Car reviews - Jeep - Wrangler - Unlimited Sport 5-dr wago
Unmistakable, rugged Jeep looks, off-road focus, all-round capabilities
Room for improvement
Negatives such as crude door straps, hard-edged interior that come with basic off-road focus
8 Jun 2007
By CHRIS HARRIS
THIS is the sort of 4WD that has you thinking immediately of off-road adventures.
If the mini-Hummer looks of the new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited aren’t enough to grab you at first, then you’ll almost certainly be having thoughts of rocky climbs and bottomless mud holes once you sit behind the driver’s wheel.
Really, this is the way a proper off-roader should look. Blunt, no-nonsense panels, big, hard-to-damage guards, gaping ground clearance and aggressive bumpers large enough to take a walk on. Or to locate a winch.
The Wrangler Unlimited is all of these things, and if the aerodynamics aren’t exactly what you get in a Mazda CX-7 and the on-road finesse doesn’t quite match BMW’s latest X5, then that is all part of being a dinkum off-roader.
This apparently dying breed of 4WDs, that is slowly being usurped by SUVs that would shriek in terror at the merest sight of a muddy puddle, at least still has its adherents in the new Jeep.
No independent suspension. No centre differential providing all-time on-road 4WD. No air springs.
Just a part-time 4WD that locks front and rear axles together only when you need to, and a low-range transfer case that is engaged by a lever on the transmission tunnel. As well as a removable roof, and doors, and numerous other things you might want to detach for one reason or another.
All pretty much the same really as the previous, long-running Wrangler, but all designed to work just a little better on and off the road.
And, in the Unlimited version, now offering four-door access and a rear seat that actually provides some room for long legs – though not that much.
Jeep says the new version of the Wrangler is just that – and sits alongside the short-wheelbase model with an all-new frame, exterior and interior, and sporting either a new V6 petrol engine replacing the old inline six, or Jeep’s 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel.
It truly is an all-new Wrangler, although the shapes look almost exactly the same and the formula hasn’t changed at all.
The reality is that the new model, whether short or long-wheelbase, is of totally different proportions.
Comparing with the previous short-wheelbase Wrangler, we find the new off-roader is longer by a significant 340mm, wider by 133mm, and has a 51mm longer wheelbase, with track widths increased by almost 100mm front and rear.
The four-door Unlimited adds another 523mm to the wheelbase to fit the extra two doors and gets some incremental adjustments in other dimensions too, including the ground clearance, which sits somewhere between the Sport and Rubicon short-wheelbase models.
The new Wrangler offers “hundreds” of roof, door and windscreen combinations including a three-piece modular hardtop with removable left and right-side front panels and a rear panel, as well as the fabric soft-top that has become a Wrangler signature.
But what a road presence the Wrangler Unlimited hardtop – the subject of this test – has.
It is certainly not pretty, but the bluff, meaningful shape with its squat, yet quite balanced proportions, is immensely appealing. Alongside Jeep’s other relative newcomer, the angular but more mainstream Commander, the Unlimited looks the real deal.
The bare-bones look continues inside, where the doors are restrained by simple straps and the hardtop roof option comes with a warning it is for protection against the weather, not rollovers. That seemingly chilling advice is largely counteracted by the solid roll cage that comes with all Wranglers, which are fundamentally soft-tops – although not your 25-second powered auto-retracting types.
Passengers in the Wrangler Unlimited are faced with a semi-military look, peering out through quite narrow windows and overhung by the beefy roll cage that contains some of the speakers for what turns out to be a pretty decent sound system.
You can almost imagine yourself in full combat gear, thumbing a crackling two-way microphone as you survey the landscape though one of the removable roof panels. To complete the experience, the now slightly curved windscreen still folds down.
It’s certainly no-frills off-roading, but then again most of the comforts are there, including air-conditioning, power windows, height-adjustable driver’s seat, leather-rimmed steering wheel with cruise control stalk and remote central locking.
