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2007 Jeep Jk Wrangler and Unlimited Rubicon - First Drive Africa

Posted in Vehicle Reviews on December 1, 2006
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Photographers: Courtesy of Daimlerchrysler

You might think us crazy for getting on an airplane (actually, three planes) and flying halfway around the world, 22 hours and 10 time zones in all, to test some new 4x4s for two days before turning around and heading home. Then again, it isn't every day that the vehicles we're invited to drive are the all-new incarnations of Jeep's flagship Wrangler. And it certainly isn't every day that the folks at DaimlerChrysler ask us if we'd like to 'wheel their newest 4x4s in the bush country of Zambia. (Hint: Turn right at Angola.) So when DC's invitation arrived in our mailbox, we got our vaccinations, packed our duffel, and brushed up on our pidgin Swahili before hitting the friendly skies for a 21,000-mile round trip. Here's what we trail-tested:

All new for 2007, the Wrangler JK has been completely redesigned. The engine is new to the vehicle, and the drivetrain, suspension, steering, and brakes have all been completely reengineered using bigger, stouter components.

Our test unit was powered by the longitudinally mounted, driven-by-wire Chrysler 3.8L V-6 rated at 205 hp at 5,200 rpm and 240 lb-ft of torque at 4,000. At present, it's the only engine available for the Wrangler, though 'wheelers abroad can get a 2.8L VM Motori I-4 turbodiesel. Our test JK sported the NSG370 six-speed manual transmission mated to the NVG241 Rock-Trac transfer case, now engaged by a cable shifter and equipped with fixed yokes and CV joints. Axles for Rubicon JKs remain Dana 44s at both ends, though the front is now a reverse-pinion unit, and both axles' ring gears, tubes, and 'shafts (now 1.4-inch diameter) have increased in size and strength. Selectable lockers are still stuffed in the pumpkins, but now they're engaged magnetically (no more vacuum). For base-model Wranglers, the Dana 30 front and 35 rear are still standard, but they've also been upgraded, and the 35 finally loses the C-clips. Rolling stock remains 32-inch BFG Mud-Terrains on 17x7.5-inch rims (now on a 5-on-5 bolt pattern) with the Rubicon package.

With the revs up in 4-Hi, sandy washes were no problem for the JK. The fabric over the grille is to keep millions of Zambian bugs and elephant grass seeds from gumming up the radiator.

The JK's suspension utilizes the same basic coil-spring/five-link arrangement as the TJ, though all the links and bars are stouter this year, the shocks are higher-pressure monotubes, and the electronic sway-bar-disconnect system used by the Dodge Power Wagon now resides on the frontend. Steering is a power crossover setup using a high-steer knuckle, and brakes are four-wheel discs on all models. The JK's new hydroformed chassis is said to be 100 percent more resistant to bending and offers 50 percent greater torsional resistance. And, of course, the whole package is 5 inches wider and 5 inches longer than its predecessor. But is bigger necessarily better?

On the trail in low-range, the six-speed/Rock-Trac combo, in tandem with 4.10:1 axle gears, provides a whopping 73:1 crawl ratio-great for inching down deeply rutted washouts and over rock-strewn riverbeds. The suspension flexes reasonably well, and with the sway bar disconnected (and the ESP turned off), keeping the fronts on the ground was rarely a problem, though cycling at both ends could be hindered somewhat by limited shock droop. (We'd opt for a set of premium aftermarket boingers as a worthwhile first upgrade.) Especially welcome in loose dirt and on rocks, locker engagement is seamless and smooth-a big improvement.

As soon as the terrain grew less challenging, though, and we needed to vary our speeds, the V-6's shortcomings became more transparent. A conventional 60-degree short-stroke block sourced from the Chrysler minivan line, the 3.8L's torque peak requires generous throttle to maintain, and with the six-speed's wide ratios and long, clunky shift throws, we found ourselves losing power whenever we needed another gear. The fact that a JK in motion equals 4,100 pounds of rolling resistance doesn't help, either.

