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2007 Jeep Wrangler First Drive - Three Days in the Bush

Posted in Project Vehicles on November 1, 2006
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Contributors: Rick Péwé

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.

PhotosView Slideshow
Elephant grass is tall enough to hide an elephant, and can easily hide a bunch of Wrangler JKs running around the savannah. This stuff is like glossy straw when dead and dried, and slicker than elephant grease. Try running over it on an off-camber hill and you'll know how slick it is.

Inside the Dark Continent
Regardless of the new Jeep's pedigree, heritage, or capabilities, the Dark Continent is just that, and the term was coined in 1878 by Henry M. Stanley in his account Through the Dark Continent. Africa was mysterious, unexplored, and unknown to western civilization at the time the moniker stuck, and the land is still thought of in this way. However, the large cities are quite civilized; it's only when you get out into the bush that Africa reveals itself as the true wild country that it has always been.

Our journey started from Los Angeles and lasted for nearly 24 hours in an aluminum tube, interspersed with a brief hike through Heathrow airport to keep us awake. Landing in Nairobi, Kenya (formally British East Africa) we stayed at a 100-year-old hotel reeking of colonialism, which wasn't half bad. But Kenya was merely an overnight stay for our final destination, and after a two-hour morning flight across the savannah we landed in Mfuwe, Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia. After a short customs declaration, we boarded a prop plane, flew to the middle of nowhere, and landed in a grass field on the outskirts of Mpika, next to the South Luangwa National Park. Then, the adventure began.

If you can believe this, deep in the middle of nowhere we come upon Mpatu Bakuku, a reader and gate keeper in the Park. He was actually awaiting the arrival of Ben Stewart, the cover truck's owner slated for arrival in a day or two so he could get an autograph.

Driving a lefthand drive Jeep in a righthand drive country isn't too bad, as long as the oncoming traffic stays in its own lane. And on the narrow dirt roads most drivers were oblivious to our convoy of eight Wranglers, even the bicyclists and pedestrians who had never seen such a sight. Once in the park, we stopped and visited the locals who controlled access, and of course we handed out 4-Wheel & Off-Road magazines and swag. The park is not a self-drive tourist trap, and we always had a guard carrying a .475 Weatherby Magnum at the ready--even when a pit stop was made. Tasty journalist can't be too careful around lions!

Most press 4WD trails are pretty weak, simply because the vehicle or the PR folks don't have a clue about wheeling. Jeep is rarely in this category, but Jeep even outdid themselves and found some beautiful rocks and boulders to creep over, trees to scale, and ditches to cross. We luckily had the chance to look on the underside of a JK, even though no hoists or racks are available locally to inspect the running gear of the new Wrangler Rubicon. Later on, a night river crossing with water over the hood proved the Wrangler's fording ability as well as the reason for body drain plugs in a real 4x4. With grub in our bellies and a tent for a shelter, we crashed hard 10 time zones away from home in anticipation of the next day's adventures.

Africa conjures images of rain forests and headhunters for most Americans, but we were in the savannah, a high desert type of locale full of wildlife such as hippos, lions, giraffe, elephant, baboons, oryx, gazelles, and zebras. We saw all of these on our journey, with some animals so perfectly camouflaged that we missed them from 10 feet away. The elephant grass is so named because it's so high it could hide an elephant, and it did a good job hiding us in a convoy of two- and four-door Jeeps winding through the veldt between trails. Another river crossing brought us to a rocky canyon heretofore unknown except for a few poachers and natives. Steep descents and climbs in the Wranglers took us through crocodile-infested pools which we didn't dally in, and high-speed sand washes tested the suspension and performance of the Jeeps in a sand dune sort of way. Our final river crossing took us on a hand-grabbed ferry across the Zambezi Riverwhere our accommodations included running water for showers, which was much appreciated. From there, we left the magic of Africa to board another aluminum tube for 24 hours of hell, wondering why we left the jungle in the first place.

PhotosView Slideshow

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