The Jeep Wrangler stands alone. It is the only car in America you can buy with easily removable doors, a fold-down windshield, and a heritage going back to World War II. Incredibly, the years have left not only the look but also the character intact, despite a thorough redesign and parts from the corporate bin.
The Wrangler is a better off-road vehicle than many rugged trucks costing twice as much, (including any Ford, which do have boundaries), but there are natural tradeoffs. You get to take off the roof and doors, but the cargo area is miniscule. You can go over rocks and boulders, or across desert sands, but the ride is very stiff on pavement. Acceleration is fine, but the engine is quite loud, and you really shouldn't take a fast turn. The wind noise is incredible, but the gas mileage is not; and there are no four door models (yet). And, though the Wrangler Sport starts at $18,000 (our test car Sport listed for $24,000, while the Rubicon came closer to a Grand Cherokee), there are no electric locks or windows, or even manual remote mirror controls.
Still, Chrysler was very wise to leave the Wrangler (formerly CJ) essentially as they found it; despite an extensive redesign, they did not destroy the character. They even restored the trademark round headlights. The main loss was the rather poor quality of the pre-1997 models; it's now possible to get a cheap Jeep that stays cheap over time. (The traditionally high resale value also helps).
The Jeep Wrangler remains one of the most fun vehicles you can buy. With the 4.0 liter straight-six engine, a basic design going back about 40 years but continually refined and modernized, it has surprising power, and lots of the low-end torque that is pretty much absent from most modern cars. The four-cylinder engine is strong enough to power the Wrangler with confidence, but the gas mileage savings is not very high; the limiting factors are most likely weight and wind resistance.
The top is one of the interesting features. As far as we can tell, there are three types of doors you can get with the Wrangler; we had the top of the line both times. You can buy an optional hard top, which we strongly suggest; it makes the Wrangler feel like a regular SUV, at least until you start moving, or notice that you can see the painted metal of the body in many places, as well as the padded roll bars. (One roll bar holds the speakers, which hang upside down). In the summer, you can take off the hard top with relative ease and put on the cloth top; the redesign made the cloth top easier to install and more durable.
Our 2003 model had an improved hard top made of fiberglass, which somehow managed to look more as though it was meant to stay on all year round. It also had revised rear view mirrors which betrayed not a single hint of vibration, a major upgrade.
This vehicle is a true Jeep, with a true Jeep heritage. It has a reputation of excellence in off-road driving, unlike many large, much more expensive SUVs. The low range four wheel drive mode can be very helpful in maintaining traction, and of course the four-liter straight six engine provides lots of torque for pulling. The Rubicon model went even further, adding off-road tires, extra height, and an electric switch for locking the front and rear axles (separately).
The Wrangler has a very short wheelbase to extend its off-road capability: at a given height, the short wheelbase allows greater ground clearance when going over obstacles or crests. It can also help to tighten the turning radius. The short wheelbase is a drawback on paved roads, though - hence the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.
Bob Sheaves: "The 93 inch wheelbase raises the breakover angle at the lowest point on the vehicle between the wheels and tires, measured to the static loaded radius of the given tires. In other words, you can cross a sharper angled crest of a hill, rock, or other obstacle with the shorter wheelbase."
For those who enjoy tactile experiences, the Jeep is one of the very few vehicles still made which makes no attempt to hide its mechanical sounds - you can hear the clutch engage, for example. The stick has a nice long throw, the antithesis of modern Japanese-style move-it-with-your-pinky style, yet the clutch is very easy to engage. It is also satisfying, thanks to the torque; there is no mushy, hiding-you-from-the-engine feel about this car. If it's there, it lets you feel and see it.
The windshield wipers were very effective, albeit tiny, and their short size implies a longer than usual lifespan. Having a flat, nearly vertical windshield means that a large visible surface can be easily cleared by a small wiper, giving the Jeep a real advantage in bad weather.
We were 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 air conditioning on, a testament to its torque.
The greatest drawback of the Wrangler is the lack of a "dead pedal" to rest your left foot on while driving. Instead, there is a huge, empty space. It becomes very uncomfortable after a while, especially on the manual transmission. This is a strange but easily fixed (by Jeep!) oversight.
The Jeep is not the greatest for the highway, but around town, it was a lark even in the middle of winter, with the top on. Take the top off, and it's a great town car. But we don't recommend crossing the country in it.
In short: a surprisingly fun vehicle, not especially practical, but terrific for cruising down Main Street or cutting through the rock quarry.
Three years after testing a Wrangler Sport, we were fortunate to get a Rubicon model. This is a tough, off-road-ready vehicle not designed for heavy street use - in short, a Jeep's Jeep.
The Rubicon stands higher off the ground, making entry and exit somewhat difficult because of the the high door lip, which protects the interior when you are driving through mud or a river (not recommended). The off road tires make ordinary driving more difficult, and make the Rubicon very twitchy on the highway. They also add to the noise level inside, but this is not as much of an issue at high speeds, partly because of the wind noise, and partly because you'd have to be fairly reckless to go at high speeds within the Rubicon.
The Rubicon has some interesting features, notably an a dash mounted switch which can lock the rear axle and toggle the front axle locker on and off. You control it by either pushing down or lifting up. Both axles on the Rubicon are Dana 44 models, with a transfer case that has a four to one low range for carefully controlled torque off road. Four wheel disc brakes are standard, as is the 4 liter PowerTech six cylinder, which comes with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission borrowed from the Chrysler corporate parts bin.
