For 2006, Jeep has added more heavy-duty equipment to the base Unlimited model. An extended-wheelbase version introduced mid-2004, the Wrangler Unlimited models are designed to offer more room for people and cargo and improved handling and ride quality on the pavement while maintaining most of the shorter Wrangler's legendary off-road capability.
For 2006, Jeep has brought back the Golden Eagle package from the 1970s. Golden Eagle Wranglers feature two-tone premium seats with Golden Eagle logos; a painted center stack bezel; a Dana 44 heavy-duty rear axle; 15-inch gold-finished aluminum wheels; and 30-inch tires; plus Golden Eagle hood, fender and spare tire decals.
For the ultimate in off-the-shelf, off-road capability, Jeep offers the Wrangler Rubicon. Jeep looked at the aftermarket modifications off-road enthusiasts were making to their Jeeps, and engineered many of those features into a turn-key vehicle you can buy (and finance) right off the showroom floor. Built with Jeep's Go anywhere, do anything design philosophy, the Rubicon is a 4x4 gem.
In any form, Wrangler remains an icon, a symbol of go-anywhere adventure. Although it's been re-engineered at least a half-dozen times over the past 60 years, the Wrangler is still as close as you can get to a direct descendent of the World War II-era Jeep.
Because the Wrangler is designed for off-road capability first with on-road behavior a secondary consideration, it is not the most practical everyday vehicle. And it is not be the best choice for someone drawn to it simply because it's cute. (And it is cute.) Getting in and out is awkward. The interior is spartan. The ride quality is rough by today's standards, though many don't mind it. And it doesn't handle very well, so it should be driven with care, particularly in the rain.
A six-speed manual transmission is standard and a four-speed automatic is available on most models. Four-wheel disc brakes are available for better stopping ability, and many convenience features are available.
Jeep Wrangler SE ($18,140); X ($20,450); Sport ($23,310); Rubicon ($27,535); Unlimited ($24,065); Unlimited Rubicon ($28,535).
The exterior mirrors are made of plastic, which Jeep engineers say holds up better than metal when going off-road. Bumpers are black on all models. Fender flares are black or dark khaki on all but Rubicon and Rubicon Unlimited, where they are metallic gray.
Other visual cues distinguish the Rubicons as well. A 22-inch Rubicon nameplate is emblazoned on either side of the hood. Heavy-gauge diamond-plate sill guards are bolted to the body sides to protect the rocker panels from damage and dings from rocks and stumps in the backcountry. Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires are mounted on 16-inch, five-spoke aluminum wheels with dished faces to protect them from debris and obstacles. Generous ground clearance helps the Rubicon traverse the trail.
One of the biggest decisions to make when buying a Wrangler is selecting the top. Purists prefer the soft top, a high-quality piece of equipment that can be configured according to the weather. If a screwdriver is handy, the windshield can be flipped down for breezy, low-speed touring in the backcountry. Doors may be removed for the maximum open-air experience. The Unlimited models have a multi-functional soft top called Sunrider, that folds completely or only from above the front seats in a sunroof-like configuration.
The optional hard top is more practical and offers better protection from weather and thieves. The hard top comes with full-height doors and roll-up windows. Rearward visibility is better, and it's further aided by the rear-window defroster, wiper and washer. Wind noise is greatly reduced. The hard top can be removed, although we haven't tried this. Jeep claims that either top is far easier to remove or install than those of pre-2001 models and provides much better sealing from the elements.
The additional length of the Unlimited models is almost entirely between the door and the rear wheel. How this affects the Wranglers rugged-cute look will be a matter of taste. We like how the stretch in length, combined with the fractionally lower Sunrider top, gives the Wrangler more car-like proportions; but Jeep die-hards may hate it for precisely that reason.
Seats and fabrics are comfortable. The front seat offers enough rearward travel to allow taller drivers to sit a comfortable distance from the steering wheel. The easily removable, fold-and-tumble rear seat is equipped with the LATCH (Lower Anchors and upper Tethers for CHildren) system for mounting child safety seats directly to the structure of the seat. It's a long reach to access gear stowed in the rear seats, so don't attempt it while driving.
A dark gray or khaki interior, four-spoke steering wheel and padded sport bar give the Wrangler its unmistakably utilitarian look, while a simple dash with a 12-volt power outlet adds functionality. On all models, the interior is weatherproofed, and can be cleaned with a hose, thanks to drain plugs in the floor. The interior light continues to be managed by a switch in the door frame, so a fuse must be pulled to extinguish the light when the Wrangler is operated sans doors.
