Jeep Wrangler: Unlimited Fun

This is not an SUV for the shopping mall. This is a serious 4x4 for serious off-roading

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Old-school looks, off-road capability, four doors

The Bad: Doubts about quality, clunky removable top, poor gas mileage, sluggish acceleration

The Bottom Line: You've gotta love a four-door Wrangler, despite its inconveniences

Up Front

Jeep's four-door Wrangler Unlimited is a real pain. It's slow, noisy, and guzzles gas. The old-fashioned upright windshield attracts more bugs than Internet Explorer, and the spare tire, which is mounted on the rear of the vehicle, limits visibility through the back window, making parking a chore. Then there's the removable soft top. I spent several hours trying to master the one on the Sahara Unlimited I test-drove and never did get it up or down in less than 15 minutes.

Who would want one of these things, anyway?

I would. I love this vehicle for its old-school look and feel, from the exposed hinges on the doors and macho front and rear tow hooks to the classic Jeep grille and round headlights. I like the feeling of solidity and the go-anywhere confidence its off-road capabilities give you. The Wrangler Unlimited not only has available four-wheel drive but also has 10 inches of ground clearance—an inch more than General Motors' (GM) Hummer H3 and almost two inches more than the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

I'm not the only one who likes the Wrangler. Sales are booming, largely because of the success of the Unlimited (BusinessWeek, 6/19/07). In a terrible market for traditional SUVs, overall U.S. Wrangler sales soared 71%, to 83,904 units, in the first eight months of this year.

The Wrangler—which was redesigned for the '07 model year and is being carried over as an '08 with almost no changes—was Jeep's top-selling model during the period, eclipsing the faltering Grand Cherokee by a slight margin, and helping propel Jeep to an overall 10% increase in sales. In fact, one of the big negatives about the Wrangler is that it has been in short supply all year, so you may have to wait to get your hands on one.

The Wrangler appeals mainly to relatively young males. The average Wrangler buyer is only 41 or 42, according to the Power Information Network (PIN), about the same age as buyers of such youth-oriented vehicles as the Nissan (NSANY) Xterra, Toyota (TM) FJ Cruiser, and Scion tC. Less than one-third of the Wrangler's buyers are women, PIN says.

The big innovation of the Unlimited is that it has four doors and is longer and roomier than the regular Wrangler. The Unlimited comes in three trim levels. The basic Unlimited X starts at $21,190 with rear-wheel drive and $23,190 with all-wheel drive. Next up the food chain is the Sahara Unlimited, which starts at $25,565 with rear-wheel drive and $27,565 with four-wheel drive. The Rubicon, which has extra off-road capabilities, starts at $27,355 to $29,900.

All versions of the Wrangler Unlimited are powered by a 3.8 liter, 202-horsepower V6 engine. There's a choice of a four-speed automatic transmission or a six-speed stick shift.

Relatively few options are available. A real bargain is the $1,590 navigation/entertainment system, which includes a 20GB hard drive, a CD player with MP3 capability, and Sirius satellite radio with one year's free service. A three-piece hardtop to augment the removable soft top goes for $690, supplemental side airbags for $490, and a trailer-towing package for $220 to $270.

Standard safety gear includes stability control, antilock brakes with braking assist, seat belt pretensioners, a rollover prevention system, dual-stage front airbags, and seat-mounted side airbags. In addition to the rollover prevention system, there's quite a bit of protection against head injuries, including a pillar over the windshield, and roof, side-rail, and rear-window headers further back in the cabin.

That's a good thing because, while the '07 Wrangler Unlimited earned a top, five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in frontal crash tests, it only earned three stars in rollover tests.

The one thing I really dislike about the Wrangler is its poor fuel efficiency. A 2007 Wrangler Unlimited with four-wheel drive and an automatic transmission is rated at 16 miles per gallon in the city and 19 on the highway under the old government rating system, and its rating will be even lower under the more stringent '08 system. In a stretch of 192 miles of mixed (admittedly hard) driving, I only got 15.8 mpg.

I also worry about the Wrangler's quality and dependability. Jeep had average scores in the most recent J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study, announced on Aug. 9. And I wonder if the recent change in Chrysler's ownership will affect quality. (Like BusinessWeek, PIN and J.D. Power & Associates are owned by The McGraw-Hill Companies.)

Behind the Wheel

When publicity people laud the Wrangler Unlimited's "refined onroad experience," keep in mind that all things are relative. The Wrangler's ride is rough compared with, say, a mainstream SUV such as Toyota's refined new '08 Highlander (BusinessWeek, 8/30/07) or the Grand Cherokee. The suspension is stiff—not in a sporty sense but in the sense of a vehicle that's genuinely made to go off-road. The soft top is tight enough to keep out the elements, but there are whistling noises in the cabin when you hit highway speeds.

