The last time I drove a Jeep Wrangler was many years ago – back when they were called either a TJ or a YJ. They were bouncy and a little primitive to say the least. Other adjectives you could use to describe them could have been: noisy, uncomfortable and did I say primitive? They were also as fast as a 3-legged greyhound wearing army boots.
There were no cup holders in the Wranglers back then, and that was something that probably led to the creation of them. Driving on the smoothest of roads with a hot cuppa Joe in one hand and the steering wheel in the other, along with the jostling and bouncing of the Jeep, lead many to the emergency room of the local hospital with burned nether-regions – myself included (not really, but it was pretty close).
Nevertheless, I still liked the little Jeep and understood why so many people buy them – even the ones that don’t ever take it off city streets and pavement. So why would I want to take another one out for a Road Test? Easy – Jeep completely re-designed the Wrangler for 2007, added two more doors and called it an Unlimited.
By stretching the wheelbase and the overall length of the vehicle by 51 cm (2.94 meters vs. 2.4 meters) and adding rear doors, the Wrangler gets to be a little more useful for everyone – especially those with children or dogs. Interior cargo capacity is more than double in the 4-door Unlimited, versus the regular 2-door variety – and has three times more space than the out-going Jeep. Also, Jeep claims it’s 100 percent stiffer than the outgoing 2006 model.
Ground clearance is a must when it comes to off-roading and the Wrangler Unlimited has plenty with 76 cm of water fording available according to Chrysler. Naturally, getting in and out can be a problem for shorter people like yours-truly when you’re faced with the Wrangler’s substantial ground clearance and big tires. Thankfully the Unlimited comes with a step bar to aid mini-me’s while climbing in and out. To be fair, I didn’t use the bars all the time – it’s not a huge stretch up into the cabin.
The Wrangler takes many of its styling cues from its cousins – the Grand Cherokee and Dodge Nitro. The most obvious being the large black door handles with pizza-sized push buttons. Once inside the dashboard and front windshield grab your attention. Bolt-upright, and so close you don’t even have to fully extend your arm to touch them, it almost gives you a feeling of being too close to the front of the vehicle.
Added to that is the humungous steering wheel that’s been plucked from a school bus – it’s a very different experience for sure. The steering wheel adjusts for tilt, but not for reach which makes for a very odd feeling at first. Because the pedals are so far away and the clutch pedal has to be fully extended, it forces you to sit close to the wheel – it’s too bad there weren’t any pedal adjustments on this particular Chrysler vehicle.
Once behind the wheel I notice that everything is logically laid out and close to reach. The radio controls are so close you barely have to take your right hand off the wheel – no need for steering wheel-mounted controls – and you don’t get them either. The heating and air condition dials are simple, but smaller than I would have imagined they should be in a vehicle like this. Although they could be used with gloves on, it would be difficult.
The interior plastics feel a little cheap, but it is well in keeping with the tough and tumble, rugged off-road attitude of the Jeep. I was more than a little surprised at the inclusion of gauges such as average fuel used, kilometers til empty, outside temperature gauge and clock located within the instrumentation – generally considered luxuries I wasn’t expecting to see them in this particular vehicle.
The long high shifter lever sits close to the driver, making it a very comfortable reach. The throws are long and very truck-like, making the Wrangler a very hard vehicle to use on a drag strip – or even to race away from a set of traffic light. Sprints to 100 km/h are leisurely because the revs drop considerably between shifts and the clutch pedal is quite a long reach as well. I was a little surprised by the low 5,500 rpm red line – in a V-6.
The steering is of the recirculating ball type, meaning that when you turn the wheel – you don’t get instant response just a lot of play in the steering. I can only surmise that this is beneficial for off-roading, because it has no advantages on city streets. Adjusting to the large wheel and the detached feeling of the steering came surprisingly easily, as did driving at a more leisurely pace. I found I was never in a rush to go anywhere, but enjoyed the trip none-the-less. This is unusual for me because I tend to travel at the highest velocity possible like a Bat Out Of Hell (copyright Jim Steinman) even when I’m not in a rush to get anywhere.
