March 28, 2009


Jeep Wrangler2008 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon SUV Shown

Perhaps the quintessential niche vehicle, the Jeep Wrangler has held the crown of ultimate off-roader ever since it was offered to the general public. This SUV's lineage goes back more than 60 years to the original military "Jeep," the now-legendary 4x4 that transported World War II soldiers and supplies over very rough terrain. The name Jeep was derived from the original military moniker of "GP," which stood for general-purpose vehicle.

Following the war, the Jeep CJ-2A ("CJ" stood for "Civilian Jeep") debuted and sported such "luxuries" as a tailgate, fuel cap and side-mounted spare tire. Back then, most Jeeps were bought by farmers and construction workers who needed to get to places where there were no roads. The 1950s saw the introduction of the iconic CJ-5 nameplate, a model that lasted into the '80s with minimal changes.

The Wrangler moniker came about in the mid-1980s as the singular replacement for the earlier CJs. Although the Jeep Wrangler did its forebears proud in terms of off-road prowess, a combination of that still-short wheelbase, loud and drafty cabin and tepid performance meant it was annoying at best as a daily commuter and road trip vehicle.

For the most recent version of the Wrangler, Jeep has attempted to make it more civilized via a new four-door body style and new safety and convenience features. But die-hard Jeep enthusiasts shouldn't be too worried about this softening: The latest Wrangler stays true to its original purpose of providing rugged off-road capability and distinctive style.

Current Jeep Wrangler

Revamped for the 2007 model year, today's Wrangler is larger and more refined than its precursor. Key changes include a stiffer structure and more insulation for a quieter ride, a more powerful engine, more modern transmissions and the first-time availability of a four-door variant (known as the Wrangler Unlimited). Styling is familiar, and although the standard Wrangler retains roughly the same short length as before, its increased width helps to improve passenger comfort.

All current Jeep Wranglers come with a 3.8-liter V6 engine capable of 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque. The V6 is connected to a standard six-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic. Most models are four-wheel-drive, though a rear-drive version of the Unlimited is available.

Three trim levels are offered: bare-bones X, midlevel Sahara and serious off-road-oriented Rubicon. The latter trim adds heavy-duty axles, extra-low gearing and electronically locking front and rear differentials. Each trim level is available in two body styles: a short-wheelbase two-door or the long-wheelbase four-door Unlimited.

Age old and desirable attributes such as compact dimensions (provided you choose the two-door version), high ground clearance, steep approach and departure angles and a no-nonsense four-wheel-drive system with an aggressive low-range function still apply to today's Wrangler, and it remains a popular choice among hard-core off-roaders.

Make no mistake, the ride is still stiff, and on the road the Wrangler's modest handling and acceleration abilities can actually be bested by most minivans. But unlike past Wranglers, the new model is actually tolerable on longer highway trips, thanks to a much quieter cabin, more comfortable seats and the availability of luxuries such as a CD changer, a navigation system and full power accessories.

Past Jeep Wranglers

The previous generation of the Wrangler bowed in 1997 after a one-year hiatus, and marked a return to the classic Jeep face with its round headlights. It was sold through the 2006 model year. A new dash modernized the cabin upon its debut, while a coil-spring suspension improved on-road comfort. Dual front airbags and the option of antilock brakes made it safer, too. Of course, all the ingredients (such as generous ground clearance, skid plates and a crawl gear for the transfer case) that made the original CJ so capable off-road remained.

Base SE (2.5-liter, 120-hp inline-4), Sport (4.0-liter, 190-hp inline-6, fancy wheels and graphics) and Sahara (4.0-liter six, air-conditioning, upgraded upholstery, CD player) trims were offered initially. By 2003, the Wrangler "X" (slotted above the SE and featuring the inline-6) and "Rubicon" (featuring hard-core off-road equipment such as a super-low range in the transfer case, 31-inch tires and locking Dana axles front and rear) trims debuted. Transmission choices included a five-speed manual and three-speed automatic, the latter upgraded to a four-speed unit for 2003.

In 2004, Jeep introduced the Wrangler Unlimited model; it still had only two doors, but a 10-inch wheelbase stretch provided a significant increase in rear legroom and cargo capacity. A Rubicon version of the Unlimited arrived the following year, and a six-speed manual gearbox replaced the five-speed.

In reviews, we praised this Jeep Wrangler for its off-road agility and personality but scorned the plastic side windows and fussy soft top. We deemed it fair at best for commuter duty, considering the vehicle's loud and busy ride at freeway speeds. After logging some miles in a Rubicon version, we decided its immense off-road capacity was beyond compare, but braking distances (even with ABS) were long, gas mileage was mediocre and as a daily driver it was simply too harsh and bouncy on the blacktop. The standard, non-Rubicon version of the Wrangler Unlimited had slightly better road manners, thanks to its longer wheelbase and revised suspension tuning.

Consumer feedback is generally favorable, with most folks enjoying the fun factor and echoing our sentiments about the annoying soft top and fuel mileage. Reliability is a mixed bag, with a few respondents citing many troubles where others had none.

The first Jeep Wrangler (1986-'95) had square headlights and, on some trims, monochromatic fender flares and rocker panel extensions, the latter an odd "of the times" styling touch on such a retro vehicle. Initially, a choice of a 2.5-liter four or a 4.2-liter six-cylinder engine was offered, and buyers could get a five-speed manual or three-speed automatic. One of the biggest improvements during this generation came for 1991, when a new, 4.0-liter inline-6 with 180 hp replaced the ancient 4.2-liter unit that had just 112 hp. Trim levels during this time ranged from base S through Islander, Sahara and top-of-the-line Laredo and, after 1990, Renegade.

Generally, consumer reviews on used Wranglers are upbeat, with most complaints centering on poor fuel economy and a lack of performance (especially pre-'91).


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