The Wrangler was redesigned for the 2007 model year. At the same time, a four-door version was introduced and named Wrangler Unlimited. The four-door doesn't change the character of the Wrangler but makes it easier to own and more practical for many. It's much more comfortable and convenient, offering more cargo and back-seat passenger space.
After its 2007 redesign, the Wrangler gets only minor changes for 2008. A tire-pressure monitor is now standard, remote engine starting is available, and the Sunrider soft top becomes standard on more models.
All Wranglers come with the V6; four-cylinder models are not available. The standard six-speed manual fits the Wrangler's personality, but the optional four-speed automatic is convenient. We can't imagine getting a Wrangler without it's highly capable four-wheel-drive, a part-time system that includes low-range gearing.
Jeep Wrangler X ($18,660); Sahara ($24,115); Rubicon ($27,220); Unlimited X 2WD ($20,580); Unlimited X 4WD ($22,580); Unlimited Sahara 2WD ($25,490); Unlimited Sahara 4WD ($27,490); Unlimited Rubicon ($29,535)
Up front you'll find the classic round headlamps, Jeep's seven-slot grille, and a front bumper with integrated fog lamps. The upright fold-down windshield is slightly curved for better aerodynamics and reduced wind noise.
Identifying a Wrangler Unlimited is easy: Just count the doors. Unlimited models have four doors.
Along the sides, all Wranglers have assist steps under the doors to make climbing in easier, and fender flares that are bolted on, so they can be easily taken off and replaced with cooler aftermarket flares. The bumpers, step assists and fender flares are all sturdy, flat-black plastic on the X.
The standard soft top is relatively easy to remove and install. The Sunrider soft top slides back half way, like a huge sunroof over the front seats. The optional three-piece modular hardtop (Freedom Top) has two front panels that easily pop on and off like a T-top, and can be stored behind the rear seat. The third panel over the rear seat can be removed separately and stored in the garage. The Freedom Top yields a total of six open-air possibilities.
Under the body, there's a boxed frame with seven cross members. Wide spaced frame rails cradle the fuel tank between the wheels. Three skid plates protect the fuel tank, transfer case and automatic transmission oil pan.
The larger Unlimited offers more than 86 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded flat. Jeep claims that's more cargo space than the Toyota FJ Cruiser, Hummer H3, or Nissan Xterra offer. The headrests flip back, so they don't need to be removed, making it easy to switch between cargo and back-seat passenger modes. In the rear seat, the Unlimited offers 1.6 more inches of leg room and a whopping 12 inches more hip room than two-door models. That huge difference is because in the regular Wrangler, the rear passengers sit directly over the axle and between the wheel wells; in the Unlimited, the axle is located behind them. That also greatly improves the ride for back-seat riders in the Unlimited.
The layout of the clean instrument panel is excellent, against a background of dull (neither flat nor gloss) black plastic. The instruments, including the optional compass and temperature gauges, are easy to read, and the controls are soothingly simple. The solid square buttons look good and are easy to understand and operate. There's a nice leather-wrapped four-spoke steering wheel, with a short cruise-control stalk that's out of the way on the right side. The materials are made of sturdy plastic that works well in the utilitarian Wrangler.
The 368-watt Infinity sound system comes with seven speakers, including a subwoofer. That's a lot of speakers for a Jeep, but we think this is a good thing. It comes with Sirius satellite radio, good for keeping up with the news when out in the boonies. Located under the sound system controls are big climate control knobs, with buttons for available power windows above that.
Jeep's MyGIG Multimedia Infotainment System comes with a 6.5-inch touch screen, a 20-gigabyte hard drive and a navigation system with voice control and real-time traffic information. The hard drive holds songs, pictures and navigation map information. CDs can be ripped right to the hard drive, and songs and pictures can be transferred via a USB port. A Gracenotes database sorts songs by artist, track and song title. We'd definitely spring for the navi with real-time traffic reporting.
