by David Zatz in December 2015
Most cars have direct competitors. In the US, one exception is the Jeep Wrangler.
You can take off the roof and the doors, lower the windshield, and take it on terrain that big 4x4s can’t handle. It stays narrow to fit between trees or rocks. Despite a bouncy ride, little interior space, less than ideal handling, and decent but unexceptional power, the Wrangler strain its factory’s capacity every year.
It’s a throwback in many ways, especially the doors, with their pushbutton handles, locks on both sides, and pin-style hinges that let the door hit the end of its “rope.”
This review should emphasize off-roading, but every test shows the Wrangler on top for anything near its price class, so there’s not much we could add. Instead, we’ll look at the Wrangler on the road, which is where most owners drive it.
The Wrangler’s specially outfitted V6 engine is quiet, smooth, and pleasant — for a Wrangler, perhaps too quiet and smooth. I miss the louder, blunter 4.0 AMC six, though I like the 285 horsepower and better economy of the newer engine.
The five-speed automatic shifts firmly and smoothly, but felt a bit sedentary. The manual transmission fits the Wrangler better and is a lot more fun.
The Wrangler can accelerate well, but the five-speed really does not get the most out of the V6, and going to an eight-speed will probably drop the 0-60 times quite a bit while squeezing out better mileage. The Pentastar easily maintains highway speeds at well below 2,000 rpm, can accelerate on the highway without dropping a gear, and idles at under 600 rpm. The throttle is biased towards smoothness, with a wide gradual reach, presumably to maintain control on dirt, sand, and mud in the absence of computer driven traction controls. (The lowly Renegade has sophisticated, computer driven traction systems; the Wrangler has mechanical linkages.)
It it will get you onto the highway quickly enough, and once there, you can get from 50 to 75 quickly enough. Gradability was good, with no feelings of sluggishness when climbing steep grades with a passenger and the air conditioning on.
When we stuck to moderate acceleration, we were able to almost meet the 17 mpg city estimates, and easily beat the 21 mpg highway estimates. Poor gas mileage is normal for this kind of vehicle, between the shape (highway) and the weight (city). The next generation, with an eight-speed and better aero, should do somewhat better, but only a diesel or hybrid can really get it up to minivan levels.
The Sahara does a lot of bouncing, but it’s all well cushioned — better than the Rubicon, which is more tightly geared to off-roading. It’s a lot more comfortable than past Wranglers have been, but just as it makes impossible trips possible, it also makes smooth roads bouncy. By comparison, the Jeep Cherokee is positively a luxury car. That said, ironically, the nastiest bumps, potholes, and shocks are handled better than in most cars and trucks.
The interior is surprisingly quiet with the hard top on, without any squeaks or rattles; it’s amazing how much sound insulation the fiberglass top provides.
The steering is responsive to the point of being twitchy around town, what with the short wheelbase, big off-road tires, and high center of gravity; it takes some getting used to (on the highway, it seems more relaxed). You can take surprisingly tight turns, except when the part-time four wheel drive is engaged. The 4x4 was handy on sand and gravel; you can’t use it on dry roads (well, you can, if you like replacing tires). Cornering is good if you don’t go nuts and lose control.
The dashboard is modern and clean, with bright chrome that look good when the top is on, but can catch the sun when the top is off. The retro feel would be better with a dash-mounted key and headlight knob, but I was happy to sacrifice “retro” for the fine design of the climate control — both the controls and the vents. The optional stereo in our test car was an old RHB unit with a large-enough navigation screen, CD/DVD reader, hard drive, and USB and aux inputs. There was no voice control.
Gauges are small but clear; the speedometer (100 mph) and tachometer (7,000 rpm) are both realistic and easily readable, even for low speeds. The odometer and trip computer are separate, which means less switching between views.
There are many reminders, some subtle and some not, of Jeep’s heritage. More importantly, the view is fine up front and out the sides. There was enough light at night in both the cabin an cargo bay. Headlights were good though no match for HIDs.
Storage abounds, with space for a box of tissues or a DSLR between the seats, a large glove compartment is large, and such. Cargo space is minimal, but the rear seat folds and flips out of the way almost automatically. If you take off the Freedom Top, it can hang in a bag behind the seats.
Round air vents provide high airflow with minimal noise; the vents rotate for easy airflow in any direction or flip close. Heat came up quickly and was quite strong. The air conditioner was good as well.
Interior surfaces seem tough but not rough or cheap-looking. Our main complaint was the gas pedal’s angled support, which did not have enough room for our size-12 shoes. The seats got uncomfortable after a while, but that’s personal preference.
The trip computer shows gas mileage, distance to empty, or a compass/temperature, with a separate trip odometer.
Getting into four wheel drive using the manual shifter was easy, but low gear took muscle. The (automatic) shifter is easy and has a manual gear override. Our Wrangler had the hill descent control, which lets you limit your downhill speed for better control on the trail — if you’re in 4x4/Low, and going 30 mph or less, and want to go under 10 mph. There’s no mention of it in the owner’s manual, but it’s in the press materials.
