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2007 Jeep Wrangler First Drive - Three Days in the Bush

Hippos
Rick Péwé | Writer
Posted November 1, 2006

The New '07 Jeep Wrangler hits Africa

Wheeling in Africa? Well, why not? Sure, you might not know much about Africa, but Jeep cared so much about their new Jeep Wrangler, they sent us across the drink to the Dark Continent for three days of intense wheeling, just to show off their new baby. And while the baby fat has increased on the Wrangler (which is 5 inches wider) the off-roadability has become even better with numerous improvements to the chassis and drivetrain. True, the new 3.8L V-6 is no match for the venerable 4.0L inline-six for useable torque, but we did find the new mill more than adequate, even in the four-door version. While we won't be thinking of loading up to max GVWR and adding a trailer when crossing the Continental Divide, remember that the old six-popper wasn't a stormer either.

To start our African Wrangler adventure, we took a puddle jumper to Mpika, near the South Luangwa National Park in Zambia. A few automotive journalist types had never been near the dirt, much less landing a plane on a dirt airstrip. They got even wider eyed as we pressed on into the jungle in our fleet of six Wrangler JKs.

Regardless, the new engine performed well in a variety of terrain and never failed us, even being able to lug the manual trans version down to 400 rpm without stalling. The biggest difference between the old and new Wrangler is of course visually, with the JK featuring a sloped back grille, a curved (but foldable) windshield, and bulbous plastic bumpers that would make an old lady happy. Luckily, the slotted grille, trapezoidal wheelwells, and soft top still retain the original Jeep flavor to make it recognizable as a Jeep in its truest form. This sort of remake happens when designers and marketing folks lead the charge, rather than engineers who still believe in form following function. The engineers at Jeep are for the most part real wheelers, and their influence on making the new rig work right showed through. The PR guys still had their work cut out for them as real Jeep people always look askew at so-called "improvements" and wait for the proof rather than the fluff. In this case, most of the improvements were indeed worth the effort, with only a few minor features flinging high on our crap-o-meter.

Our April and June '06 issues dealt with the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the Wrangler JK two-door and four-door versions, so we won't rehash that whole story here. It's driving and wheeling impressions that are most important for this story, and the mechanicals of the beast make it what it is. On some of the toughest trails Africa has to offer (far more difficult than many club runs we've been on), the Wrangler gave us a superb ride with phenomenal traction and articulation, thanks to an electronic disconnect front sway bar, and electric lockers front and rear. Of course, these rides we tested were the full-on Rubicon models, with the 4:1 transfer case, 32-inch BFGoodrich tires, and all the other special stuff needed for real four-wheeling.

Mechanically, the Wrangler Rubicon excels in every aspect, except having gobs of horsepower and torque, but deep gearing and the optional six-speed manual make up for that. The advanced traction control systems and other electronic gizmos are more than annoying crap, but the options to turn off most of the stuff makes for a well rounded rig that a novice as well as an old timer can appreciate. Speaking of annoying, the turn signal is the three-flash style, even if you only want one blink, the steering column has more stalks growing out of it than a Toyota, the oil gauge and voltmeter are missing, the locker and sway-bar disconnect switches are buried way too low for ease of use and seem ergonomically backwards to use, and the electric window switches are on the dash, which yes, is much better than on the center console but still not where they should be. On the good side, the new cockpit is comfortable and roomy, thanks to the 5 extra inches of width. The doors come off, the soft top is an option, and overall, we predict the new Wrangler two- and four-door to be a true hit, and the aftermarket has already started ramping production of parts and pieces to make this a Jeep in every sense of the word. Look forward to our 4x4 of the Year test in the February issue, where we will continue to pound the Wrangler on our home turf for the rest of the story.

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