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2007 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon JK Review and First Drive

Round Headlights, Solid Axles, Still the Real Thing?

Sean P. HolmanPhotographer, Writer

"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.

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.

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.

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.

No one on the trip will accuse Jeep of taking it easy on the drive route because this was, hands down, the most difficult and technical wheeling we've ever experienced during a new vehicle launch. The terrain constantly varied, one minute taking us through stereotypical savannah, then along narrow washes and sandbars, on to elephant grass and hippo ponds down through boulder-strewn canyons, and even a few places no vehicles have gone before. We drove the JK over 200 off-road miles in two days.

Initially, we were concerned about the JK's extra 5.5 inches of width, which proved to be more of a benefit to stability than a hindrance on the trails we encountered. The new suspension and extra width helped the JK to inspire confidence on obstacles that would have a TJ rolling over and playing dead. However, there were some tight sections that the two-door slipped right through, while the Unlimited's length came under scrutiny. At 116 inches, we feel that the Unlimited's wheelbase is about 6 inches too long. There is a joke in there somewhere, but we'll let it slide in the interest of good journalism. At least the extra length of the Unlimited helps to improve the JK's already impressive ride on pavement and makes the Unlimited a very sure-footed climber. With functional factory rocker protection, we could pivot the Unlimited around obstacles or give it a yank with the strap of the beefy tow hooks. Despite being a bit long for the trail, there is no doubt this five-seat model will be a huge seller for Jeep, and it should look pretty good up on 35-, 37-, or even 40-inch tires.

We have to admit to not being fans of the flenders at first, but then we realized just how much damage and abuse they could take without transferring it to the sheetmetal. The breakaway clips work great, and a brief introduction with a plumber's torch at the end of the day returned them to their original shape, or close to it.

While driving through all of this varied terrain and dodging man-eating elephants and poo-throwing monkeys, one feature we came to appreciate was the Power Wagon-style disconnecting sway bar. On steep side slopes, we locked it up, and we disengaged it on rocky climbs -- all at the touch of a button on the dash. Short of the hippo that visited our room and scared the crap out of us in the middle of the night or the monkey that stole soap from one of the guys while he was taking a shower, it just doesn't get much better than that.

The JK also has many features never before seen in a Wrangler, such as power windows and door locks, while still offering removable doors. The hardtop is trick with its removable panels and a superb navigation system with Sirius satellite radio offered, enabling you enjoy your favorite tunes on any trail.

While Cappa will undoubtedly share with you in an upcoming issue all the things he would change if he ran Jeep, our first impression is that the new JK is a pretty damned good trail machine out of the box. We had no mechanical failures during our trip and even a JK that rolled was turned into an open top, doorless Jeep and continued on the rest of the trip unfazed. Remarkably, the fairly low-profile 32-inch BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains suffered no flats or cuts during our time on the Mother Continent.

When you consider all of the regulations a new vehicle must meet and the trend away from solid axles, we could be telling you about the latest IFS Liberty, but, instead, Jeep did us right by the new Wrangler. The JK is the real thing and is arguably a better wheeler in stock form than the TJ. So to answer Jim's question, "Not at all." Sure, there are things we might have done differently, but the JK is an impressive vehicle -- and far from tarnishing Jeep's name.

Rock and Roll

In case you wondered what a JK would look like after a roll, we watched this two-door go dirty-side up after a bad line caused by some questionable spotting on a challenging obstacle. Proving how tough the new Jeep is, the occupants walked away with only a little soreness and some bruised egos. Once we righted the JK and cleared oil from the cylinders, we pulled off the doors and top, reattached the flenders, and continued driving for the rest of the trip without issue.