I was expecting to be bounced and tossed around like a garden salad on the forever-under-construction Toronto highways, but was pleasantly surprised that it was a very normal ride in the Jeep Unlimited. The longer wheelbase obviously helps smooth out the ride. I was also surprised by how quiet it was inside. While not quite Lexus-quiet, it was much better than expected and far better than the near-luxury vehicle we’d just dropped off.
Considering there is no insulation in the ceiling of the Jeep, a lot of credit must go to the removable fiberglass roof and the extensive wind tunnel testing that Chrysler has put the new Jeep through. At speeds above 120 km/h, the wind noise became more apparent, but it was not overpowering. Most of the noise came from along the top of the windshield and the outside mirror.
On town and city streets the Jeep handles quite well clearing rutted railroad tracks, but wobbled the over manhole covers and the odd pot hole. When I say wobble, I mean wobble – the whole truck shivers and the steering wheel feels like it’s going to come off in your hands. Once you get to experience this odd sensation, it’s expected and not an issue encountering future bumps and road imperfections – think of it as an on-road off-road experience.
The obvious big advantage you have about sitting so close to the windshield is the view out when you’re out in the boonies and going over rocks and crevices. That’s what this truck is designed for, so we shouldn’t expect it to be full of luxuries and drive like a car – after-all that’s why the roads are clogged with Toyota Highlanders and the like – soft road utes.
However the Jeep was every bit as comfortable and fun to drive as any of those other car-based SUV’s. The test vehicle had more than 18,000 hard kms on it, and that would equate to more than two years of hard abuse in the real world with the owner making the payments. Press vehicles are sometimes pushed past their limits and even abused, but the Wrangler had zero rattles and squeaks during the week I had it – unbelievable considering it looked like it had enjoyed more than a few off-road excursions.
Seeing that it was already well broken-in, I decided to take the Unlimited off-road too. I’ve had several SUV’s over the past couple of years, but this is the first one I’ve felt comfortable enough to actually take it out and around our 40+ hectare farm. In the fields and down crater-infested unassumed roads used by snowmobiles, 4-wheelers and dirt bikes, we circled the entire property and went to places we’d never ventured to before.
The experience and the comfort that the Jeep offered was way beyond what we expected – my wife would even consider buying one! This brief off-road expedition emphasized the logical decision by Jeep to continue with the recirculating ball steering instead of rack and pinion – you need to let the wheel have a lot more play when traversing rocks and deep holes while boonie-bashing.
The seats in the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara are comfortable and made out of the fabric called Yes Essentials. It’s spill-resistant, odor resistant and has anti-static properties, making it perfect for the rugged Jeep. The seats are manually adjustable and nicely bolstered and contoured. They can also be raised up to 5 cm using a hand crank on the side – perfect for peering over the hood of the Jeep when off-roading.
Rear Seating: It’s easy to get in, a little more difficult to get out because of the placement of the tubular step. The seats are comfortable with plenty of head, knee and leg room, foot space is a little bit cramped under the front seat. The rear seats split 60/40 (but looks more like 70/30) and fold flat with the flip of a lever. Once folded there’s a surprising amount of space in the cargo area – 2,322 litres (82 cu.ft) and a still-impressive 1,314 liters (46.4 cu.ft) with the seats up.
The tailgate glass panel can be left open to transport longer items, but unfortunately, the front passenger seat doesn’t fold forward to take full advantage of the option. One thing of note with respect to the cargo space however, it wouldn’t be a Jeep Wrangler if the entire roof wasn’t removable and the front windshield able to fold forward!
To that end the cargo area is diminished somewhat with the “Sunrider” Soft Top – it is permanently bolted to the Jeep, and although it folds, it does infringe into available space and makes it a little awkward when transporting items like groceries etc. See the pictures for a better explanation.