The Wrangler remains miles away from luxurious, but the current generation models are more comfortable than older generations. Soft trim pieces are used inside so it doesn't hurt quite as much when you bang your head. An electrochromic rearview mirror with map lights and compass display is available to help keep you on the intended route. The mirror automatically dims when headlights shine on it; this bit of luxury technology may sound out of place in a Wrangler, but it's an important feature when the top is off. Radio controls are located in the center stack. Corner pods located just behind both B-pillars house interior lamps, providing theater lighting.
The 10-inch longer wheelbase of the Unlimited translates directly into more interior room, especially in the back seats and cargo area. Rear-seat legroom is up by two inches over the standard models, and the space behind the rear seat grows lengthwise by 13 inches. The Unlimited's towing capacity is 3500 pounds compared with the shorter Wrangler's 2000 pounds.
The tall tires and off-road suspension, which add capability in the backcountry, become a liability around town. This is particularly true of the Rubicon. The ride is harsh and choppy. On the plus side, however, is a torque-sensing limited-slip feature on the rear axle for better traction everywhere.
The Unlimited offers a smoother ride, a benefit of its longer wheelbase. Directional stability is much improved, with less dartiness and more confident on-center feel in the steering. The Unlimited may be a good compromise for many people.
We sampled both the smooth-shifting four-speed automatic transmission and the astutely geared six-speed manual, and both match up well to the power curve of the inline six-cylinder engine.
Jeep's inline-6 produces ample power in all situations. It's rated at 190 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque. The inline-6 gives up 2 mpg to the manual-shift four-cylinder around town but returns the same 20 mpg on the highway as the four, with either the six-speed manual or the four-speed automatic.
The Wrangler SE with the four-cylinder engine is an appealing vehicle, however. It does not offer much power and we wouldn't want to drive every day or on a long cross country trip, but we still like it. There's something poetic about its simplicity, right down to its skinny tires. The low-cut doors and soft top are cool. The low price is attractive, assuming you can resist the many attractive options.
The 2.4-liter, twin-overhead-cam four is rated 147 horsepower at 5200 rpm and 165 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm. It does not offer thrilling acceleration. If you like the easy-to-clean vinyl upholstery, and don't feel the need for speed, then the SE is a good vehicle for fishing, hunting, or exploring. Having one attached to the back of your motor home comes in handy when tooling around small towns in the American West. We drove one at Jeep's proving grounds in Michigan and it performed well.
The Rubicon model offers the ultimate in off-road capability. The Rubicon is designed to reflect the original go-anywhere vision realized in 1940. This specialty model was named for the Class 10 Rubicon Trail on the California-Nevada border, a location that has been part of Jeep's evaluation for all its vehicles. Jeep recreated sections of the famed Rubicon Trail at its proving grounds in Michigan to test the durability and capabilities of its newest offering.
We've found the Wrangler Rubicon to perform impressively in the rough and rugged. It boasts a cadre of 4WD technology that includes a transfer case equipped with a 4.0:1 low range (the low ratio in the standard transfer case is 2.72:1), which delivers more torque at the snail-like speeds often required for off-road driving. Locking differentials, actuated when the driver presses a switch on the dash, prevent power from being directed away from the tires with the best grip. Dana Model 44 axles, considered by enthusiasts to be the cream of the crop, come standard on the Rubicon and are strong enough to handle all manner of off-road conditions.
Boasting Big Foot stature in a mini footprint, the Rubicon wears aggressive Goodyear Wrangler 31-inch tires that help it achieve 10 inches of ground clearance on a short 93.4-inch wheelbase. That makes it a nimble vehicle in the backcountry. Added to that are laudable approach angles (42.2 degrees, 43.1 in the Unlimited), departure angles (31.5 degrees, 27.7 in the Unlimited), and ramp breakover angles (22.6 degrees, 21.4 in the Unlimited). This means you can drive up, down and over steep grades, tall boulders and fallen logs with ease.
Jeep Wrangler is a classic symbol of summer cruising and off-road rambling. The Wrangler SE is a classic. Wrangler Rubicon is the ultimate off-road rig. The stretched Unlimited model offers a few concessions in off-road capability to increase comfort. Watch for deals to clear the lots in preparation for all-new 2007 Wrangler.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from Chrysler's proving grounds in Michigan; with Mitch McCullough reporting from Southern California.