Round Headlights, Solid Axles, Still the Real Thing?
"Well, did we ruin it?" That was the question chief engineer Jim Issner posed to us after driving the '07 Wrangler through the central African bush. It would be three days and 200 miles of Zambian backcountry wheeling before we had an answer to that question. But before we even started our trip, we came to grips with what a puss Editor Cappa is. We lost respect for the guy as soon as he offered up excuses of why we should go to Africa and write this story for him: "I am not flying for that long over the ocean," "Six shots and three different pills just to go wheeling?" and "I am wanted internationally for hacking up classic iron. You go."
So go we did, starting off with an 11-hour direct flight from LAX to Heathrow Airport in London, where our minds went numb listening to the mindless chatter of hotel heiress Paris Hilton sitting one seat away from us. Fortunately for our personal sanity, she slept most of the way and we remembered our iPod. Besides, nothing could get us down. We were going wheeling in Africa as one of the first of 10 people outside of Jeep to experience the new Wrangler. And we were bringing Johnny Cash with us.
From London, it was a nine-hour flight to Nairobi for a quick dinner, a sampling of Kenyan brews, and a short night in some plush digs before boarding a chartered DC-9 to Mfuwe International Airport, where our visas were checked and our passports stamped. Aboard our chartered DC-9 an African honeybee flew out of the air vent and hit us in the face, giving us an idea for our next Samuel L. Jackson movie, Killer Bees On a Plane.
Many refinements went in to the JK. The axles are beefier, the interior has more room, and the dashboard no longer looks like it was raided from the Geo Tracker parts bin. On the JK Rubicon model, the lockers are now electronically engaged, rather than pneumatically, as on the TJ Rubicon. Although, when the locker is disengaged, you have to live with open diffs instead of having a limited slip, as on the TJ. The Wrangler is full of electronic babysitters, but, thankfully, there are three settings for the Electronic Stability Program - one of them is less invasive and one is completely off. For those who plan on modifying the JK, Jeep will offload the electronics at the dealer for a nominal fee.
In Mfuwe we finally boarded our last charter, a Cessna Caravan, and flew to a remote dirt landing strip where our Wranglers and Jeep hosts were waiting for us. A good mix of soft tops and hardtops, two-doors and four-doors, automatics and manuals - all Rubicons - awaited our arrival.
At first glance, the Wrangler JK is clearly a Jeep, an evolution of a classic look. The windshield still folds down, there are round headlights, and seven slots are on the grille. The TJ-style fenders are gone, now replaced with blow-molded plastic "flenders," which are basically oversized fender flares replacing the fenders. Due to crash standards, the fuel tank has moved amidship and the muffler now sits behind the rear axle. Overall, the vehicle is bigger than the TJ, which can be either good or bad, depending on your needs and expectations.
The only engine to be offered in the U.S. at this time is the 3.8L OHV V-6, which you may remember from such DaimlerChrysler minivans as the Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country. However, this is the first time it has been mounted longitudinally. The 205hp, 240 lb-ft of torque engine is capable enough in a soft top two-door, but the extra weight of a four-door hardtop with an automatic can be felt. Partly because of added weight and partly because of its powerband, this engine doesn't feel much more powerful than the venerable 4.0L OHV I-6 it is replacing and certainly doesn't have the down-low grunt Wrangler owners are accustomed too. But once you become used to keeping the rpm up, the Wrangler's power seems adequate. We may see it in the future, but the diesel version is only an overseas option for now.