Jeep Wrangler is what the Jeep brand is all about. Wrangler’s origins date back to the World War II Willys MB. Today’s Wrangler has been modernized with a contemporary engine and electronics, and its body panels are artfully curved for stiffness while appearing flat, but it retains the basic premise of a simple utility vehicle that can traverse the most rugged terrain imaginable.
For 2015, a new 8-speaker audio system comes standard, and a 9-speaker Premium system with 552-watt amplifier is available. The subwoofer has been relocated under the cargo floor for 2015. All 2015 Jeep Wranglers include a new Torx Tool Kit for removing the roof, doors, and front bumper end caps (on Hard Rock edition). Included are torx heads in four sizes, a ratchet, and storage pouch. A new Black Steel and 31-inch Dueler Tire Package is available for 2015 Wrangler Sport. The 2015 Wrangler Rubicon Hard Rock edition gets a unique new look, with a low-gloss black grille, along with a 9-speaker Alpine audio system.
In addition to the Wrangler Sport, Sport S, Sahara and Rubicon models, special editions include the Willys Wheeler and Willys Wheeler W, the Freedom Edition, Rubicon X, and the Rubicon Hard Rock.
The four-door Wrangler Unlimited is highly capable off-road, though not as maneuverable as the shorter two-door versions. The number of doors and the difference in wheelbases doesn’t fully describe the differences between Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited, however.
Upholstery ranges from cloth to leather, and heated front seats are available. Buyers must choose between hard tops and soft tops or both. You can swap the doors to half-size and fold down the windshield (though it’s quite a chore), or power up the windows and indulge in climate control.
All Wranglers are powered by Chrysler’s 24-valve 3.6-liter V6, 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.
These are not sports cars, and if you buy a Wrangler for highway cruising, you’ve missed the point. Indeed, Wranglers will travel the Interstate with a modicum of comfort and civility, but they’re better suited as all-weather urban runabouts. Wranglers are for folks living on a beach or off the 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 optional 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.
Gas mileage is not a Wrangler virtue. Typically, it averages in the teens and doesn’t change much between daily driving and long highway runs.
Wrangler has little direct competition. The only factory trail vehicle approaching a Wrangler is the Toyota FJ Cruiser. Land Rovers offer comparable off-road capability but are more expensive. A Mercedes G-Class has the off-highway ability of an Unlimited, a more luxurious cabin, and costs three times as much.
Wrangler looks like the authentic Jeep, and in fact it is just that. The Jeep Wrangler may be the most recognizable vehicle in the world. Round headlamps, seven-slot grille, separate fenders, removable doors (half-doors optional), and fold-down windshield are all proven Jeep cues. However, if you look for the flat panels of earlier Wranglers and CJs (CJ originally stood for civilian Jeep), you won’t find any; every piece of sheetmetal, and the windshield, are slightly curved.
Even the Unlimited four-door, whether hard top or soft top, looks like a Jeep. And it’s 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. Lifting off the soft top is still more work than on any convertible car. Some versions have a premium soft top that borders on a headliner.
The soft top remains the sportiest in appearance, and isn’t much louder on the highway. The Dual Top option allows buyers to get both. We’d likely spring for Dual Top.
If you like some of the body accessories that have been fitted to 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.
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.
In the popular two-door Wrangler, there’s very little storage space behind the rear seat, so four people with four medium backpacks fill it to overflowing. But the rear seat can be removed, creating a voluminous 61.2 cubic feet of cargo volume. 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. Wrangler Unlimited is best for parties of four. Our recommendation: Remove the rear seats in the two-door Wrangler, but leave the rear seats in place in the four-door Unlimited.
The Media Center options have their downsides, and if you go offroad or take the top down much, you probably won’t like them. Sunlight plays havoc with display readability, making the touch screen virtually invisible in the sun. Besides, in a bouncing Jeep, traversing a trail, 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 touch-screen 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. That would be a Jeep-like choice.
We’ve driven most of the Wrangler models. We’ve driven a Wrangler Unlimited in urban surroundings, a Rubicon on rock-climbing trails, and a Wrangler Sport on backroad two-lanes at night. We’ve driven Rubicons on the Rubicon Trail, through Oregon’s Tillamook Forest, over Michigan dunes, and over the red rock outside Moab. We found them comfortable and they inspired confidence.
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. Some Wrangler Unlimited models can tow 3500 pounds; others are rated to tow 2000, as are the two-door Wranglers.
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 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 to 12:1 in the average car. This provides 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 as 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 with either transmission; Unlimited is estimated at 16/21 mpg with manual shift, but 16/20 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 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 German-made 6-speed manual transmission 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.
Sam Moses filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drives of Wrangler models around the country.