Lake Tahoe really is beautiful this time of year. Then again, I’m sure it’s stunning with snow all over the ground too. I’m here to tackle one of the more challenging off-road treks in North America,the Rubicon Trail, where Jeep tests all of its “Trail Rated” vehicles. The question at hand is, of course, whether the all-new 2007 Wrangler has what it takes to live up the legendary Jeep name.
Before we go any further, if you were looking for the undercarriage to be updated with an independent suspension system, or the interior to get leather seats or automatic climate control, think again. Jeep isn’t about to risk its most cherished commodity, its massive following of off-road zealots that are as loyal to the Wrangler’s traditional characteristics as Harley riders are of the V-Twin. Attend one of any number of annual Jeep Jamborees and it’s easy to see the pecking order of respectability; if you’re driving anything less than a Wrangler, you’re in a “ladies” car, despite its Trail Rated designation. Even more interesting, along with the majority of Man Camp guys there’s a Commander-load of women who drive Jeep’s most rugged model that’ll make the same claim.
Andthere’s good reason. While I’ve taken the similarly sized Liberty through some pretty rough trails, thanks to decent ground clearance and a real, bull-low gearing setup, its independent suspension doesn’t give it quite the rock-crawling capability of the Wrangler. That’s OK though, as Jeep understands there are many who aren’t necessarily going to go all the way when off-roading their pride and joy, but they still want to belong to the 4x4 family. This understanding is exactly what’s behind the new Compass and soon-to-be-released Patriot, but we’ll leave discussion about these lightweights for another time. The Wrangler, and proving its worth on the Rubicon, is what we’re going to focus on now.
But wait a minute? This is a much more pleasant 4x4 than the TJ was; which was miles better than the YJ, or for that matter the completely utilitarian CJ7, or CJ5. I had the latter, a company car when I worked for AMC,and I loved every minute in it. But I was just breaking 20 then, and comfort was about as important as fuel economy and refinement – mine had a V8 with headers and side pipes (the neighbours loved me). While still true to its roots, the new Wrangler (the first time this name has been used in Canada, by the way, at least on a Jeep vehicle) is a much more refined vehicle than the outgoing TJ. Its interior won’t shock you with soft-touch plastics or fit and finish perfection, after all, that’s not what this vehicle is about, at all, but it’s nevertheless a lot more upscale than the old one, with a friendlier dash design,more stylish instrumentation, a much improved audio system and seats that are still comfortable even after a day of rock crawling action.
Audio systems in mind, later this year the top-line audio system will go from this Infinity stereo to a Harmon-Kardon head-unit featuring an integrated 20-gig hard drive, Boston Acoustics speakers, plus all of the other goodies the current system offers such as XM satellite radio and an input for an auxiliary MP3 player, as well as touch screen functionality that additionally will include a state of the art navigation system.
That interior now can be had with power windows, a first for this model, plus power locks with keyless remote entry; also radical innovations. Don’t worry my purist friends, you’re not forced to pay extrafor city-boy features that you don’t want or need, the base X-model won’t embarrass you in front of your Jamboree comrades. And you don’t have to tell them about the standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic roll mitigation, and Electronic Stability Control either, but secretly you can feel a little warm fuzzy contentment knowing that you and yours will be safer with the Wrangler right side up. The Wrangler gets dual front airbags and seat-mounted side airbags too.
There are other standard features that your TJ buddies will envy you for, mind you, such as its one-size-fits-all engine package; a more robust 202-horsepower 3.8-litre V6 with 237 lb-ft of log-clambering torque. It’s a great engine off-road, not only because of its beefy twisting power down low in the rev range, but also because you can go further on a tank of fuel. Sure, I’m hoping that Jeep sees fit to offer the option of a turbocharged diesel too, but for now this is a much better power source than last year’s 3.7L.
I have to say, though, as a former V8-powered CJ5 owner, its pulling power off the line in its day-in, day-out higher gearing ratios isn’t about to light any fires on the tarmac. Highway passing requires careful forethought, and plenty of time to accomplish. It’s probably best to just sit back and enjoy the scenery than attempt anything heroic – leave that for the weekend when off the beaten path.
