The Jeep Wrangler is arguably older than anything beyond pickup trucks, tracing its roots to military duty 70 years ago. Wrangler has been modernized with a contemporary engine, electronics inside and underneath, and the body panels are now artfully curved for stiffness while appearing flat. The current-generation Wrangler was introduced as a 2007 model.
However, the Wrangler remains the most maneuverable and trail-capable vehicle from a showroom, and will go places most owners don't dare drive. Or hike. If you're not used to hanging in your seatbelt like a puppet, you have no idea what one can do.
Still trail-capable but not so maneuverable is the four-door Wrangler Unlimited. There are enough differences between Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited that a mere two- or four-door reference wouldn't do it justice. The delta in wheelbase (the distance from front wheel center to rear) is similar to that between a regular cab and crew cab pickup.
A new limited-production Wrangler Unlimited Dragon Edition joins the lineup for 2014, featuring black and bronze satin-gloss exterior and interior treatments. Jeep has reissued the Freedom Edition as a value-priced model.
Also new, the 2014 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon X promises added off-road capability, including a winch-capable bumper and wider rock rails. A newly available Trail Kit features two D-rings, a tow strap, gloves, and storage bag. Parking lamps and turn-signal indicators are now clear rather than amber. Sport models may now be equipped with a Uconnect touchscreen radio with hard-drive storage.
Heated leather upholstery is available for Wranglers. You can swap the doors to half-size and fold down the windshield (though it's quite a chore), or power up the windows to indulge in climate control.
All Wranglers are powered by Chrysler's 24-valve 3.6-liter V6, here rated at 285 horsepower and 260 pound-feet of torque. There's a choice of 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission. A Wrangler gets away from a stop with no problem, but falls off the acceleration curve as it runs into aerodynamic resistance at highway speeds.
But if you buy a Wrangler for highway cruising, you've missed the point. Indeed, they will travel the Interstate with a modicum of comfort and civility, but that's not what they're built for. Wranglers are better suited to all-weather urban runabouts, for folks living on a beach or off the grid or beaten path, or for those whose idea of a freeway is a fast section of dry wash or graded dirt run.
The standard soft top slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, augmented by a rollbar. The removable hardtop comes off in three pieces: a pair of T-tops, with a sunroof over the rear seat. With T-tops removed, at 65 mph the buffeting grates on you; but with the top on, it feels smooth.
In the popular two-door Wrangler, there's very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks fills it to overflowing. But the rear seat can be removed, creating a voluminous 61.2 cubic feet of cargo space. That's the setup we like.
Less likely, the rear seat can be removed from the four-door Wrangler Unlimited making 87 cubic feet. But that doesn't make much sense, either. Wrangler Unlimited is best for parties of four. Our recommendation: Remove the rear seats in the two-door Wrangler, leave the rear seats in place in the four-door Unlimited.
Wranglers are available with all the electronic trimmings, including touch-screen navigation, but sunlight plays havoc with display readability and on a trail you're moving around too much to touch the screen accurately.
Wrangler is not built for gas-mileage. Typically, it averages in the teens and doesn't change much between daily driving and long highway runs.
Wrangler has little direct competition. A Mercedes G-Class has off-highway ability of an Unlimited, a more luxurious cabin, and costs three times as much. The only factory trail vehicles approaching a Wrangler are the Toyota FJ Cruiser or a Land Rover Defender 90.
Jeep Wrangler Sport ($22,395), Wrangler Sport S ($24,795), Wrangler Sahara ($27,995), Wrangler Freedom Edition ($28,095), Wrangler Polar Edition ($32,495), Wrangler Rubicon ($30,895), Wrangler Rubicon X ($35,095); Wrangler Unlimited Sport ($25,995), Wrangler Unlimited Sport S ($28,595), Wrangler Unlimited Sahara ($31,595), Wrangler Unlimited Freedom Edition ($31,895), Wrangler Unlimited Polar Edition ($36,195), Wrangler Unlimited Dragon Edition ($36,295), Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon ($35,770), Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon X ($38,795).
The Wrangler looks like a Jeep; and when that can no longer be said, it's time to worry. Wrangler may be the most recognizable vehicle in the world. Round headlamps, seven-slot grille, separate fenders, removable doors (half-doors are optional), and fold-down windshield are all proven Jeep cues. However, if you look for the flat panels of earlier Wranglers and CJs, you won't find any; every piece of sheetmetal, and the windshield, are slightly curved here.