Dual front airbags are standard, as would be side airbags, except that the Unlimited, in soft-top form, comes with removable half doors incapable of containing them. Consequently they are optional only on hardtops specified with full-size doors.
The utilitarianism is welcome in a proper 4WD. The floors, for instance, feature removable carpets and have bungholes enabling them to be hosed out if necessary, skid plates protect the vulnerable transfer case and fuel tank, and there are no side steps unless you insist.
The Unlimited naturally has live axles front and rear, tuned differently in Sport and Rubicon specification. The latter has a more off-road focus in terms of tyre choice and ground clearance, as well as a standard electronic disconnection for the sway bars to allow extra wheel travel, and chunkier 17-inch alloy wheels with Goodyear Wrangler off-road tyres.
Our Sport test vehicle came with 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 245/75 Bridgestone Dueler on/off-road tyres.
Things you’ll notice on first acquaintance with the Wrangler Unlimited are the enclosed feeling and, for the driver, the deep footwells giving plenty of stretch-out space for the legs. The steering wheel adjusts, but only vertically, but at least there’s that height-adjustable seat.
The manual external mirrors come as a surprise not fully explained by the availability of removable doors, because the full-frame doors have power connected to them for the electric windows.
But the one-motion folding of the 60-40 rear seat remains a clever and convenient Jeep feature, while there is, as we said, adequate legroom in the back depending on the size of those travelling in the front seats.
The split tailgate is generally okay to use (the top half must be shut before the side-hinged door with its attached spare wheel is closed), except that the retaining straps only stop it from opening too far, not from swinging shut if parked on a cross slope. The same goes for the four doors.
The driving experience, considering the all-live axles, is quite good on the highway providing you’re not referencing an ML-class Benz. The steering is merely recirculating ball, so it’s not the most precise, but then again it is way better than we remember of previous Wranglers. And the four-wheel disc brakes, with ABS, EBD and brake assist, felt easily capable of containing the Unlimited’s bulk.
And, don’t forget, even though the Wrangler is still considered a basic 4WD, it still equipped with standard electronic stability control to keep it in check.
The system comes with all-speed traction control, “electronic roll mitigation” to counter the normally unfavourable top-heavy bias of 4WDs and – standard in Rubicon and optional in Sport - front and rear differential locks.
The two-speed transfer case is also tougher than before, while the Rubicon version gets a further upgraded version with a 4.0:1 low range (compared with 2.72:1 for the Sport).
After some acclimatisation, the Unlimited is a perfectly happy highway cruiser, with surprisingly low noise levels apart from the moaning of wind around the sharp-edged hardtop, and a nicely absorbent ride.
The 3.8-litre V6 is hardly cutting edge with its cast-iron construction and 12 overhead valves, but it is reasonably efficient and on one freeway section averaged slightly below 10.0L/100km.
Afterwards it settled more comfortably into the mid-12s but that wasn’t considered unreasonable given the shape and weight of the Unlimited. If you want real economy, the 2.8-litre CRD turbo-diesel (with as much as 410Nm of torque in six-speed manual transmission form) would be more than willing to oblige.
As it is, the petrol V6, with 146kW at 5000rpm and 315Nm at 4000rpm (compared with 130kW at 5200rpm and 225Nm at 2700rpm for the previous 4.0-litre inline six), does a good job of hauling around the almost 1.9-tonne Wrangler Unlimited.
Our test vehicle was fitted with the optional four-speed automatic transmission and, despite the lack of sequential shifting, it proved a quite adequate, no-frills performer.
The clincher with the Wrangler – short or long wheelbase – is the price.
The entry two-door Wrangler Sport opens at a whiff above $30,000, while the Unlimited starts at a touch under $35,000 in six-speed manual-transmission Sport guise.
The most expensive in the range, the Unlimited Rubicon petrol V6, is tagged at $45,990, while the diesel option – not available in Rubicon – adds $4000 to the V6’s price but has a five, rather than four-speed auto.
A six-speed manual Sport CRD would be a pretty tempting way to go off-road.
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