Catering for the more matured
If you want to dominate a market, invent a new one. That’s exactly what Jeep has done with the Wrangler Unlimited – a stretched four-door interpretation of their archetypal off-roader…
The Wrangler, as Jeep points out, is the only four-door convertible on the market and its reason for existence – paraphrasing the press pack – is to expand the Jeep experience and the brand’s core values of freedom, adventure, mastery and authenticity to a broader range of customers who always wanted a Wrangler, but need more space and versatility.
They’ve addressed these issues by adding just over half-a-metre to the standard Wrangler’s wheelbase, creating enough room for rear doors and a second row of seats capable of comfortably seating three abreast. In addition, Wrangler Unlimited has nearly three times as much rear cargo space as its “shorty” stable-mate.
There is little doubt that it is still a Jeep Wrangler though and the exposed door hinges, trapezoidal wheelarches and distinctive seven-slot grille (at least until Hummer came along) flanked by circular headlights and rear-mounted spare wheel testify to that fact.
What isn’t visually obvious is that the new Wrangler has far more structural rigidity, which has transformed the handling.
The unit on test here is the Sahara version, positioned as the most practical and comfort-orientated of three specification levels and the one that offers the best all-round motoring solution.
Features and equipment
★ ★ ★ ★
The possibility of open-air motoring remains a Wrangler fundamental and owners still have both hard- and soft-top options. Sahara versions come standard with both and the removable three-piece fibreglass Freedom Top provides all-weather protection while still allowing for a sunroof-effect if you remove the two roof panels above the front seats, which can then be stowed inside the vehicle.
Find a strong, patient friend and the entire top can be removed to reveal the padded rollcage within. Should the mood take you, the doors can also be left behind, while the windscreen folds flat against the bonnet for a genuine al fresco effect.
Not many 4x4s still boast solid axles both front and rear but the Wrangler does. They’re suspended on coil springs and located by leading arms at the front and trailing arms at the back with 17-inch alloys at each end.
Panhard rods limit lateral movement, while a pair of anti-roll bars restricts body roll (and, of course, suspension travel). Unlike the hard-core Rubicon version, the Sahara doesn’t have differential locks, or the system that decouples the front anti-roll bar to allow more vertical movement of the front wheels. Rubicon also gets beefier axles with a more radical low-range ratio.
Behind the Wrangler’s trademark upright grille is a newer, lighter power unit: a 3,8- litre petrol V6 mated to a four-speed automatic box. Command-Trac means just the rear wheels are driven in normal usage, with a stubby and very stiff secondary lever used to select four-high (you can shift on the fly) and four-low.
Concessions to modernity are the inclusion of ESP (which can be overridden by the driver), Electronic Roll Mitigation (which aims to reduce the possibility of a rollover accident) four airbags, and comfort/convenience features such as a driving computer, electric windows and central locking.
★ ★ ★ ★
Like the exterior, the cabin of the Unlimited is unpretentious and notable for the abundance of painted metal. You sit high (fine-tune your vertical position via a pump-type seat height adjuster if necessary) and upright, for a good view through the windscreen.
Rear visibility is less unrestricted, with the headrests and spare wheel adversely affecting the view. The exterior mirrors compensate, though, and they’re also electrically adjustable.
The instrument panel features an all-new cluster, and gauges are generally easy to read through the four spokes of the wheel – the column height can also be adjusted.
The dashboard architecture is geometric, and has a typically American simplicity to it, which seems entirely appropriate considering the intended application of the vehicle.
This means that there’s a generous glovebox, a tall storage compartment between the seats and an underfloor storage compartment in the luggage area. All of these are lockable, and while the cabin is generally quite plasticky, the mix of light and dark grey upholstery is appealing.
The six outlets for the sound system are prominently displayed with the tweeters mounted atop the dash and larger speakers forming part of the roll-cage structure.
The gripes come down to ergonomics: the control settings for the ventilation/air-conditioning aren’t always easy to see at a glance, the positioning of the electric window switches is not ideal and the inconvenient placement of the overdrive on/off button directly ahead of the gear lever is unforgivable.
It also seems pointless that you can’t open the upper section of the tailgate without first opening the lower portion to swing the spare wheel out of the way.
But with side-hinged tailgate and hatch opened, and the 60/40 rear seats folded virtually flat, the Wrangler is a surprisingly practical load-lugger, with a rather cunning rear headrest design to aid the collapsing of the back seats.
In terms of legroom and headroom it doesn’t fare too badly, either, as transport for four adults, and the wide-opening doors make it easy to get in and out.
★ ★ ★
The Wrangler generally stops and goes well and feels agile enough around town, thanks in part to its relatively modest weight. But there are only four gears to choose from and with its long legs (it is geared at some 53km/h per 1000 r/min in top) and brick-like aerodynamics, it soon runs out of steam.
Inclines on the freeway will rapidly knock chunks off the cruising speed, making this an irritating proposition if you want to get anywhere in a hurry and will also raise question marks about its towing ability.
Also, the constant churning between third and fourth gear took their toll in our steady 120km/h fuel test. Overtaking acceleration is fairly leisurely, too, the V6 taking some coaxing to get it to kick down a gear with any real alacrity.
The figures suggest the engine is lightly stressed, and there’s just 146 kW and 316 Nm (at 4000 r/min) from 3,8 litres. It’ll rev to 5500 r/min when needed and while it sounds pretty breathless at the top end, it still spins quite smoothly.
Insulation against wind, road and mechanical noise was never going to be a forte, but the engine is definitely not the main offender and with all those exterior appendages there is no shortage of noise from the air passing over the vehicle’s body.
Ride and handling
★ ★ ★ ★
We were pleasantly surprised at how “together” the Unlimited felt. Within its dynamic envelope it behaved without vice, responding to instructions obediently, the body tilting over and away from the apex without any disconcerting lurching.
At the same time, its 75-profile Goodyear Wranglers (what other tyre could they choose?) manage to absorb the majority of surface changes, and despite the weighty live axles the rubber remained confidently attached to the bitumen at all but silly speeds.
The chassis also seemed well up to coping with fast cruising, and we achieved a top speed of 175km/h, virtually at the engine’s 5000 r/min power peak in third gear.
This is a serious off-road machine and once the dirt started we really appreciated the Wrangler’s design fundamentals. Despite the lack of a differential lock there is traction in all but the most extreme situations.
There’s never an issue with the approach, departure or ramp angles – even with a wheelbase just shy of three metres.
The suspension soaks it up in the dirt, with little bouncing over close-packed rocks and at the end of a probing Gerotek session the only item on our off-road wish list was for a little more engine braking to slow progress on very steep descents.
Overall, it also felt more agile than its 12,3m turning circle suggests, though the lightness and slight vagueness of the helm counts against it in the urban environment.
★ ★ ★ ★
The Wrangler Unlimited sets out to be FUN – but without being totally impractical like the two-door Wrangler Limited. You could certainly live with it day in and day out, thanks to the stability that comes with the stretched wheelbase and the reasonable practicality of the extra doors and luggage space.
The pricing makes it look good value if this kind of vehicle is your bag, while the roofing options is another strong point of difference – though regularly changing its configuration will try the patience of a saint.
This very uniqueness is what makes it hard to find rivals, so for the moment Jeep has the field all to itself – which almost makes us wonder whether the size of the potential market is worth the effort.