Another concern was the extra girth. While the JK's increased track width improves lateral stability-as well as offering more interior legroom, elbowroom, and overall levels of creature comfort-all that extra space and sheetmetal can impede the driver's ability to peer over the hood, and over the too-high-for-hip-point doorsills. At least the driver's seat can be adjusted up slightly, but we never did get a really good look at the trail until the doors had been removed (see "Where We Wheeled" on page 34 for details). The greater overall width could also affect maneuverability in tight spots. Squeezing through a very narrow two-track at night, with acacia branches and 10-foot-tall elephant grass buffeting our sheetmetal (and us) with bonks and scratches, we kept asking ourselves, "They made it 5 inches wider for ... why, exactly?"

On the other hand, we like the vehicle's muscular lines and its overall exterior dimensions. It doesn't really look much bigger from the outside, and its approach and departure angles (44 and 40, respectively) and minimum ground clearance (over 10 inches) are still outstanding. Overall fit and finish-inside and out-were very tight on our tester, too, given its preproduction status. And needless to say, in Rubicon trim, we'd wager the new Wrangler would easily outwheel anything else in its class. It'll certainly outcrawl anything that isn't a Unimog.

Due to our trail-heavy test schedule, we didn't get to drive the JK on paved roads, so we'll withhold assessing its street manners until we can get one for further evaluation-in this case, for our 2007 Four Wheeler of the Year test, coming up in just a couple of months.

Vehicle model: 2007 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Base Price: $18,765
Engine Type: 3.8L 60-degree V-6
Bore x stroke (in.): 3.78 x 3.43
Valvetrain: OHV, 2 valves/cyl
Aspiration: EFI
Mfg.'s hp @ rpm: 205 @ 5,200
Mfg.'s torque (lb-ft) @ rpm: 240 @ 4,000
Transmission: NSG 370 six-speed manual OD
Transfer case: NV241 Rock-Trac part-time two-speed
Low range ratio: 4.00:1
Crawl ratio: 73.14:1
Axle ratio: 4.10:1
Suspension (f/r): Solid axle, coil springs, track bar, electronic sway-bar disconnect/Solid axle, coil springs, five-link with track bar, stabilizer bar
Steering: Power recirculating ball
Brakes (f/r): 11.9-inch vented disc/12.44-inch solid rotor
Wheels/Tires: 17x7.5 cast aluminum
Tires: LT255/75R17 BFG Mud-Terrains
Wheelbase (in.): 95.4
Length (in.): 152.8
Width (in.): 73.7
Height (in.): 70.9
Track, f/r (in.): 61.9/61.9
Curb weight (lb.): 4,104
Ground clearance f/r (in.): 10.5/10.2
Approach/departure angle (deg.): 44.3/40.4
Max towing capacity (lb.): 2,000
Max cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 61.2
Fuel capacity (gal.): 21
EPA mileage estimates (mpg): N/A
Seating capacity: 5

On rocks, the new Wrangler is just as capable as its TJ predecessor, though its added width can pose challenges in tight turns, and the Unlimited's long wheelbase can be prone to high-centering.

Profiled in our June '06 issue, the Wrangler Unlimited shares the same basic underpinnings as the two-door JK. Its main differences are that it's 20 inches longer, 200 pounds heaver, and has two more doors (and obviously, a lot more rear cargo space) than the JK. Our test Unlimited-also a Rubicon model-sported the 42RLE four-speed automatic transmission, and after spending half a day with it, we think it's a better match for the V-6 than the manual. Acceleration, while not neck-snapping, was adequate to get the 4,300-pound Jeep up to highway speeds, and any gear-binding or converter lag that may have occurred between shifts escaped our notice-which, to our minds, is how an automatic is supposed to behave. One testdriver felt that the new, stiffer chassis tuning resulted in a "punishing" pavement ride, but it didn't seem bad at all to us, considering the less-than-optimal road conditions we encountered in rural Zambia. At road speeds, the Jeep did seem prone to slight understeer-which we chalked up to the effects of 32-inch mud tires aired down to 20 psi-but overall road feel and directional stability are light-years ahead of anything we've experienced in any previous Wrangler.