Between the seats are the shift lever, a short four-wheel-drive lever, two cupholders, emergency brake handle, and a console that's wide and deep, if not long. The locking glove box is pretty big and there's a convenient grab handle above it. This is a Jeep, after all, so the grab handle will be used in the bouncy bits.
The modular Freedom Top for the Unlimited features sections above each passenger that easily lift off after twisting a fastener. These sections can be stored behind the rear seat. The larger section over the rear seat can also be removed but can't be stored in the vehicle; you'll have to leave it at home. We found storing the two roof panels eliminates most of the cargo space. Cargo space is not unlimited in the Unlimited. We couldn't fit four carry-on-sized bags behind the rear seat. And watch out for the rear glass on the Freedom Top; it rises on its own when opened, and will whack you on the chin (or forehead, or nose) if you forget to step back.
Compared to the last-generation Wrangler, the wheelbase has been increased by 2 inches and the track by 3.4 inches; the chassis has been stiffened and the suspension redesigned. All these things yield significant improvements in the ride and handling, but still, on city streets, the Wrangler is pretty bouncy, and out on the freeway it can feel squiggly over pavement changes. The driver needs to pay attention to keep the Wrangler going in a straight line.
That said, we drove the Wrangler at speeds up to 85 miles per hour on the open freeway, and it was stable and surprisingly quiet, when the pavement was smooth. When it was even slightly rough, we had to move into the smoother passing lane to find comfort.
However, it's important to note that our Sahara had the 18-inch wheels with Bridgestone Dueler on/off-road tires and high-pressure gas-charged shock absorbers. Standard on the Sahara are 18-inch Goodyear Wrangler SRA on/off-road tires with those shocks. The Wrangler X uses 16-inch Goodyear Wrangler STs, also on/off-road, but the shocks are low-pressure, so that combination might offer the best ride, with the standard Sahara setup somewhere in between the two.
The 3.8-liter V6 that comes standard on all Wranglers is an overhead valve engine. It makes 202 horsepower (205 in the Unlimited) and 232 pound-feet of torque (240 in the Unlimited) at 4000 rpm.
Acceleration is good, but on those long uphill 75-mph grades between Lake Tahoe and San Francisco, the Jeep kept kicking down out of overdrive, fourth gear, until we turned the overdrive off (our Sahara was equipped with the Trailer Tow Group option). More torque at lower rpm might have prevented this. We didn't have the opportunity to test the standard six-speed manual transmission, but we're inclined to suggest it might be more compatible with the Jeep than this four-speed automatic.
The Wrangler Unlimited would have been a different animal on this road. The ride is significantly smoother and the handling more stable, thanks to a wheelbase that's 20.6 inches longer. The Unlimited also weighs 315 pounds more, so the engine will work a bit harder. However, all 4WD Wranglers are EPA-rated at 15 city and 19 highway miles per gallon.
When we drove the Unlimited around Lake Tahoe, there were a lot of other Jeeps on the road, and our four-door never failed to turn heads. At the view points, fellow Jeepsters came over to ogle and marvel. Every one of them said they wanted to go home and trade in their two-door on the new four-door Jeep.
We were also behind the wheel of an Unlimited with the six-speed manual transmission on the rugged Rubicon Trail, where its capability was downright dazzling; in low range and first gear on the most challenging sections, we drove without using our feet: merely steering over daunting obstacles, and letting the vehicle do the rest. It's safe to say that the two-door Wrangler would be fairly astonishing.
The only limitation with the Unlimited was its turning radius of 41.2 feet versus 34.9 feet with the two-door. Six feet is a big difference. In San Francisco, we used the two-door's tight turning radius to make a U-turn in the middle of a street to snatch a parking space on the other side.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most capable off-road vehicles available today. Its four-wheel drive system also offers all-weather security and its convertible body style offers open-air fun. The Unlimited body style has greater cargo capacity, making the Wrangler more practical. You'll give up a lot of ride and handling prowess, as well as fuel mileage, but the Wrangler is fun.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses drove Wrangler models up the Rubicon Trail, through San Francisco and around Lake Tahoe while preparing this report. Kirk Bell contributed from Chicago.