Negotiating quick lane changes won’t cause much commotion, however, and winding through tight country roads is a lot more enjoyable than in previous versions.This has everything to do with its 100 percent stiffer frame and additional five and half inches of overall width and 3.5 inch expansion in track. The Wrangler not only sticks to the ground with more tenacity, no matter if its running on pavement or going over dirt and boulders, but its 4.6 inches of extra hip room and 5.1 inches of added shoulder room makes it a lot more comfortable.
While we’re talking measurements, the base model has also grown two inches in length, which adds extra room for passengers in the back and gives the SUV a nicer ride. The Wrangler Unlimited gets a 116 inch wheelbase, longer than last year’s TJ Unlimited, and now includes four very usable doors. This is the first time Jeep has produced a four-door Wrangler, and interestingly enough, the only mass-market four-door convertible available anywhere in the world.
This model makes a great deal of sense to me, and has since Jeep showed a similar concept at the 1997 Detroit auto show dubbed Dakar. No doubt the enthusiasm fans of the brand showed for this prototype led to this new Unlimited, although it had to find its way vicariously through the Liberty first. Why it makes sense is obvious, to me at least. You see, with my teenager and two small children, the youngest still in a child safety seat and the middle one in a booster, rear seat accessibility is one of our family’s topmost priorities. For this reason, even the new, much more convenient regular wheelbase Wrangler would be a tough sell to all but my five-year old son. The Unlimited, however, would be a pushover thanks to my wife’s love of truck-like SUVs.
I took Kaden, my son, to Jeep Jamboree last summer, and he’s been begging me to go off-roading again ever since…before the summer, or at least autumn is over he’ll have been on his second 4x4 adventure, and something tells me he’s going to want to do it again… and again. This is only one of the reasons any Wrangler fits many family’s lifestyles, and the Unlimited only opens up these outdoor opportunities to those with more kids, and the added gear that goes with them.
On that note, behind the rear seats the new Unlimited can manage up to 1,314 litres or 46.4 cubic feet of cargo, and when you fold those rear seats flat, it makes 2,456 litres or 86.8 cubic feet of storage space available. That’s gargantuan compared to the regular wheelbase Wrangler and even the outgoing two-door Unlimited. Oh, and a note to Jeep salespeople who will be showing prospective customers the new model’s many attributes: make sure that you lower the 60/40 split rear seatbacks so that they can see one of the nifty self-folding headrests. It will automatically bend rearward out of the way when theseatback is dropped forward, making for a fairly flat loading floor. Although a warning to those same salespeople, make sure and overlook the rear door that gains access to that commodious cargo area, which, although staying true to longstanding Wrangler tradition, is poorly designed for the North American or Continental European markets; or the Chinese and most of rest of Asia for that matter.
Rather than opening up from the passenger’s side with the hinges on the driver’s side, to allow access from the curb when parallel parked, Jeep hinged it on the right and put its handle on the left, making it necessary to walk out onto the road and potentially into harm’s way if the need to load something large into the rear arises. I’ve complained about this with Japanese and British made vehicles with side-hinged doors, but other than the ill-conceived GMC Envoy XUV, I’ve never seen a domestic automaker engineer something so thoughtlessly. And now that we’re talking about the rear door not working harmoniously with North American needs, the Wrangler’s large rear window, which lifts upright and out of the way for easy loading, won’t do so unless the door is also opened. Who came up with that brilliant plan? Fortunately someone high up in DaimlerChrysler’s product team mentioned to me that there will soon be a fix for the rear window, but he remained mute about the poor choice in hinge placement. We’ll have to wait and see how a mid-cycle upgrade might improve things.
Jeep fans will laugh at my concern over such trivial things, of course, as they’ve lived with such foibles for so long that it hardly will phase them, although it should be mentioned that the 4x4 brand is reaching out to a different kind of customer with the new four-door Unlimited, one that expects such obvious convenience features to be part of the package, especially considering that it wouldn’t have cost a single penny more to engineer it properly. Ironically,Toyota, a regular offender with regards to passenger-side rear door hinges with its RAV4 and Lexus GX 470, did it correctly when creating the new FJ Cruiser, one of the Wrangler’s main rivals, but they botched the side-doors up so badly, with rear-hinged “suicide” style rear doors that make getting in and out when more than two occupants are on board and slotted into a regular shopping mall parking space next to impossible. If forced, I’d go with the lesser of two evils, Jeep’s awkward rear door.