We had the optional but old Media Center 430 stereo with navigation and music hard drive (an option); it took our 32 GB USB drive, recognizing it as quickly as a new system and sorting music by artist without delay. There’s also a higher-end option that has voice recognition, and two traditional-looking base stereos which seem more in keeping with the Jeep.
The sound quality was quite good — absolutely excellent for a Wrangler, and pretty good for a normal car — thanks to an expensive nine-speaker Alpine system. We suspect base models have also improved; the tweeters no longer stand up, and the overhead woofers in the roll bar looked different. The Alpine option puts an all-weather woofer into the trunk, eliminating the thin under-panel storage. The clarity was far better than it was in our last Wrangler, with fine stereo separation.
There is a single tiny knob on the stereo, leaving tuning to buttons (including some on the steering wheel). An AC outlet helps with recharging phones and iPods, or running laptops.
Front and rear wipers are quite small, which helps the blades to last a long time and handle snow more effectively. The small sun visors don’t get in the way of the roofs, and slide on their mounts for extra reach.
Getting into the rear seats is surprisingly easy, but as you'd expect, there’s not a lot of room back there; the contours of the back seats seemed more comfortable than the fronts. The passenger side front seat moves forward as far as it possibly can, with the track moving at the end to make more room; the seat belt isn’t an obstacle.
The Wrangler is narrower than most cars and trucks because wider vehicles can't make it past as many obstacles on trails; it’s also shorter, bumper to bumper, again to clear obstacles. That means it's easy to park and there's plenty of space on the side when you're in a parking lot, even if there isn't a lot of elbow room — not that it's tight.
The hood has an external latch, with no interior lock. Undo the two hinges and the safety catch, and it’s open.
Probably the best, most expensive combination is the Freedom Top for winter with a cloth top for summer. Visibility is good with the hardtop, with a smaller than usual pillar blind-spot.
The Freedom Top™ is fiberglass, painted body color outside and molded-in-white inside; it looks like steel from outside. Roof sections above the front seats that can be easily taken off and stored in a large bag — putting them into the bag takes more time than taking them off — which hangs behind the back seats. It’s best to have two people for the soft top. Removing the back half of the hardtop is harder, and you need a place to store it; most people will only do it once a year, if at all, to switch over to summer driving.
Having the front part of the top off was similar to having a panoramic sunroof; there was wind in the car but no buffeting or pressure changes, it was brighter and sunnier inside, and lowering the windows gave something of a convertible experience. Removing the rear, again, takes tools, time, and a friend.
Finally, the hard top has a fine convenience for winter: a real glass window with a defroster and wiper/washer.
The list price for the upper-level Sahara model, which we tested, is $30,290, including destination; all Wranglers have a V6 and part-time 4x4 (“Command-Trac®”). Underneath the Sahara is the Sport — $24,890, Sport S, Willys Wheeler, Black Bear, and Freedom Edition. There are four models above it, too.
Standard gear includes “all the usual” plus hill start assistance (to avoid rollbacks), radio-key to prevent theft, alarm, and cruise. Inside, buyers get air conditioning, express-down power windows, power locks, remote entry, leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls and tilt column, eight speakers, satellite radio, AC outlet, thermometer and compass, manual driver-side height adjuster, and a folding rear seat.
Outside, the Sahara gets tinted windows, P255/70R18 on/off-road tires, side steps, tow hooks, automatic headlamps, fog lamps, and power heated mirrors.
Our car ended up at $36,960, a stunning increase resulting from a heavy pen on the options list. From top to bottom, we have the $1,995 three-piece hard top, including a rear window defroster and wiper/washer. The next is the $1,350 automatic transmission (with hill descent control). Then the hard drive, touch screen stereo with navigation puts $1,195 on top; the fine Alpine nine-speaker system, with an all-weather subwoofer, is $945.
From there, we go down to the minor items: automatic temperature control and filter, $395; remote start, $495; and an engine block heater, $95.
Jeep Wranglers are made in Toledo, Ohio, their traditional home; the powertrain in the US, and 72% of the content is from the U.S. and Canada.
The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is more streetable than ever, with predictable power, decent cornering, a cushioned ride, and a hard shell that provides most of the creature comforts of a regular SUV — but which can be removed. I recommend the stick-shift for the full experience.
A new Wrangler is still years off, with estimates of late 2017 to late 2018, so buying it in 2015 or ’16 won’t mean kicking yourself too hard.
It’s not for everyone. You can get more practical Jeeps that will do just fine on snow, with full time all wheel drive, more comfort, and better economy, at lower prices.
The Wrangler has good resale value, but many customers buy them and get tired of climbing up into the cab, having doors without intermediate stops, little space, noise (cloth top), the bouncy ride, lousy mileage, etc.
If you are expecting a cool looking conventional SUV, the Wrangler isn’t really it; cool looking, yes, conventional, no. You have to appreciate the charm of the Wrangler for what it is, and not complain about what it isn’t.
It also isn’t an old Wrangler, with a gruff, torquey engine that gave instant gratification, rough manners, and a hard time sticking together. It lost some of its charm as it gained manners, but that’s the way it is.
It is a throwback in many ways, though quite modern; the king of the hill off-road; and a unique experience. There’s no SUV in America quite like it.
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