In the 2003 lesser Wranglers, incidentally, is the Chrysler 2.4 l engine, used on minivans and in the PT Cruiser, replacing the ancient AMC 2.5 l four cylinder. The straight six is the only surviving powertrain unit from American Motors.
Riding on 31 inch tall tires is an interesting experience, with turning radiuses tightened even more than usual on this very short wheelbase vehicle, and all sorts of road imperfections coming through. On the other hand, people do not buy Jeeps - at least not Jeep Wranglers - for a Cadillac style ride. The Wrangler Rubicon is strong on off-road ability, short on highway comforts. It is designed for serious off-road person, and a salesman who convinces a normal buyer to order one is even more unethical than most.
Taking the Rubicon for what it is, it is a very good vehicle, with strong off road prowess and prepared for, well, the Rubicon trail and other hard off-road terrain.
That is not to say there are no creature comforts, because there are. For example our test car had a tilt steering, a leather wrapped steering wheel, tachometer, standard cassette stereo with CD changer controls, four cleverly placed speakers, an easy access passenger seats which tips and slides so people can and use the rear seats, folding rear seats that easily tip and can be removed, and, at extra cost, air conditioning, auto dimming mirror with lamps, compass, and thermometer, cruise control, CD player, seven speaker sound system, and the hard top package.
The base Rubicon is $24,000, but this price is probably inflated a bit because the company knows there will be rebates. The total price for our test vehicle was $28,000, with the two major options being air-conditioning and the hard top, and at $900 each.
The 4 l engine has a lot of torque, but gas mileage is poor, at 16 city, 19 highway - both as one would expect from an engine designed so long ago. Some part of this is due to the Wrangler's aerodynamics, being possibly the only car still made with a flat windshield, and part is probably due to the design of the engine itself. We do not expect this engine to last more than another year or two, as the only other vehicle it is used in will be dropping it.
The interior is actually quite nice, including cupholders, a cushioned change tray, flat map holders, a locking center console and glove compartment, a standard Chrysler corporate stereo, and a generally well integrated interior design.
The small instrument panel has 4 pages, including a tachometer, gas level, temperature gauge with actual degrees, voltage gauge with actual volts, and oil pressure gauge. As with all Chrysler products, you can also access computer codes using an arcane but available system (actually, with Jeeps, it's simple - hold down the odometer button, then turn the key to RUN). The cruise control is sensibly integrated into the steering wheel, is easy to use, includes a cancel button. The headlights are on a stalk, and designed so that you have to manually turn on the fog lights each time you use them - a system we wished everyone would switch to because it is much easier on other drivers' eyes. The optional buttons for rear windshield washer and wiper and rear defroster are next to the axle lock button-optional on some models, standard on Rubicon - in a convenient center mounted pod. There are a 2 power outlets which can be used as cigarette lighters, with the optional smokers group, without which you do not get an ashtray.
The climate control system is outdated and poorly designed, though you can use it wearing thick gloves, and we suspect it has been made water resistant. The problem is in the mode selector, which allows recirculation only with air conditioning, allows defrosting only with a air-conditioning, and allows bilevel mode only with air-conditioning.
The flip and tuck seat count on the passenger side is easy to use and absolutely essential for using the back seats. In fact the only way to into the back seats is really the passenger door using the flip and fold feature or if you are a small child, over the back seat. Getting rear access is relatively simple, but nearly impossible you are parked back to back with a building or another car. First you open the metal lower gate all the way, then you can raise the glass. If you do not open it all the way, the glass will hit the tire which eventually will knock the molding off. This, of course, only applies to those who have spent a thousand dollars for the hard top, an option which is very handy if the Wrangler is your only car and you live in a place where it sometimes gets cold.
This brings us to the topic of the hard top. It is very well designed, free from rattles and shakes, sturdier than in the past, and it includes large expanses of glass for the back seats and the rear. A rear wiper/washer is cleverly included as is wiring for the optional auto dimming front mirror with integral dome lights, compass, and the thermometer.
Even with this option, after you take off the hard top-something you will want to do with the seasons rather than your mood (you also have to store it somewhere during the summer) -you can still fold down the windshield. You do have to remove a a wire harness if you have that optional mirror. The doors also come off, which means no power locks and no power windows-but that would not be in character with the Wrangler, especially the Rubicon model. Even with the hard top, visibility is quite good, interrupted only by the high backs of the front seats, which are a needed safety feature. (When going off road, it is probably a good idea to leave the rear seats empty.)
One very nice feature was a videotape with instructions on owning and driving the Wrangler, including a long section on taking off or putting on the top, and another long section on driving off-road. The video is not filled with advertising hoopla, just factual tips which quickly show how to do common Wrangler tasks.
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 such as a CD stereo, computer controlled engine with troubleshooting reports, intermittent wipers, and even a fancy new state of the art new mirror. But the long through shifter is pleasantly mechanical, the engine makes noises like it should, the four wheel drive control lever is satisfyingly tactile, and the overall of driving experience is consistent and very pleasurable. The Rubicon is a great off road machine, with its standard tow hooks, 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.
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