The Jeep Wrangler is arguably older than anything beyond pickup trucks, tracing its roots to field 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.
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 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.
Heated leather upholstery is available for Wrangler. 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. No Jeeper ever had it quite like this.
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 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, those 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 in 2WD. You can also use a Wrangler as a dinghy to tow behind your motorhome.
The soft top that comes standard slides and folds horizontally on the roof, leaving the occupants further protected by door and window frames, although there's already 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 at 75 and beyond.
In the popular two-door Wrangler there's very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks is filled to overflowing. You wouldn't do any better with four people and luggage in a Mini, which is only 5 inches shorter. 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; that's the configuration we prefer. Less likely, the rear seat can be remove from the four-door Wrangler Unlimited, making 87 cubic feet.
Wranglers are available with all the electronic trimmings, including a touch-screen navigation, but sunlight plays havoc with display readability and on a trail you're moving around too much to touch things accurately. At least the USB port means music without discs or tapes getting dusty.
We've driven Rubicons on their namesake trail, Oregon's Tillamook Forest, Michigan dunes and all the best (worst) stuff Moab has to offer, in far more comfort than Wranglers of old. If you don't want to build your own Jeep for trail use try a Rubicon. The Jeep warranty is probably better than your local 4×4 shop.
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.
The current-generation Wrangler was introduced as a 2007 model. 2011 brought a refined interior. The 2013 Wrangler gets an improved soft top but carries over largely unchanged. Also new for 2013 is a Badge of Honor program in which you earn famous-trail badges (Rubicon, Hell's Revenge, etc.) by completing them.
Wrangler has little direct competition. A Mercedes G-Class has off-highway ability of an Unlimited, more luxurious cabin and costs three times as much. You might also argue a Power Wagon and Raptor as Unlimited challengers. For factory trail vehicles the only things approaching a Wrangler are Toyota's FJ Cruiser and 4Runner, Nissan's Xterra or a 15-year-old Land Rover Defender 90.
The 2013 Wrangler looks like a Jeep, and when that can't be said, it's time to worry. It may be the most recognizable vehicle in the world. Even the Unlimited four-door, whether hard top or soft top looks like a Jeep. 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. Meanwhile, the Wrangler Unlimited is the only four-door 4×4 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. For 2013, the soft-top is easier to lift, though still more work than any convertible car, and 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 against bears. Can't decide? Want both? The Dual Top option allows buyers to get both. We'd likely spring for Dual Top.
Paint colors include bright Crush Orange, Gecko Green and Rock Lobster Red, alongside more traditional colors for those who want to blend into the environment, whether suburban or bucolic.
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.
New for 2013 is a Badge of Honor program in which you earn famous-trail badges (Rubicon, Hell's Revenge, etc.) by completing them. We had some issues with an early app because, among other things, many of these trails are nowhere near cell service.
The Wrangler interior was upgraded with new seats and better ergonomics for 2011. 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, but aside from that 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, you readily get bumped into the switches, and hazard flashers look silly on the trail.
There's very little storage space behind the Wrangler's rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks is filled 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 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 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, the other 60 percent 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 finding 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 fast backroad two-lanes at night.
The Wrangler Unlimited Sahara, ours resplendent in rich brown with dark leather, is almost 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 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 Jeep-like industrial strength. Most Wrangler Unlimiteds can tow 3500 pounds, others are rated to tow 2000 are 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.
The 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 also drags high points earlier, the Unlimited's breakover angle no better than a Land Rover LR2 cute ute. 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 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 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 (rated 5 on a 1-10 scale) on street tire pressure with no issues. As things get nastier in a Rubicon you 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.
In 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 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 as we did 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; a 10th Anniversary's E-rated tires would work on a 3/4-ton pickup truck.
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 and this changes their character significantly. 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 is rated 16/20 mpg. Expect teens on the pavement and down below 5 mpg on the trail or sand dunes. Our Unlimited did 18 mpg on mostly pavement, a Rubicon 10th Anniversary was averaging 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 car.
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.
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.