On the trail, the Unlimited has its strengths and its weaknesses. With its longer (116-inch) wheelbase and still-outstanding (44-degree) approach angle, it could simply straddle steep berms, or idle up long slopes of slickrock, that would've required more juice (or steering correction) from the shorter JK. On rocky and narrow trails, however, the Unlimited was more likely to high-center, and required more frequent backing and filling to navigate through turns. Big fans of automatics that we are, we loved the extra throttle control (and left-foot braking) we gained by not having to baby a clutch, though on steep descents, we found ourselves applying more slow-pedal than we'd have liked and sometimes wishing for the lower gearing and better compression braking that comes with the stick. Even so, the automatic Unlimited's 46:1 crawl gear is plenty suitable for every day 'wheeling, and if we were looking to buy one (and we weren't swapping engines), we'd likely take the gearing penalty for the convenience of the slushbox.

On We don't have an official fording depth for the JK or Unlimited, but we can tell you from experience that it can take it up to the headlights. Just keep up a bow wave, and a steady rate of speed.

One area deserving of praise on both Jeeps is the interior. We're not sure if it's due to the extra 2 inches of legroom and shoulder room, the extra sound-deadening materials in the floor, or the newly designed seats and fabrics, but for long-distance drives, the new Wrangler is far and away the most ergo-friendly version of this vehicle that we've ever spent time in. The sore backs, numb butts, and ringing eardrums we'd grown accustomed to from spending long hours glued to the seats of TJs and YJs simply failed to manifest themselves. Our middle-aged glutes are grateful.

The rest of the cockpit has its pluses and minuses: We're not crazy about the location of the power-window controls (on the center stack, by the HVAC controls), but since it's hard to design removable doors if you have to run a bunch of electrical circuits through them, we can live with this. Some of the switchgear-the toggle for the lockers in particular-is not the most intuitive to locate or engage. As mentioned previously, we're less than enamored with the stock ride and doorsill heights, and with trail visibility in general. And with the hardtop in place, rear visibility on the Unlimited isn't very good either-but since the top is removable three ways, you can remedy this to your liking as you go.

We'll have both the JK and Unlimited in our fleet for our 2007 Four Wheeler of the Year test. Both should be serious contenders-we'll have the complete story in our February '07 issue.

With its longer wheelbase, the Unlimited sometimes required more backing and filling-and more labor-intensive spotting-to navigate narrow spots.

Vehicle model: 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon
Base Price: $22,410
Engine Type: 3.8L 60 degree V-6
Bore x stroke (in.): 3.78 x 3.43
Valvetrain: OHV, 2 valves/cyl.
Aspiration: EFI
Mfg.'s hp @ rpm: 205 @ 5,200
Mfg.'s torque (lb-ft) @ rpm: 240 @ 4,000
Transmission: 42RLE four-speed automatic OD
Transfer case: NV241 Rock-Trac part-time two-speed
Low range ratio: 4.00:1
Crawl ratio: 46.58:1
Axle ratio: 4.10:1
Suspension (f/r): Solid axle, coil springs, track bar, electronic sway-bar disconnect/Solid axle, coil springs, five-link with track bar, stabilizer bar
Steering: Power recirculating ball
Brakes (f/r): 11.9-inch vented disc/12.44-inch solid rotor
Wheels: 17x7.5 cast aluminum
Tires: LT255/75R17 BFG Mud-Terrains
Wheelbase (in.): 116.0
Length (in.): 173.4
Width (in.): 73.9
Height (in.): 70.9
Track (in.): 61.9
Curb weight (lb.): 4,340
Ground clearance f/r (in.): 10.5/10.1
Approach (deg.): 44.4
Departure (deg.): 40.5
Max towing capacity (lb.): 3,500
Max cargo capacity (cu. ft.): 88.3
Fuel capacity (gal.): 21
EPA mileage estimates (mpg): N/A
Seating capacity: 5

Meandering 500 miles through the lower Rift Valley in eastern Zambia, the Luangwa is the most intact river system on the African continent. Those tiny dots in the water are hippos.

