Few vehicles are better off the pavement than a Jeep Wrangler. This is the one credited with starting it all. Traceable to the original Jeep, the Wrangler is the very symbol of off-road capability.
The Wrangler comes in the familiar two-door version and a four-door model called Unlimited. The four-door Wrangler Unlimited doesn't completely change the character of the Wrangler but makes it more practical for many. It's more comfortable and convenient, offering more cargo and rear-seat passenger space and a higher tow rating. Still, the traditional two-door Wrangler has its charms and virtues. It is the classic. We enjoy all of them. Jeep Wranglers can take you places you've never been before.
The 2011 Wrangler has moderate changes, including a revised interior. The three-piece hard top has larger windows and is offered in body-matching paint on 2011 Wrangler Sahara models. New features have been added to the option list for 2011, including heated leather seats, power heated mirrors and Bluetooth streaming audio.
2011 Jeep Wrangler and four-door Wrangler Unlimited are offered in Sport, Sahara and Rubicon trim. All Wranglers have a 3.8-liter V6 engine, which develops 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 15/19 mpg City/Highway for all models and both transmissions.
Four-wheel drive is standard, along with four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and electronic stability control. A 6-speed manual comes standard, a 4-speed automatic transmission is optional. The 6-speed manual fits the Wrangler's personality, but the automatic is more convenient.
A soft top comes standard, which offers the option of top-down motoring, and half-doors are available. A hardtop is available, also, offering greater security.
Despite the added features and upgraded interior, the 2011 Wrangler is not really an alternative to a car. It isn't comfortable by car standards. Fuel economy would merit a gas guzzler tax, and it isn't cheap. By 4WD standards it is considered the standard, however, especially in Rubicon trim. So if your recreation takes you off the beaten path, the Wrangler presents a compelling argument.
Vehicles that can match the Wrangler's off-highway performance cost many times more (Land Rover's LR4 and Range Rover, Mercedes-Benz's G550) or can be used only in more open areas where size is not a consideration (Ram Power Wagon, Ford SVT Raptor pickups). If you want decent off-highway four-door performance with more comfort and don't need the Jeep's extreme gearing, Nissan's Xterra might be your solution.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most widely recognizable vehicles in the world. Most important, Wranglers have always had a distinct family resemblance to the original Jeep of World War II fame.
Up front you'll find the classic round headlamps, Jeep's seven-slot grille, and a front bumper with integrated fog lamps. The upright windshield is slightly curved for better aerodynamics and reduced wind noise. It can be folded down to rest on the hood for true open-air motoring, but that is not a simple chore as it once was. Likewise the doors can still be removed, but check your state's rules about driving with no side mirrors.
Along the sides, many 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 for repair or replacement. This generation Wrangler may look as square as the first Jeeps, but not a single panel on it is completely flat. Remember that before you start fabricating add-ons.
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 hard top (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.
For 2011 the windows in the hard top are notably larger, helping driver vision and passenger claustrophobia. On Sahara models the top can be ordered painted to match the rest of the bodywork.
Under the body, there's a boxed frame with seven crossmembers. Wide-spaced frame rails cradle the fuel tank between the wheels. Skid plates protect any vulnerable bits, and tow hooks are standard.
For 2011, nearly every part of the interior has been updated, but you can still hose out the floors (the carpet is easily removed) after a day in the mud. Door panels have new surfaces, armrests, storage nets (nets drain better than pockets), and door pulls that won't break fingernails. The center panel controls have been moved closer to occupants for an easy reach, omni-directional air vents, and a lockable center console; some models offer a 115-VAC power outlet.
Wranglers have traditionally been known as compact inside. The comfortable high-back front seats are surrounded by more shoulder and hip room than previous-generation models, and the removable rear seat provides more shoulder, hip and leg room for each of the two passengers. There's also more space behind the rear seat, which folds to provide nearly twice the cargo capacity as before; with the rear seat removed the two-door has 61 cubic feet of cargo space, more than many midsize SUVs.
The Unlimited is larger. The Unlimited offers more than 80 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat folded flat. The headrests flip back, so they don't need to be removed, making it easy to switch between cargo and rear-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. The Unlimited can seat three in the back seat. The reason: Rear passengers in the two-door Wrangler sit between the wheel wells, while in the Unlimited they sit ahead of the rear axle.
Instrumentation is clean and simple, against a background of dull (neither flat nor gloss) plastic. Solid square buttons look good and are easy to understand and operate. There's a new steering wheel with integral cruise and audio controls. The materials have more feel and texture yet remain easy-to-clean plastic that works well in the utilitarian Wrangler.
