would be out of place, not to mention foolish on a car with a removable roof and fold-down windshield, the UConnect (cellphone integration) controls are built into the stereo head unit (though apparently UConnect is not available in the Wrangler!). Those in the hinterlands may well appreciate the optional satellite radio, neatly integrated into the system and providing over a hundred channels of high-quality music and standard-quality talk, often without commercials and with limited DJ blather. Sound reproduction is far better than in the prior generation, with a pair of tweeters poking out of the dash to provide stereo separation, and the woofers once again in the roll bar; we found on the Unlimited that reception of satellite radio often disappeared around town, though.
Beneath the stereo is a modern climate control with three dials, all easy to use with gloves, and separate buttons surrounding the bottom of the fan dial for air conditioning, recirculation, and the rear defroster a sensible and plain arrangement that requires no thought to use. The fan is a bit noisy, but heat blasts out quickly after the engine is started, and quickly gets so hot that even on a cold day it hurts at full strength.
Beneath that is the feature bar, in our case including the power jacks, ESP defeat, hazard lights, sway bar disconnector (only for use at very slow speeds, and designed to increase wheel travel in extreme cases), and electronic axle lock. The four wheel drive system is activated by a traditional stick-shift, easy to move when rolling slowly; a 4:1 multiplier is used in low gear four wheel drive, for maximum mobility. Onroad drivers will generally not use the low gear.
Front and rear wipers are the traditional tiny size, which helps the blades to last a surprisingly long time without losing effectiveness, and also increases their ability to deal with snow and ice on the nearly (but not) flat windshield and rear window. The rear window has a defroster with a special heating element underneath the wiper blade; in the front, there's no special wiper defroster, but probably none is needed.
Sun visors are almost entirely for show; they only really work in one position, and the hinges are designed so that swinging them out doesn't work well with the hard roof. The sun visors are undersized and don't pull out to block the sun; and despite their consistent uselessness, they still get in the way when you try to take off the Freedom Top roof segments. In short, the visors are an odd deficiency in a go-anywhere vehicle, especially one that has a removable roof... and a considerable number of customers who live in the desert.
As with past Jeeps, it's easy to get any computer error codes for troubleshooting; just move the key back and forth three times and they'll show up on the odometer. For fun and to check bulbs and gauge functions, you can also turn the key to the on position while holding down the trip odometer button.
Storage includes small map pockets in both front doors, the glove compartment, a big, deep center console, primitive cupholders in front and rear, and a compartment underneath the cargo area. There's also the cargo area itself, a decently sized area behind the rear seat; the seats flip and fold easily, creating a fairly huge, mainly flat cargo bay in back (the headrests automatically swing away to help the seats fold without pushing the front seats all the way forward.)
Getting to the cargo bay is easy enough; you just unlock the rear door, swing it open – noticing that it swings in a way that blocks you from loading anything in from the sidewalk – and flip up the rear window, making sure you remember to flip it down again before shutting the door, unless you like replacing windows.
The doors deserve special mention; Jeep doors are designed to be removed easily, and therefore have in the past not had power locks or windows. This vehicle did have power locks and windows, but retained the traditional simple hinge with a fabric "stop" to prevent the doors from opening all the way and hitting the fenders. The solution to the problem of removing doors with electric wires was simple enough…put a plug into the wiring so it can be detached. (Even though Jeep went with those fancy-dan electric locks and windows, they kept the manually adjusted mirrors).
Several roof combinations are sold; the most fun is probably the fabric, though it's not particularly easy to take off and put back on. Visibility is decent enough with the hardtop, though the usual pillar blind-spot is there, and the spare tire adds another blind spot. Ours had a removable hardtop with the "Freedom" roof; the roof above the driver and passenger seats is easy enough to remove, with a single large screw and latch on each side, and a few smaller latches to move. Then the roof comes off in two segments. Removing both parts takes less than a minute; putting them back on can take the same time if you remember which goes where, but we were able to do it in no more than two minutes. They can be carefully stowed behind the front seats, if the back seats are flipped and folded. The rest of the hardtop can also be taken off, if you have more time and a helper. It is, after all, a "real Jeep."
The Wrangler is not family-friendly in two-door form, but it's a lot better with four doors - albeit not so much in the Rubicon edition, with its increased height. The rear seats have plenty of room for kids. The cloth seats make it easy to put in LATCH car seats, with the steel loops clearly showing. Average eight and nine year olds may need a boost to get in, and once there, the seat belt - mounted a good distance behind the rear seat - may be hard to get on (even for adults). That said, to get into the rear seats is easy for adults, and getting kids into booster or child seats is easy.
The Wrangler Unlimited starts at $20,410, but the Rubicon model lists at a full $28,895, including destination (but also including four wheel drive, normally sold at a $2,000 premium). The extra cash goes mainly to off-road gear, as one might expect, and can end up being cheaper than building it up yourself. The Rubicon includes extra four wheel drive gear including electronic roll mitigation, electronic front sway-bar disconnection (to increase front wheel travel off-road by a few inches), a Dana 44 heavy-duty front axle, a 4.1:1 axle ratio and two-speed transfer case, various skid plates and shields, electronic locking front and rear differentials, front and rear tow hooks, roll bars, swing-away mirrors for a little extra clearance, 32 inch BF Goodrich MTR tires on 17-inch wheels, fog lights, and a full-size spare mounted on the rear.
Fancy-pants, frilly, flatlander stuff in the Rubicon includes the electronic stability program, cruise, SentryKey theft deterrence, variable intermittent wipers, air conditioning, height-adjustable driver's seat, folding rear seat, CD stereo with seven Infinity speakers (plus subwoofer), tachometer, tilt wheel, metal doors with rolling windows, traction control, YES Essentials stain-repelling fabric, padding on the roll bars, extra 12-volt power outlet, and aluminum rims. The Rubicon comes with a soft top standard; it's easy to remove, if a bit time consuming to put back on again.
Our test vehicle had a number of un-Wrangler-like frills, including the hard-top that made the Wrangler Unlimited seem like a credible replacement for the old Cherokee (which was actually replaced by the popular Liberty). These included the Dual Top described earlier ($1,585), which includes a rear wiper/washer and defroster; power windows and locks with remote entry and an alarm ($800); side airbags ($500); the inevitable, even on a $30,000 vehicle, $50 for floor mats; four-speed automatic ($825); deep tinting on the windows ($300); six-disc DVD/MP3 changer ($350); satellite radio ($200); and locking gas cap ($15). This jacked up the price to $33,505 including destination, almost H3 territory, but as previously noted, the Wrangler goes uphill.
Although the Wrangler has some interesting flaws, it also still has some of the flavor of the original World War Two army Jeeps (especially if you get the stick-shift), while integrating modern technology. We miss the long throw shifter (we drove an automatic), but the four wheel drive control lever is satisfyingly tactile, and the overall of driving experience is consistent; on the darker side, we really can't understand some of the ergonomic compromises, particularly the sun visors, whose absence is odd in a vehicle designed to be driven without a roof.
The Rubicon is a great off road machine, with its standard stabilizer bars, off road tires, and skid plates. On the other hand, if your off-roading has not reached the point where you immediately said “wow!” at the ability to disconnect the sway bar, we think the standard Wrangler Unlimited X will make you much happier. Just make mine with a stick-shift...that's the way a Jeep should be.
Jeep Wrangler Unlimited information and specs
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