Funny enough, though, all of this concern about inconveniences seemed to disappear in the morning ether once I jumped into the comfortable saddle and started my way down the Rubicon (I’d been flown up in a helicopter along with numerous media types the night previous, fed, comfortably put up in a tent with raised cot and warm sleeping bag, and then fed again in the morning). We immediately, in single file, started traversing some pretty unwieldy terrain, and my standard length Wrangler Rubicon, equipped with a very accommodating automatic transmission, which by the way is ideal for left-foot braking with the right foot kept steady on the throttle, handled it all with ease.
Incidentally, I’ve 4x4’d all my life, although this would be my first time on the Rubicon, a trail that incidentally was found by Jeep enthusiasts way back in the early ‘50s, with these same off-roaders holding their first Jeep Jamboree in 1953, giving this dusty, rock strewn mountain path almost as much history as Jeep itself. It’s an ideal playground for those with an adventurous spirit; and if you haven’t yet caught on there are a lot of Jeep Wrangler fanatics that fall into that category.
Wewouldn’t be attempting the entire trail during the time allotted, as this reportedly can take more than two days, but rather would be taking the direct route out towards Tahoe, only requiring about a half day’s drive. Easily time enough, and terrain rough enough to allow the new Wrangler to prove itself or expose its failings.
Needless to say, as Jeep would hardly make a grievous error when it came to the Wrangler’s off-road capability, it took to the poor excuse for a road with the alacrity of a seasoned Himalayan herdsman, gliding up ridiculously steep grades of solid granite, littered with loose rocks of various sizes, with an almost dignified demeanor. It was like a soldier who’d been bred to fight, finally in the moment of battle, raised to the measure of its creation, a hero to a weak and fragile scribe that couldn’t hope to scale such exhaustively mountainous regions on his own. And all the while, whether clambering up a dirt-strewn crest of a hill or inching over an abruptly vertical solid rock abutment, its ride was surprisingly smooth. I especially noticed this when behind one of the trail guides, labouring along in last year’s TJ Unlimited, bouncing around much more than I was over the same stretch of trail. And where he hung up his Jeep on a pointed rock or protruding log or root, I’d simply walk over it without that annoying scraping sound of metal skid plates on solid granite.
One reason it goes over almost anything in its path, is the new Wrangler’s increased ground clearance, rated at 10.5 inches at the front and 10.2 in the rear. Another is the new vehicle’s stiffer frame, already mentioned, but being a Rubicon model,and more so a new 2007 Rubicon, it came with a feature DaimlerChrysler first showed in its 4x4-designed Ram Power Wagon pickup; an electronically actuated disconnecting front sway bar. The sway bar, important for keeping the truck level to the pavement when corning at highway speeds, isn’t needed out here in the woods; actually it gets in the way. For the really tough stuff, a push of a lower console mounted button disengages it, allowing for greater wheel articulation.
Just next to the button for disconnecting the front sway bar, sits one for engaging the front and rear locking hubs. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I’d join my Dad in manually locking the front and rear hubs when needed, sometimes ankle deep in mud, so the convenience of doing so from the comfort of the Wrangler’s cabin is much appreciated. It takes a single press of the button to lock the front hubs, and two clicks to lock all four hubs. The new Wrangler also gets what Jeep refers to as “enhanced” Dana axles, plus available Command-Trac and Rock-Trac transfer cases.
I made it down the Rubicon no worse for wear, which actually surprised me being that my back and neck have been acting up lately, something that should have been exacerbated by my complementary profession as TV personality; having my cameraman, Tyler McLeod in the seat next to me or clambering over the trail to get the best shots possible made it so I was never in the passenger’s seat and therefore always at full attention, but was nevertheless feeling pretty uplifted after the experience, ready to take on a beautifully paved winding road that left the trail parking lot and make our way out to the picturesque road that eventually circled Lake Tahoe.
Jeepconveniently had us park our Rubicon tuned Wranglers for more street-savvy base XE models or fully-loaded Saharas, the latter of which I chose and was thankful for the experience. This is the one to get if you’ve now grown up and don’t need to prove your manhood (or tomboy-like womanhood) to fellow Jeepsters, as its many convenience and comfort features, plus its attractive painted fenders give it a more upscale and refined look and feel.
Finding our way back to the luxurious mountain lodge set amid the splendor of Squaw Valley that waited our arrival, a more comfortable bed and the luxury of central heating beckoned me. Still, despite being exhausted and in dire need of bathing, thoughts of the trail made me want to turn around on the spot and head back to where we’d come from, back up the Rubicon in one of Jeep’s fabulous new Wranglers.