Removing the front portion of the roof is easy and can be done in around 1 minute 13 seconds for both pieces. Forty seconds of that time involved unscrewing 2 large round bolts in the roof. Returning the two-piece roof took 1 ½ minutes – again the 2 bolts taking 40 seconds to fully seat. I’d say that was very acceptable – even in a rainstorm. The roof panels can be used and removed individually or together.
I didn’t have an opportunity to remove the back section of the roof, but it’s a little more complicated requiring Allen keys to remove a number of bolts. If I owned the Jeep I’d remove the entire top for the summer and take advantage of the different options Jeep makes available for roof/storage in this vehicle. You can even remove the rear-most part of the roof and leave the front section over the driver and front passenger in place.
The soft top is made out of sailcloth and allows for a quick and easy transition to 4-door convertible. The doors can also be removed – again with Allen keys and you can purchase optional soft-sided doors that fold out of the way when not in use. Overall I can’t think of any vehicle that is more like a Swiss Army Knife than the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited. For those that don’t mind bugs in their face, the front windshield can be folded forward too, for that true open-air experience.
Another pleasant surprise in the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara was the sound system. The Unlimited comes with a 368-watt AM/FM/CD/MP3 single disc unit with 7 Infinity speakers – including a subwoofer. The MyGig system is available as an option – and from previous experience – I’d very highly recommend taking that option. The standard sound system in the Wrangler Unlimited Sahara is very good however. The weather-resistant rear speakers are located in the overhead roll bar and are perfectly placed for a nice encompassing sound.
Standard safety items include: Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) with Electronic Stability Program (ESP) and Electronic Roll Mitigation (ERM), Traction Control with Brake Assist as well as front seat belts with Pre-tensioners and load limiters. Seat-mounted side air bags are optional. With a complete roll cage and a high-strength steel sports bar integrated into the B-pillar that runs into the floor, the Jeep is one very safe vehicle.
The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is a fantastic vehicle and one I’d love to own for myself. It has its plusses and minuses, but overall it’s a very well-thought-out vehicle that puts many others to shame. It’s a true SUV/Off-roader, but it doesn’t overlook the need for some luxuries. It is designed for – and obviously can – take a lot of abuse. I can’t imagine any other vehicle being this solid and rattle-free after such abuse – it speaks volumes to anyone thinking of purchasing one. The V-6 engine and 6-speed manual transmission are a treat to use on the road or out in the bush.
The straight-six engine has been replaced by an all-new modern V-6, so that should solve a lot of the reliability issues (too bad the Mercedes diesel in the Grand Cherokee isn’t available). It’s tough go anywhere purpose, with the big advantage of turning into a convertible in a couple of minutes makes this a perfect, all round vehicle.
Tough, go anywhere ability, yet refined enough for everyday use
A hard-top convertible – with 4 doors
A good price for what you get
Doesn’t come with a diesel engine
In reality it has no competition, but it is similar to: Dodge Nitro, Jeep Liberty, Land Rover LR2, Toyota FJ Cruiser
By The Numbers…
Pricing for the 2008 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara – Please visit your local dealer for the latest prices and incentives.
Powertrain: 3.8 Litre V-6 SMPI engine; 6-Speed manual transmission; part-time/full time 4X4
Horsepower (Kw): 202 (150) @ 5,000 rpm
Torque (N.m.): 237 (321) @ 4,000 rpm
0-100 kph: 10.5 seconds
Cargo Capacity: Behind Front Seats: 2,322 litres (82 cu.ft) // Behind Rear Seats: 1,314 liters (46.4 cu.ft)
Towing capacity: 1,591 kg (3,500 lbs).
City: 14.9 L/100 kms // Highway: 11.6 L/100 kms
I averaged 16.7 L/100 kms during mostly highway driving. The on-board fuel consumption gauge listed it as an average of 12 L/100km
Copyright © 2009 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text / Images: Iain Shankland
Also Published on Automobilsport.com