The Jeep Wrangler has been unique for decades, and not just because you can lower the windshield and take off the doors by yourself. The unique styling has been backed by a unique experience, a throwback to the times when Jeeps were still made by Willys-Overland.
On the lighter side, the redesigned-for-2007 Wrangler is now much more modern feeling and less of a throwback to the 1940s; on the down-side, the Wrangler is now much more modern feeling and less of a throwback to the 1940s.
The Wrangler is built with crossing fields and streams as the priority, especially when it comes to the Rubicon; that model has special tires, a higher suspension, skid plates, and other modifications designed to make it easier to cross streams, drive over big rocks, and go where no steamroller has gone before. The Rubicon is the ideal choice for those who are truly dedicated to off-roading or who live in inaccessible lands; but the base model is far better for more casual off-roaders, or those who only want a Jeep for the fun factor, and not just because the Rubicon costs about $10,000 more. The base model is lower (but not too low) making entry and exit easier and improving cornering and presumably real-world gas mileage; its tires are quieter, cheaper, and more suited to pavement; and the suspension is more of a compromise between on and off road, but it provides pretty much the same level of fun.
With this new generation, which appears to be even more mobile than the previous Wranglers, owners will give up less pavement prowess to keep their boulder-climbing, river-crossing, agile Jeeps. Around town, even the Rubicon version of the Wrangler is surprisingly civil, with a surprisingly soft ride and a fairly quiet, well-behaved engine. The ride is particularly surprising; though busy, with minor bumps and jiggles transmitted through, it is also softened, a far more pleasant experience than past Rubicons (washboard roads can still get through). 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). We must admit we stayed on the side of caution and never encountered the "ESP activated" light, but that didn't cramp the style of other drivers; even the Rubicon can take turns at normal speed.
The engine will please and disappoint, depending what you want from it. The old straight-six was loud, rough, and brutish, giving a nice kick in the butt when provoked (assuming you got the stick-shift). The quiet, refined 3.8 liter engine, long a minivan mainstay, provides a more civil experience, because low-end torque is reduced, so sudden acceleration is not jarring; 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, so what you lose in instant-on torque you get back in sustained running. The Wrangler powertrain has become much gentler and quieter; whether that's good or bad is a choice for you to make (the loss of low-end torque is an issue for strenuous off-roading). Reviewers with instrumentation for such things have found that gas mileage increased a bit, and acceleration - as measured by sprints, not instant-on passing power - has stayed the same.
As for the manual transmission, we are hoping to test one soon; we heard it retained much of its character, but was re-geared for better mileage and lower noise, at the cost of some acceleration.
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 well enough with the 3.8 V6, regardless of its off-road ability. We do strongly suggest that you consider the stick-shift. No, it's not needed for acceleration, 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.
Gas mileage remains par for the type of vehicle, with 16 mpg city, 19 highway (automatic) — considerably lower than you'd get with the rear-wheel-drive model (18/22 with manual transmission, or 17/21 with automatic), but apparently identical to the non-Rubicon Wrangler (16/19 automatic, 17/19 manual); similar to that of the FJ Cruiser and other vehicles in the class. The Wrangler is built with few concessions, if any, to wind resistance, and the four wheel drive equipment, skid plates, and heavy duty gear designed to withstand sudden shocks and hits all add up to one very heavy, though small, truck. It's the same problem faced by the various Hummers; you don't get off-road worthiness without either terrific expense or heavy weight (or both). Fortunately the Wrangler will easily handle hills that would have an H3 puttering around at residential-street speeds, and its gas mileage isn't that far off other serious off-roaders. We're still looking forward to a diesel version, not just to increase gas mileage, but also to regain that wonderfully trucky engine feel.
Inside, the changes will probably be welcome for most buyers. 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 instrument panel is a bit out of place in one regard, which is the bright vacuum-fluorescent lighting of the trip computer (providing compass/thermometer, distance to empty, average gas mileage, or elapsed time) and PRNDL/odometer. Otherwise, it fits just fine, for us at least. Some of the controls could also have had more thought put into them, in terms of being harmonious with that ol' Jeep feeling. The Wrangler screams for a key-in-the-dash and a dash-mounted headlight knob. For that matter, it screams for a dead-pedal or someplace to put your left foot when driving the automatic.