Even the Unlimited four-door, whether hard top or soft top, looks like a Jeep. And it's the only four-door 4x4 convertible on the market. The soft top slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, although there's already a rollbar. Beginning with the 2013 models, the soft top became easier to lift, though it's still more work than any convertible car. Some versions have a premium soft top that borders on a headliner.
The hardtop is optional (price dependent on finish); it comes off in three pieces, like a pair of T-tops in front and a sunroof over the rear seat. We spent a summer day on Jeep trails in the Northwest in a Wrangler Rubicon with all three parts removed, and it was fabulous.
The soft top remains the sportiest in appearance, and isn't much louder on the highway. We think the hard top is better for urban warriors, hunters, fishermen or other outdoorsmen, because it provides better security for your outdoor gear in shopping-center parking lots, against thieves, and better security for your food in camp, if threatened by bears. Can't decide? Want both? The Dual Top option allows buyers to get both. We'd likely spring for Dual Top.
If you like some of the body accessories fitted to the special-edition models, many of those bits are available from Mopar, Chrysler's in-house parts division. They won't be cheap compared to the aftermarket, but the fit is guaranteed, there are no warranty issues, and your dealer might mix it in with your deal.
Who expects heated leather seats in a topless Jeep? On the other hand, they are easy to wipe off, and staying warm with the top down in the Rockies on a cool, sunny day is not the worst idea.
We lived in a hardtop Wrangler for a week and it was all good, comfort-wise. With the top off, there was a lot of wind buffeting in the back seat. Aside from that annoyance, the Wrangler is more comfortable than my Jetta, said our passenger, riding shotgun on rocky trails for a day.
We've driven a Wrangler Unlimited Sahara. It's roomy and comfortable and, even with leather, still every bit a Jeep. Good rear legroom, easy to climb in and out. The rear 60/40 seat folds or can be removed to create 87 cubic feet of cargo space, comparable to a Toyota 4Runner.
The center console makes a good armrest, though its height means you have to raise your elbow when using the shift lever. Power window switches are centered in the dash between omni-directional vents. Other controls are grouped around the radio or touchscreen entertainment head, on the stalks, steering wheel spokes, and ahead of the shifter. Bouncing around with your hand on the shifter is not only discouraged for the transmission's longevity, you readily get bumped into the switches. Flicking on the hazard flashers inadvertently would look silly on the trail.
There's very little storage space behind the Wrangler's rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks fills it to overflowing. But if it's just you and some stuff, the rear seat can be removed, creating a spacious 61.2 cubic feet of cargo space.
The Media Center options have their downsides, and if you go offroad or take the top down much, you probably won't like them. The touch screen is invisible in the sun. In a bouncing Jeep it's not easy to land your finger where you want it, even when merely trying to tune the radio. A Jeep needs knobs you can grab. The 6.5-inch screen is reasonably large, but with some functions less than half of the screen is used: tiny little radio words, while the other 60 percent of the space says JEEP.
The navigation system in the Media Center is fairly simple in its display. It didn't make any errors on the routes we programmed, although trying to find the button to enter a destination was maddening. We suggest you skip the Media Center, be satisfied with six speakers in the standard sound system, and get your own GPS for navigation. It's a Jeep-like choice.
We got opportunities to gather driving impressions in a number of Wranglers, from the Unlimited in SUV-like surroundings, to the Rubicon on rock-climbing trails, and the Sport on backroad two-lanes at night. We've driven Rubicons on their namesake trail, Oregon's Tillamook Forest, Michigan dunes and all the harsh terrain Moab has to offer, in far more comfort than Wranglers of old.
The Wrangler Unlimited Sahara is astonishingly smooth and quiet, totally civilized, thanks hugely to the 3.6-liter V6 engine. The 5-speed automatic is well-behaved, and doesn't hunt for gears; it simply uses the gear it's in. It was designed for use with Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi engine, now refined for the Pentastar V6, but still delivering Jeep-like industrial strength. Many Wrangler Unlimited models can tow 3500 pounds; others are rated to tow 2000, as are the two-door Wranglers.
The Unlimited corners well, and head sway on weaving roads is light. You can only do so much with a solid axle and tall body, countered by a stability and vertical-climbing-friendly long wheelbase, like that of a short-bed, regular cab full-size pickup.