I thinkwhat impresses me most however, is the new model’s value proposition. Even with all the upgrades a new Wrangler can be had for a paltry $19,995! True, that price is pretty amazing, especially considering it comes standard with a soft top and steel doors included – both were optional a number of years ago – the Wrangler is one of the best values in any class, let alone amongst SUVs. Add a hardtop for just over a thousand, or both hard and soft tops for about $1500, and it’s still a steal. What might be even more impressive is the price of the four-door Wrangler Unlimited at $24,495, undercutting Toyota’s FJ by more than $5,000 and Nissan’s Xterra by more than $9,000… Ouch! Sure the Wrangler Unlimited doesn’t start with as many standard features, but even loaded up Jeep’s four-door poses a better initial value proposition.
Now that I’m talking competition, the Wrangler, or TJ as it has been called in Canada,has more or less been in a class of one before the Xterra came along, but things have started to heat up in the affordable off-road capable SUV segment, with a much improved Xterra now dueling it out with that flashy FJ Cruiser I just mentioned. Hummer’s H3, while a lot pricier than either of these two, and twice the price of the Wrangler, is also worth noting. The Wrangler is not only priced lower than any of these competitors, but it is probably the most capable off-road, delivers more layout configurations thanks to its two- and four-door body styles, and arguably looks best too, with a design that, while thoroughly updated, is similar enough to its ancestors to safely claim weathering the test of time.
Yes, Jeep has done a commendable job modernizing its iconic 4x4, yet by so doing hasn’t made its 2007 Wrangler and Wrangler Unlimited so refined that they can’t stand proudly, side-by-side with their forebears. Actually, both models now have the ability to outpace their TJ and TJ Unlimited through the rough stuff and on pavement, feats that will garner respect from those that matter most, the leagues of enthusiastic Jeep fans that have long been waiting for a total overhaul of their beloved off-roader. It was worth the wait.
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)
- Price Range (standard – Unlimited base MSRP): $19,995 - $24,495
- Body Type: 2-door and 4-door convertible SUV
- Layout: front engine, part-time 4WD
- Engine: 202-hp, 237 lb-ft of torque, 3.8L, 12-valve, OHV V6
- Transmission: 6-spd manual (optional 4-spd auto)
- Brakes (front/rear): disc/disc, ABS, EBD
- Curb Weight (standard min – max): 1,403 – 1,541 kg (3,760 – 4,129 lbs)
- Curb Weight (Unlimited min – max): 1,848 – 1,969 kg (4,075 – 4,340 lbs)
- External Dimensions (standard L/W/H/WB): 3,881 / 1,873 (without mirrors) / 1,800 (w/ hardtop) / 2,424 mm (152.8 / 73.7 (without mirrors) / 70.9 (w/ hardtop) / 95.4 in)
- External Dimensions (Unlimited L/W/H/WB): 4,404 / 1,877 (without mirrors) / 1,801 (w/ hardtop) / 2,946 mm (173.4 / 73.9 (without mirrors) / 70.9 (w/ hardtop) / 116.0 in)
- Track (frt/rr): 1,572 / 1,572 mm (61.9 / 61.9 in)
- Overhang (Unlimited frt/rr): 679 / 778 mm (26.7 / 30.6 in)
- Seating Capacity: 5
- Cargo Volume (standard: behind 2nd row/2nd row folded/2nd row removed): 0.2 / / 1.6 / 1.7 cu-m (17.2 / 56.5 / 61.2 cu-ft)
- Cargo Volume (Unlimited: behind 2nd row/2nd row folded): 1.3 / 2.5 cu-m (46.4 / 86.8 cu-ft)
- Ground Clearance (Unlimited front min – max): 229 – 267 mm (9.0 – 10.5 in)
- Ground Clearance (Unlimited rear min – max): 221 – 257 mm (8.7 – 10.1 in)
- Towing Capacity (estimated): 1,588 kg (3,500 lbs)
- Payload (max): 454 kg (1,000 lbs)
- Fuel Economy (city/hwy): N/A
- Warranty (mo/km): 36/60,000 comprehensive - 60/100,000 powertrain
- Web Site: www.jeep.ca
©(Copyright Canadian Auto Press)