Comprising 3,500 square miles in eastern Zambia, South Luangwa National Park is Zambia's finest wildlife sanctuary, and one of the most unspoiled areas in all of Africa. Home to over 60 animal and 400 bird species, and bordered on the east by a Game Management Area-where limited hunting is allowed, to discourage poaching elsewhere-the park follows the southwestern flow of the Luangwa River, the most intact river system in Africa (no dams, commercial agriculture, and so on) and a major tributary of the Zambezi.

The park is located at the southern tip of the Great Rift Valley of east Africa-the "Cradle of Mankind," where so many remains of early hominids have been unearthed-and includes within its boundaries a diversity of ecosystems ranging from grassy high savannah and semi-arid woodlands, to dense broadleaf forests of ebony and mahogany, to alluvial floodplains and oxbow lagoons around the Luangwa, where much of the wildlife can be found. During our two-plus days in the park, we logged close to 250 miles on the new JK and Unlimited-which doesn't sound like much until you consider that virtually all of our miles were driven off-pavement.

Accidents will happen. Luckily, despite blown beads and some crumpled sheetmetal, the JK was soon righted and ran flawlessly, sans doors, for the rest of the trip.

As the photos illustrate, we were treated to an awesome panoply of trail rides-high-speed dirt, demanding boulder-crawls and off-camber V-notches, steep hillclimbs, sandy dry washes, a couple of grille-deep stream crossings ... just about everything but deep mud. (We went during the summer dry season, when temperatures are mild and river levels are low.) In all, the degree of 'wheeling difficulty we encountered was as demanding as anything we've ever seen inflicted upon a fleet of stock vehicles, and kudos to DaimlerChrysler for having the confidence in its products to invite such potential abuse on them.

The waterways of South Luangwa are teeming with crocodiles. Travelers are advised to bring sturdy footwear.

How much abuse? Simply put, the Wranglers took a beating. Even in the hands of experienced 'wheelers, nearly every test Jeep evidenced bashed bumpers, bent license plates, ripped fender flares, frayed soft tops, dented rock sliders, and scratches everywhere by the end of our test (but not a single sidewall failure-props to BFGoodrich). One member of our party-who shall remain nameless since he bribed us later with plenty of Tusker lagers-slid a JK off a slab of slickrock during a hillclimb and rolled it hard, side-over-side, on our first day. Using winchpower and straps, our party righted the Jeep-and it fired right up on our first attempt. We had to remove the doors-they wouldn't open and shut anymore-and there was barely a straight body panel on it, but otherwise the JK ran like a champ. Which pretty much sums up the trail prowess of the new Wrangler-it may not have much low-end torque, it's bigger and heavier, and it's harder to see the trail, but with a stout chassis, flexy suspension, solid axles, and low-low gears, it's still All Jeep where it really counts. And that, to us, is a very good thing indeed.

Owned and operated by Robin Pope Safaris, the Nkwali Camp boasts the "best bar in the Valley." The thatched-roof lounge, on the banks of the Luangwa, is built around a giant old ebony tree.

We're not sure we'd recommend it-not without a bush guide and a .375 Magnum-but if you want to 'wheel Zambia in the footsteps of FW editors, you can find 4x4s for hire. With offices in the capital of Lusaka, Around About Cars (+ 27-21-422-4022, rents an assortment of diesel Land Rovers that can be fully equipped with tents, spare fuel and water, parts, and recovery gear for extended trips into the veldt. A number of South African companies, including Drive South Africa (+ 27-21-423-1912, and Bushtrackers Africa (+ 27-11-465-5700) can rent you a Rover, Toyota HiLux, or Mitsu Pajero, but you'll pay a surcharge to drive one out of the country.

