First off, we're not embarrassed to say we love this Jeep. Yes, it is noisy on the road, with a bare-bones interior, marginal air conditioning, and no NAV system. The ride is harsh, and the nothing-but-torque Six drops off the boil on steep highway passes. And still, we love it.
There is something very special about driving a real Jeep, on road or off, and especially in low range. More than anything, we are grateful someone still makes a 4x4 like this. There are fewer every year.
We consider the Wrangler Unlimited a great Jeep made better by the addition of 10 inches of additional wheelbase and 15 inches of overall length. The result is double the cargo capacity of the original TJ, 13 inches more cargo space and 2 inches more legroom for second row passengers. The additional wheelbase helps smooth out the ride, adds 1,500 pounds of towing capacity, and makes for a more versatile, still deadly-serious trail machine.
With the Wrangler Unlimited, you get a folding windshield, removable doors, and two straight axles front and rear. You get 30-inch tires on 15-inch wheels, with lots of sidewall to tune any way you want. These are some of the toughest sidewalls you could order up-10-ply thick-which also means you can run very low tire pressures without excessive fear of sidewall damage. There is a manually actuated electronic locker in both the front and rear Dana 44s, and stout tow hooks right where they should be. You get a Real Jeep, made in Toledo, as authentic as they come. And on the trail, you get the feeling that this horse knows where a cowboy wants to go.
The fact is, practically every specialized asset the Wrangler offers has an equal and opposite liability. The longer wheelbase does add weight and reduces the angle of departure to less than 28 degrees. More than that, what you don't get is the kind of on-road/off-road sophistication so often found in the modern SUV. Sure, you get heat and air conditioning, but not necessarily as much as you want, or where you want it. Removable doors are great on the trail, but they let the cabin get noisy at speed-too noisy to hear someone calling you on the radio. Stout 10-ply tires are not going to crumble on sharp rock, but you get noise, vibration and harshness transmitted to the wheel, to the seat, to the pedal-everywhere.
The Wrangler Unlimited has the best approach angle by far, the best RTI (607 on our 20-degree ramp) and the second-best turning radius. But it also had the least towing capacity, and surprisingly, the tallest crawl ratio. Five in our test fleet had more ground clearance, including two Nissans and a Volkswagen, and six accelerate faster. Testers felt the engine was one-dimensional. On the highway, whoever drove the Wrangler Unlimited had trouble keeping pace, since the 4.0L pushrod I-6, now powering a heavier Jeep, was at a clear disadvantage as altitudes increased.
Ride and handling qualities were only fair, not only on the pavement. On washboard surfaces at moderate speeds, the voice recordings of the testers sound as if they had swallowed a soil compactor. Most disappointing, the Unlimited was a no-go in the sand, where the stiff tires and long-travel suspension caused uncontrolled wheelhop. We locked the locker and took 18 psi out of the tires, thinking we could get on top of the fine, powdery dunes, but we can't say it helped much.
And so, as the miles wore on, we had to admit this machine is meant for one thing-going slow on a tight trail, heading for a remote lake or quiet campsite.
In a test that takes everything into account, there are glaring weaknesses with the Wrangler that are going to cost points. If this test were called Rockcrawler of the Year, the Wrangler Unlimited would win. But this test measures overall performance, not just certain kinds of trails. So when the points are scored, the Wrangler Unlimited, even with intangibles in its favor, finishes in the middle of the pack.
* "This is my kind of vehicle. You can understand it. It's got a lever. No computer stuff. This is what four-wheeling should be all about."
* "Simple, easy to understand, not too much gadgetry."
* "Puts a smile on your face."