Part 1: 5,000 Miles With The Best Jeep Ever
It's been a love affair from the get-go-from the first time we testdrove one (Dec. '06), we used words such as "seamless," "muscular," and "light years ahead" to describe its characteristics. Since then, we've 'wheeled the JK Rubicon all over the world-literally, from Zambia to Zzyzx-and we've never failed to be impressed with its unsurpassed trail manners, regardless of terrain. It's the primary reason we named it our 2007 Four Wheeler of the Year, and now, last year's champ returns to our stable as year-long test mule.
Our test unit, a Rescue Green hardtop sporting Rubicon hardware, MyGig infotainment system, and a sticker slightly over $32 grand, arrived at our offi ces with barely 100 miles on its ticker, and after close to 5,000 trouble-free miles, we can report that the JK continues to impress, not only as a 'wheeler nonpareil but as a terrific urban runabout as well.
Fire up the 3.8L V-6 engine and engage the four-speed automatic, and one readily appreciates the across-the-board improvements in quality and comfort the JK offers over the old TJ. The Wrangler's cloth seats, never known in the past for their excellence of design or their degree of support, are quite comfortable for long-distance drives. The interior is remarkably quiet at road speeds for a Jeep bobtail-as one staffer noted, you can actually "listen to the stereo without jacking up the volume, or have a talk on the cellphone without yelling." The JK's fold-forward rear-seat mechanism might be the easiest we've ever operated-truly a one-handed maneuver for quick and easy storage. And sight lines fore and aft, due to oversized side mirrors and minimal overhangs, are excellent overall. Performance-wise, the engine does seem to have a dead spot in the torque curve below 2,000 rpm, and it labors occasionally to get the Jeep up to freeway speeds. And due to its boxy design and high center of gravity, the JK is prone to wind-induced wander and a fair amount of body lean. But hey, it wasn't built to be a prerunner anyway, so leave yourself some extra time for the morning drive, and enjoy your favorite Sirius channel while you're crawling along the Interstate.
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Besides, it's at slower speeds-on the trail or in the city-where the Wrangler really shines. Whether its flexy four-link suspension, pushbutton- disconnect sway bars, electronic lockers, and superb 32-inch BFG Mud-Terrains are walking over the gnarliest trails with ease, or whether its tight turning radius, short wheelbase, and supermaneuverability are making tight parking spots or crowded shopping malls a stress-free experience, the JK is as good as it gets when space is at a premium, be it on or off the pavement.
Things we haven't liked? Yes, there have been a few. The Wrangler's ABS can kick in unexpectedly and pulse-lock abruptly upon sharp input, especially on loose-dirt surfaces at higher speeds. (She's not a prerunner, remember?) The four-speed can be slow to drop a gear on long grades or when merging into lanes. Our tester evidenced some sloppy glue application to the passenger door, with weatherstripping that came loose from the doorsill and excess puddles of sticky black gunk along the outside A-pillar. The key-locked fuel filler cap requires two hands to remove. And mileage, even with the Jeep's aero-unfriendly design, solid axles, heavy tires, and performance-robbing transmission, has been a disappointing 141/2 mpg overall (despite a disproportionate amount of freeway driving), well below the V-6's 19/15 EPA ratings.
So yeah, 50-buck fillips are no fun, but otherwise, we're plenty satisfied with our JK's overall levels of comfort and performance. As an OE 4x4 that can take on blackdiamond trails straight out of the box, it has no equal-and for what it's worth, our tester's Rescue Green paint has drawn numerous compliments from folks we've met (many of whom happen to be young and female, and hey, we're down with that) in the course of our travels. We'll be back in a few months with another update at around 10,000 miles.
Base price: $26,695
Price as tested: $32,420
Four-wheel-drive system: NVG241 part-time two-speed
Miles to date: 4,978
Average mpg (this report): 14.58
Test best tank (mpg): 16.11
Test worst tank (mpg): 12.26
This period: None; to be performed at 7,500 miles
Problem areas: Loose weatherstripping,excess glue spatter on passengerside door
What's Hot,What's Not:
Hot: Genius-level Trail IQ, supermaneuverable in tight traffic, surprisingly quiet and comfortable interior, gorgeous paint
Not: A bit of a handful at highway speeds, abrupt transmission shift patterns, unpredictable brakes, cruddy mileage
* "Sooooo much nicer than a TJ for everyday commutes."
* "What the tires can't grab, the lockers will."
* "Needs better brakes-they pulse-lock quickly if hit hard."
* "Great around-town errandrunner! Crowded parking lots a stress-free experience."
* "Man, this thing sucks gas."
* "The best of all worlds: A chick magnet with a 50:1 crawl gear!"