If you're looking for more intimate trekking-deep in the bush, on foot, escorted by armed guides and surrounded by giant critters-Robin Pope Safaris (+ 26-06-246-090, offers Zambia tour packages ranging from relaxing game drives to arduous 10-day fly-camping safaris, with meals and lodging included. We spent two nights at a couple of Pope's campsites, and were treated to a bush hike by one of their knowledgeable guides, and all we can say is, they run a first-class operation (not counting the hippo that tried to sneak into Holman's cabin).

Last but not least, if you wanna 'wheel with some skilled hands who know the local landscape-and you've got a big-enough budget-check out the Wildtrackers (, a group of independent consultants who organize backcountry vehicle expeditions for groups large and small in some of the remotest spots on the planet. Members of the 'Trackers were our trail bosses in Zambia. Most of them had extensive military and/or Camel Trophy experience in their backgrounds, and take it from us, these guys are hard-core-and they've got the tsetse-fly bites to prove it.

If you've never been to Africa, be prepared to get vaccinated, at least a month ahead of time, for just about everything. For Zambia, proof of vaccination against yellow fever is required for entry. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control recommend shots for hepatitis A and B, meningitis, measles and rabies, and pills for typhoid and malaria. We've already had the measles, and rabies is not a concern (foaming at the mouth comes with our job), but we needed everything else. Also, our doctor recommended boosters for tetanus and polio since we hadn't had any for, oh, three decades.

All this protection comes at a price. Your typical primary healthcare doc won't be licensed to dispense these goodies, and unless you can find a public health clinic in your area, you'll need a referral to an infectious diseases specialist. And since most HMOs consider items like yellow-fever shots as discretionary expenses, be prepared to foot most of the bill. Here's what our tab looked like once Nurse Ratched finished turning one of our editors into a redheaded voodoo doll:

Hepatitis A & B vaccine (2) ${{{300}}}
Meningococcal vaccine $116
Yellow fever vaccine $120
Typhoid oral vaccine (4) $116
Polio vaccine $46
Tetanus/diphtheria vaccine $20
Administration charges ${{{100}}}
Doctor's office charges (2) $250
Anti-malarial pills (10) $20
Total $1,088

  • Fear the hippo. Not the smiling tu-tu'd terpsichore of Fantasia fame, real-life hippopotami are considered by many Africa experts to be the most dangerous animal on the continent (not counting mosquitoes), responsible for more human deaths per year than big cats or snakes. Highly territorial and often belligerent (they fight each other frequently, and many males sport battle scars), these behemoths have been known to charge humans-and their boats-without provocation, capsizing watercraft and biting off limbs (and even heads!) with their massive lower incisors. Nearly all the famed 19th-Century Africa explorers-Stanley, Livingston, Selous and Burton among them-reported hippo attacks during their travels. Hippos can weigh as much as 311/42 tons and can run at speeds of up to 20 mph (i.e., faster than you, unless you're Justin Gatlin), so should you stumble upon one during the winter calving season ... hey, hakuna matata, dude.

  • Hippos eat about 100 pounds of vegetation per day. Elephants eat three to six times that amount, and half of it exits their bodies as waste. Hiking into the African bush is a feast for the senses.

  • Slightly larger than the state of Texas, Zambia hosts over 70 principal languages, including Bemba, Tonga, Nyanja, Lunda, and Luvale. Lucky for us, the official language is English.

  • To 'wheelers, the word "Jambo" may suggest a popular Midwest truck-show series, but in Swahili, it's a universal greeting that loosely translates as "howdy." Swahili words that have found their way into modern English vernacular include bwana ("sir"), jumbo, Kwanzaa ("first fruits"), tote ("to pile up"), and safari.

  • At Mfuwe International in Zambia, the local groundskeeper mows the airport lawn with a machete.

  • Travel Tip: The next time Paris Hilton sits next to you on a flight to London, have your camera ready. No one will ever believe you otherwise.

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