Gauges are clear though small, with a sensible 100 mph speedometer and tachometer, with a small gas gauge and thermometer on either side, all using white backlighting and standard analog pointers with a plain, legible typeface. All other backlights are the traditional green. The only interior lighting comes from a single dome light mounted on the roll bar.
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 (cell phone integration) controls are built into the stereo head unit. 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 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, but when on the road, the stereo fights the ambient noise and ends up losing perceived quality.
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 not long after the engine is started, and quickly gets so hot that even on a cold day it hurts (which is probably why you're supposed to use the lower ducts.)
Beneath that is the feature bar, in our case including the twin 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.
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.
Our only complaint with the various controls, other than a minor dispute with the modern feel, was that the trip computer button is somewhat awkwardly positioned on the instrument panel, and to reach it requires a stretch around the steering wheel. Other than that, our biggest issues with ergonomics were trying to get into the back seat and having the alarm sound if we opened the door with the key instead of the remote.
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 fairly small area behind the rear seat, about the same size as in past models; the seats flip and fold easily, creating a fairly huge cargo bay in back.
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 poofy electric locks and windows, they kept the manually adjusted mirrors).
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 with the hard roof and probably doesn't work with the cloth roof, either. The sun visors are undersized and don't pull out to block the sun. These are an odd deficiency in an otherwise pretty well thought out vehicle.
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. The rear seats have plenty of room for kids, but getting there is quite a battle. The only path is through the passenger side door, and the front seat doesn't quite slide far enough forward; the seat belt bars your passage through, and the Wrangler's height makes it hard for either adults or kids to get in. It's not impossible but it's also not easy. Ironically, the cloth seats make it easy to put in LATCH car seats, with the steel loops clearly showing; but getting back there to attach them isn't easy. All in all, there are better cars to buy if you have a family – like the four door Wrangler Unlimited.
The Wrangler starts at about $20,000, but the Rubicon 4x4 model lists at a full $26,750, including destination. The extra cash goes mainly to off-road gear, as one might expect, and can end up being a real savings over building it yourself ("real Jeeps are built, not bought.") Included in the price are the 3.8 liter V6, electronic roll mitigation, Rock-Trac part time four wheel drive, next-generation Dana 44 heavy-duty front and rear axles, electronic locking front and rear differentials, a 4.10 axle ratio, skid plates on the transfer case and fuel tank, electronic sway bar disconnect, front and rear tow hooks, and of course stain-resistant fabric. Also standard for your off-roading pleasure are fog lights, swing-away mirrors, and 32 inch B.F. Goodrich MTR tires on 17 inch aluminum wheels.
Trivial luxury stuff on the Rubicon model includes the electronic stability program, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, 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, and tilt wheel. That makes the Rubicon rather well outfitted for a mountain crawler and stream crosser, and there are probably a few off-roaders who would prefer for the Rubicon to come without all those creature comforts.
Our test vehicle was rather more pricey, tipping the scales at a rather stunning $31,010 – stunning for a vehicle that straddles the gap between 1944 and 2007. Options included the modular hard top with removable front pieces, at $1,585 over the standard cloth roof and sides; that included a glass rear window with wiper, washer, and defroster along with the freedom top (the hardtop alone, without the removable panels, is about half the price). The power convenience group, at $800, is a bit more reasonable, but still includes items normally found standard on entry level cars: power windows and locks, remote entry, and alarm (power lock and window switches are in the dashboard, not the doors, to reduce water issues; and they aren't lit at night). Side airbags added $490, the automatic transmission $825 (with skid plates), not-quite-worthwhile stereo upgrade ($350), satellite radio ($195), and a locking gas cap ($15).
Although the Wrangler has some interesting character traits which some might call severe flaws, we find it entirely keeping within character. It is a rough and ready, old style vehicle which still has the flavor of the original World War Two army Jeeps, while integrating modern technology. We miss the long throw shifter (we drove an automatic) and the old-engine noises, but the four wheel drive control lever is satisfyingly tactile, and the overall of driving experience is consistent. The Rubicon is a great off road machine, with its standard stabilizer bars, off road tires, and skid plates, but having any Jeep means never having to say you're sorry that you cannot go on the Rubicon trail. 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 will make you much happier. Just make mine with a stick-shift, please - I want the whole experience.
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