Jeep Wrangler Unlimited — more fun with two more doors

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

A door to the rear seats has made the king of off-roading a more family-oriented vehicle.

Last year the Jeep Wrangler was finally — after decades as a two-door — stretched into a four-door sport utility vehicle. Better to compete against the Hummer H3 and Nissan Xterra. The extra doors and the extra length have done nothing to detract from the truck's well-documented off-road prowess.

It can still go anywhere that any motorized vehicle on the planet can go.

But now it can comfortably haul a family and their things accomplishing every day chores or taking a family vacation to the world of Disney.

The problem is that the Wrangler has never been an extremely comfortable vehicle on road from its ride, to its handling, to its interior noise level to its performance.
Many upgrades were made in a 2007 redesign that carry over into the 2008 model year. The highway ride has been smoothed, a new V-6 engine gives the rugged sport utility a little more forward momentum and the steering is generally accurate. Wind and road noise have also been taken down a notch or two.

But if you are not going to take your vehicle from the main roads to the mud pits than we suggest you look at numerous other choices.

The Jeep remains the king of boulder brawlers, the champ at fording streams and the top dog at climbing mountains.

The fact that it now comes in a version that is more accommodating to passengers makes it even more enticing to the weekend wilderness warrior.
And it comes close to being all things to all people. But something this adept at leaving the beaten path, doesn't supply the car-like characteristics of the modern crossover or even the more sophisticated body-on-frame sport utilities.

That being said, Jeep has had no problem selling the four-door Wrangler Unlimited. For several months during 2007, many dealers had no inventory, immediately selling every vehicle they could get their hands on. Jeep sales through the first 11 months of 2007 rose 53 percent from 71,648 in 2006 to 110,236, entirely on the popularity of the Unlimited.

Why did it take a half century for the Wrangler to get the four-door treatment? Perhaps the Jeep folks were concerned with diluting the gene pool with a vehicle that comes with a foot-and-a-half longer wheelbase than the traditional Wrangler.

And you can, indeed, purchase the Unlimited in rear-wheel drive only. It might be all you need for normal driving because it comes with electronic stability control and traction control.

But a majority of the Unlimiteds will probably be purchased in Sahara 4X4 or Rubicon 4X4 trim levels with all the off-road goodies found in the standard Wrangler including short front and rear overhangs, underbody protection provided by three skid plates, an electronic-disconnecting front stabilizer bar which delivers additional wheel travel for off-road terrain and low-range gear ratios.

The Rubicon comes equipped with a "Rock-Trac" transfer case with unusually low gears that allow for crawling up and over rocks and descending in a slow and steady manner.

Perhaps the only problem with the longer wheelbase Unlimited is a greater possibility of getting high centered. The turning radius is also slightly longer than the standard Wrangler.

With its off-road ability virtually unquestioned, how about on road, in the driveway, in daily commutes?

The Wrangler has a lot of attributes including removable soft top or hard roofs making it the only four-door SUV convertible. Out Sahara test vehicle came with the hard top, which can be removed in two front sections and a third section over the rear seats. Neat stuff.

But the Wrangler slips a bit in performance, gas mileage and braking when compared to more genteel offerings. New to the Jeep since 2007 is a 3.8-liter V-6 generating 205 horsepower and 240 pound-feet of torque.

The Wrangler is lively around town in stop-and-go situations. But out on the highway it is adequate at best, the smallish V-6 asked to pull more than two tons of truck.  It left us constantly wishing for a little more muscle, especially when accelerating to gain highway speed. Zero to 60 has been measured around a leisurely 10 seconds.

The mushy feeling brakes are just barely acceptable as well. We were forced into a near-panic stop early into our test week when a driver in front of us decided to slam on his brakes preparing to turn. We got stopped, but it was a hair-raising experience that would have been a non-event in most other vehicles.

On the plus side, we found the ride acceptable and the steering fairly accurate. We had no problem herding the Wrangler down the road. And when at highway speed, wind and road noise levels are maintained at an acceptable level.

The seats up front are comfortable and the driving position is good. But you will be looking at a lot of hard plastics in the dashboard.

Rear-seat passengers have stretch-out room, but long-haul comfort might be compromised by seatbacks that sit fairly upright and don't have a recline feature.
Cargo space behind the rear seats is generous at 46 cubic feet and expands to a large 87 cubic feet with the second row folded. Second-row head rests fold with the seatbacks so that they don't have to be removed.

Our Sahara trim level was outfitted with some things that were unheard of in a Wrangler just a few years ago including a DVD-base navigation system with a hard drive and Sirius satellite radio. 

We got a very pleasant surprise when we discovered that a journalist before us had left the new Eagles' CD on the system.
The rather spartan X edition starts at $21,240 in rear-wheel drive and $23,240 in four-wheel drive. The Sahara, with a long list of standard features, begins at $26,150 in rear-wheel and $27,565 in four-wheel drive. The top Rubicon begins at $30,195.

Safety equipment on all Wranglers includes antilock brakes and stability control with rollover sensor. Note that the traditional Wrangler removal doors provide very little crash protection.

Our 4X4 Sahara test truck carried a base price of $27,565 and $31,875 with option including navigation, front-seat side airbags and the three-piece removable top.
If you are part of the off-road fraternity and need the room to carry a family during the week, the new Wrangler Unlimited should be high on your shopping list. If you stay on hard pavement, there are better choices.


Base price, $21,240; as driven, $31,875
Engine: 3-8-liter V-6
Horsepower: 205 @ 5,200 rpm
Torque: 240 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: four-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 116 inches
Length: 173.4 inches
Curb weight: 4,294 pounds
Turning circle: 41.2 feet
Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
Luggage capacity: 46.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 87 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 21.6 gallons
EPA rating: 19 highway, 16 city (regular)
0-60: 9.7 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Hummer H3, Nissan Xterra, Toyota FJ Cruiser

The Good
• Excellent off-road capability
• Comfortable room for four adults and luggage
• Removable roof offers open-air driving

The Bad
• Weak engine and poor brakes hamper on-road driving

The Ugly
• Anemic gas mileage