Ride off road in Wrangler

Friday, May 28, 2004

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited has timeless qualities

Rubber bands, balloons, inner tubes and Jeep Wranglers all have things in common: All are immediately recognizable. All can be stretched to make them more versatile. And, with a little creative thinking, all can be put to nearly unlimited, multipurpose uses. Maybe that's why Jeep's newest Wrangler has been dubbed "Unlimited."

Indeed, there seems to be no limit to the efforts Jeep will go to make the most successful vehicle of all time appealing to an ever-changing American motoring public. "Whoa, back the truck up," you say. "Since when is Wrangler the most successful vehicle of all time?" OK, I know Wrangler is not the best-selling vehicle of all time. But consider this: If you could magically transport a 1940s-era person to 2004, what modern vehicle would he recognize? If ever there was an American car icon, it is the Jeep Wrangler. A true world liberator, the Jeep brand began with the legendary Willys "Nobel Liberator" of World War II, and continues to thrive today. With their "go-anywhere, do-anything" spirit, Jeeps make a powerful statement about their owners' lifestyle. In fact, owning a Jeep is almost a lifestyle in itself. Wouldn't you expect a Jeep owner to be a fun-loving, outdoors-type who actually takes his vehicle off-road, as opposed to the typical SUV owner who cringes when he has to drive through a mud puddle? An added advantage of a Wrangler is one of its best-kept secrets: it is one of the least expensive convertibles you can buy!

Wrangler now comes in six versions, ranging from the lowest priced SE, four-cylinder, manual transmission model, to the go-anywhere, no-compromise, damn-the-cost $27,000 Rubicon. Now along comes the Unlimited, aimed at the outdoorsman who doesn't need all-out trail-busting ability, and wouldn't mind extra cargo capacity along with a smoother and quieter ride. This potential Jeep buyer wants the looks and image of a Jeep Wrangler, and he fully intends to go off-road, but his situation requires a vehicle that can be pressed into family hauling duties, commuting to work, and hauling the boat or camper on weekends. Jeep tried to address his needs two decades ago with the Scrambler, a forerunner of the Wrangler, that had two seats and an open cargo area.

The Unlimited is 15 inches longer than the standard Wrangler, which represents a 10-inch stretch in wheelbase, and a 5-inch increase in rear overhang. The majority of the expansion goes toward increasing cargo capacity. Compared to the standard Wrangler, the Unlimited has roughly double the capacity behind the rear seat, and more legroom for rear seat passengers.

With increased wheelbase comes increased towing capacity. The Jeep Unlimited is capable of towing 3,500 pounds, compared to just 2,000 pounds for the standard Wrangler. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Unlimited's redesigned soft-top. Those of you who have struggled with Wrangler's aggravating manual soft top will appreciate the new top which offers a choice of an open roof over the front compartment (similar to a targa top), along with the standard fully-closed and fully-open positions. Other standard features for the Unlimited include air conditioning, an automatic transmission, an AM/FM/CD stereo, fog lamps, deep-tinted windows, massive Goodyear "Wrangler" tires and disc brakes at all four corners. Just don't ask for antilock brakes -- they are not available because the heavy-duty Dana rear axle won't accommodate the technology. The standard power plant for the Unlimited is the long-running 4.0-liter straight six that sends 190 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque to the pavement. Unlimited also has increased sound insulation and a tip-and-slide feature for the driver like the passenger side has.

What all these changes amount to is an end to the choppy ride and unforgiving highway behavior of the short wheelbase Wrangler. While standard Wranglers seem jittery at higher speeds, the Unlimited is secure and planted. Jeep engineers fitted the Unlimited with revised springs and shocks as well as an additional rear cross member to ensure an improved ride with no loss of structural rigidity. And, because the test vehicle was equipped with the optional removable hard top, the overall noise level was appreciably lower. But this is still a boxy, heavy, four-wheel-drive vehicle, which takes a toll on fuel mileage. Estimates range from 14 mpg for in-city driving to 18 mpg on the highway, but that's still great for a vehicle with Unlimited's capabilities, which are nothing short of amazing. Unlimited can't go where the Rubicon goes, but then no other factory-standard vehicle can, either. Front and rear overhang may be great way to increase passenger and cargo capacity, but it is a liability when negotiating off-road trails. Keep in mind that the Unlimited represents a compromise between off-road prowess and on-road comfort and convenience, but still carries Jeep's "trail rated" emblem, and is equipped with skid plates and a stout full-length frame.

With a list price of around $25,000, the Unlimited presents a viable option for those who never would have considered a Wrangler before. There are cash-back and financing incentives on the Unlimited, but those offers are limited.

Steve Robertson of Robertson's Creative Photography is a car enthusiast and former staff writer/photographer for the Southeast Missourian. Contact him at srobertson@semissourian.com.

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