The Wrangler Unlimited is also underpowered. In accelerating from 0 to 60, my best time in a 4x4 Safari with an automatic transmission was slightly under 12 seconds—i.e., glacially slow. Other reviewers have timed it in 10 seconds or less, but that's still slow.

The Unlimited isn't especially responsive in the passing lane at highway speed, either. I punched the gas a couple of times going 65 mph uphill on the freeway, and nothing happened. The vehicle just sat there, neither accelerating nor slowing down. Finally, on the third try, the transmission kicked down and my test vehicle sped up—slightly. I wouldn't want to pull out to pass an 18-wheeler on a two-lane highway in an Unlimited.

The Wrangler's interior was upgraded as of the '07 model year, but it remains utilitarian. The analog dials and gauges are plain and functional. Ditto for the seats, which adjust manually and are upholstered in cloth. The door handles are big and bulky. The dome light in the Safari is in a rollbar/roof support that's well behind the driver, limiting its usefulness.

There's plenty of leg, shoulder, and headroom in both the front and rear seats. Luggage space behind the rear seats is a cavernous 46.4 cubic feet, expanding to 83 cu. ft. with the rear seats down. There's also an under-floor storage space in back where you can hide valuables.

The Unlimited isn't entirely without creature comforts. The doors and windows are now power-operated, for instance. And adding the two rear doors makes it much easier to get in and out of an Unlimited than an old-fashioned Jeep.

However, there's way too much hard plastic in the interior of this vehicle for my taste. I also found the Safari's soft top a pain in the butt to put up and down. The top attaches to the vehicle's body via various plastic pieces that hook onto the frame. The windows zip into the top's side and back, and there are Velcro flaps to cover the zippers and keep the elements out. Up front, there are two big hooks over the windscreen that you're supposed to hook the top into.

The first time I tried putting the top all the way down, I spent more than an hour getting it down and then nearly got it back up again. Once I got everything attached and zipped up in back and along the vehicle's sides, I realized that the latches had slipped out of the hooks up front. With temperatures in the nineties, I gave up, throwing a tarp over the vehicle in case it rained during the night.

The next morning, I spent another two hours playing around with the top, and got to the point where I could take it down or put it up in 15 minutes or so. With more practice, I think I could have done it in five. But in an era when many convertibles have push-button tops that go up and down automatically in 15 seconds or less, the Wrangler's top is decidedly retro.

Off-roading is one of the Unlimited's strong suits. It has an approach angle of 44.4 degrees, breakover angle of 20.8 degrees, and departure angle of 40.5 degrees—which means it can climb over major obstacles without getting hung up. The X and Sahara both have heavy-duty Dana front and rear axles, and a Command-Trac part-time two-speed transfer case that allows you to lock the transmission into low gear for crawling over rough terrain.

In the Rubicon, both the axles and the Command-Trac system are upgraded for even greater off-road capability. The Rubicon also comes with 32-inch off-road tires.

True to Jeep's heritage as a World War II utility vehicle, the Unlimited's windscreen can be folded down, and its doors can be removed.

Buy It Or Bag It?

Buying a Wrangler Unlimited is a little like buying a Weimaraner or some other breed of dog that needs a lot of exercise. You should know what you're getting into before proceeding.

If all you want is a convenient, around-town vehicle with some limited off-road capabilities, there are numerous SUVs and crossover vehicles that may suit your needs better. On the other hand, if you're captivated by the Jeep mystique and don't mind a few inconveniences, go for it.

Keep in mind that the Wrangler Unlimited's price is relatively high. Its recent average selling price is a tad over $28,000, according to PIN. That's about the same as the '07 FJ Cruiser but considerably more than the Jeep Liberty ($21,443) and Nissan Xterra ($22,989). By contrast, the Hummer H3 (the so-called "Baby Hummer") has been selling for an average of about $34,000 for the '07 version, and nearly $37,000 for the '08, PIN says.

The Wrangler is pricey partly because it's one of the few Jeep models that isn't being discounted. By contrast, the average rebate on a Jeep Liberty right now is $3,971, PIN figures (though the Liberty is in a transition period as the redesigned '08 model hits the market). The '07 Nissan Xterra carries an average rebate of $1,793 and the '07 Dodge Nitro's average rebate is $1,040, PIN says.

Personally, I wouldn't buy a Wrangler Unlimited as a daily cruiser. I'd want a more fuel-efficient vehicle for that. But as a fun second vehicle for weekends and holidays, there's nothing quite like a Wrangler.

Click here to see more of the 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

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