Wrangler Unlimited's 116-inch wheelbase is 10 inches more than a Nissan Xterra. What's good on the highway is not the best for maneuverability, and the Unlimited doesn't turn nearly as well as a Wrangler. It bottoms out more easily in rugged terrain; the Unlimited's breakover angle is comparable to that of a Land Rover LR2. On the upside, the twitchy handling that lingers in the Wrangler because of its short 95-inch wheelbase is not present in the Wrangler Unlimited. The first pleasant surprise of the Unlimited: it doesn't feel like a Jeep.
With 285 horsepower, you'd think a Wrangler should feel more powerful, and accelerate faster. We ran a lot of high-speed two-lane miles, and our Wrangler had to work, using momentum to pass. Weight and aerodynamic resistance take their toll, and with a Rubicon four-door heavier than a 470-hp Dodge Charger and about as sleek as a phone book, acceleration rates quickly fall off as speed increases. Most mud- and all-terrain tires aren't designed for West Texas or Montana speeds, either.
For serious trail adventures the Rubicons are ideal, but we got a Moab Unlimited through Elephant Hill (a trail in Utah's Canyonlands National Park that's rated 5 on a 1-10 scale) on street tire pressure with no issues. As things get nastier in a Rubicon, you can push a button to disconnect the splined front stabilizer to allow more lateral articulation at the wheels. If it gets worse, press another button to lock the rear differential; and if gets harder still, lock the front differential as well.
On many low-speed trails, the best technique is to take your feet off the pedals and just steer. At idle in Low Range, a Rubicon powers up and over obstacles that would totally stop most vehicles; even though torque peaks up at 4800 rpm, it plugs along like a tractor. This is because of the Rubicon's unique transfer-case low-range gearing of 4:1. With a manual transmission in first gear, the overall gear reduction is 73:1 (53.6:1 with automatic), as opposed to 10:1-12:1 in the average car, for maximum torque at baby-crawling speeds.
Our Rubicon scarcely broke a sweat over rocky trails that would turn back all but the ruggedest and hardest-climbing of vehicles. We ran support for a 50k trail run in the Columbia River Gorge, over two 3500-foot peaks in Washington's Cascades, and it was a hard 12-hour day. In my old Jeep, I would have been in misery, dying to get out, said our navigator. But I could ride all day in this Jeep.
On the highway at 70 mph, the Wrangler can be a bit twitchy. Hopping out of an Unlimited where the twitchiness is absent, the twitch in the short-wheelbase Wrangler is heightened. But as soon the driver adjusts, the turns and corrections come more smoothly. When the Wrangler is pointed straight and steady, it stays that way. Much of this is relative to tires and pressure.
There's a big difference in how stable the Wrangler feels with the top on and off, but little change in actual stability. With T-tops removed, at 65 mph it beats you up; but with the top on it feels smooth at 75 and beyond.
Keep in mind that the Sport, Sahara and Rubicon models have different tires, shock absorbers, and gearing. This changes their character significantly, whether on the highway or the trail. Choose your Wrangler for the type of driving you'll be doing.
The Wrangler is no gas-mileage champ. Wrangler is EPA-estimated at 17/21 mpg City/Highway; Unlimited has the same rating with manual shift, but 17/20 mpg with automatic. Expect teens on the pavement and less than 5 mpg on the trail or sand dunes. Our Unlimited did 18 mpg on mostly pavement; a Rubicon 10th Anniversary averaged 11 mpg over a 70-mile pavement drive and 9 hours on the trail. Of course, fuel economy on the trail will be poor in any vehicle.
The 6-speed manual transmission, German-made, isn't as easy to drive as the 5-speed automatic, American-made. The 6-speed has relatively long clutch and shift travel for a car, but typical for a truck. Your driving style will affect economy far more than choice of transmission, but the manual is less expensive and has a far superior crawl ratio for trail use.
New for 2013 was a Badge of Honor program in which you could earn famous-trail badges (Rubicon, Hell's Revenge, etc.) by completing them.
The Jeep Wrangler is surprisingly smooth and sophisticated, given its amazing off-road capability. Wrangler Unlimited delivers a smooth ride and secure handling. Soft top is sporty, hard top is practical; we like both. We recommend the Unlimited for families; off-road capability is nearly the same. Singles and couples might want to go for the traditional two-door, however.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drives of several Wrangler models in the Pacific Northwest.