The Wrangler is available with heated leather seats, upgraded USB input, Bluetooth streaming audio, power heated mirrors, multiple power outlets, and automatic temperature control. All have additional noise abatement measures but don't think of a Wrangler as a car.
The optional 368-watt Infinity sound system comes with seven speakers, including a subwoofer. That might seem a lot for a Jeep, but it translates to decent sound with no top. The upgrade includes 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.
Between the seats are the shift lever, a short four-wheel-drive lever, two cupholders, emergency brake handle, and a locking center console that's wide and deep, if not long. The locking glove box is big and there's a convenient grab handle above (it also helps direct the air bag, so don't remove it). This is a Jeep, after all, so the grab handle will be used on bouncy roads, or where there are no roads at all.
The Freedom Top modular hard tops feature sections that easily lift off and can be secured behind the rear seat. The larger section over the rear seat can also be removed but cannot be stored in the vehicle; you'll have to leave it in camp or 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 any Wrangler's hard top rear window; like many hatchbacks it rises on its own when opened, and may whack you on the chin (or forehead, or nose) if you forget to step back.
If you've never owned or driven a Wrangler, you might think it's twitchy, choppy and generally crude. But it's a relative thing. Your family sedan would feel no more at home on a muddy, rutted track deep in the woods. Relative to earlier versions, today's Wrangler feels quite civilized.
Compared to the last-generation Wrangler (pre-2007 models), the wheelbase is longer and the front and rear tracks are wider, 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 can be bouncy, and out on the freeway it can feel squiggly over pavement changes. On rougher surfaces the driver needs to pay attention to keep the Wrangler going in a straight line, though on dirt it's directional stability is decent and you're more likely to steer only for major course changes.
That said, we drove the Wrangler at speeds up to 85 miles per hour on the open freeway and, when the pavement was smooth, it was stable and surprisingly quiet with the hardtop. Handling is predictable if not thrilling and it goes where it's pointed. If the road was even mildly rough, the ride will deteriorate. The brakes are adequate.
However, it's important to note that the various models, Sport, Sahara, Rubicon, have completely different tires and the Sahara and Rubicon have better shock absorbers. Sport and Sahara have what amount to all-season passenger car tires, while the Rubicon has light truck tires with an aggressive tread; tire pressure will make a major difference in how each rides and handles. On low-speed trails, we frequently make do with less than 10 psi. But you need to air up when you get back on the road.
Electronic stability control is standard on Wrangler, with hill-start assist and trailer sway control. The safety equipment, including the airbags, has been tuned and calibrated with Wrangler's mission in mind so that, for example, an off-angle hill doesn't deploy a side airbag.
The 3.8-liter engine is an overhead-valve V6 just like it was 45 years ago. Modern electronics help it make 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque, but the Wrangler is not light (50 percent heavier than the 45-year-old CJ) so acceleration is moderate and fuel economy in the teens. The optional 4-speed automatic transmission will change between third and fourth gear a lot on hilly highways unless you switch off overdrive because there isn't enough torque to run the top gear uphill.
The 6-speed manual transmission is the better choice. It's lighter than the automatic, offers two more gears for better performance, has reasonably good shift feel and clutch effort for a truck, and the Rubicon has a switch that allows you to use the starter in gear as you might on a trail.
The Rubicon also uses a different transfer-case with a deeper low-range ratio of 4:1 rather than the standard 2.72:1. This lets the Rubicon go slower with the engine running, and deliver more torque to keep the tires turning in deep mud or sand.
The easiest way to drive a Rubicon over rocky terrain is with the front antisway bar disconnected and without using the brake of clutch: Gearing and engine braking will limit downhill speed, and if gearing doesn't get you up an obstacle and it stalls, put one foot very lightly on the gas pedal and turn the key to let the starter do the work.
The Wrangler Unlimited is a different animal. The ride is significantly smoother thanks to a wheelbase that's 20.6 inches longer and it carries four more gallons of gas, extending trail range. The downside is an Unlimited weighs about 200 pounds more and needs an extra six feet of space to execute a U-turn on the street or get around a tight obstacle on the trail. Six feet may not sound like much on the street, but it's huge on a black-diamond trail.
All Wranglers are 4WD and all are EPA-rated 15/19 regardless of transmission or model. No sane person buys a Wrangler with fuel economy in mind but the Unlimited's extra weight and size may negatively affect it, and higher cruising speeds have a greater-than-normal effect since aerodynamics are not the priority here. For anyone planning to use a Wrangler as intended we would recommend the shortest (highest numerical) axle ratio available.
The Jeep Wrangler is one of the most capable off-highway vehicles available today. Its four-wheel drive system offers no-road capability 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; Kirk Bell reported from Chicago; G.R. Whale drove Wranglers across the Rubicon Trail, Moab, and Angeles National Forest.