No vehicle represents America’s can-do spirit as authentically as the Jeep Wrangler. Born from the conflict that defined our Greatest Generation, the Jeep embodied our nation’s core values: simplicity, honesty and never-say-die durability. That was then. Now, not one but two badge engineered CUV’s are dragging the Jeep brand’s hard-core off-road rep through the [ankle deep] mire. Which puts a lot of weight on the ’07 Wrangler Unlimited’s elongated shoulders. Does the new Wrangler have enough talent and gumption to make up for the sins of the sons?
Necessity dictated the design of the general purpose military vehicle in 1941. With its windshield folded down and wheels removed, large numbers of Jeeps could be stacked onto and into transport ships. Tradition demands– and receives– respect for these styling cues. Even so, the Wrangler has evolved. Every corner, once sharp as the pant crease of an Army Class-A uniform, is subtly rounded. The grille that has stood at starched upright attention for more than sixty years is gently swept back. The windscreen still folds forward, but now it’s hinged in the middle to accommodate its new slightly curved shape. Aerodynamic it’s not. But for a Wrangler, the new model is positively sleek.
The top is as stubborn as ever. When I asked the Chrysler rep to take down the “Easy Folding Soft Top,” I initiated a 10-minute wrestling match between man and machine. The machine won. Despite unbuckling hasps, releasing latches and unzipping Velcro, the origami-impaired rep couldn't get the damn thing down. While I’m reasonable confident that a properly trained, well-practiced owner could eventually remove the canvas lid, the transformation shouldn’t be attempted impulsively at, say, a stoplight. In fact, I reckon the optional three-piece modular “Freedom Top” was named for its ability to liberate owners from said task.
Meanwhile, the new Wrangler (codenamed JK) has sprouted an extra pair of doors. Despite its additonal length, the outgoing Unlimited two-door required a contortionist’s skill to access the back. With rear portals, back seat egress is downright civilized– which is a bit like marveling at how easy it’s become to swing open The Gates of Hell. Not to put too fine a point on it, Jeep’s second row accommodations are rear passenger purgatory, bereft of comfort or room in any direction. And that’s when you’re standing still. Flail about the countryside at speed and your companions will emerge bruised, battered and bitching.
I drove the ’07 Wrangler Unlimited back-to-back with an outgoing ’06 two-door model. The advancements are profound. The front seats are far more comfortable and offer something remarkably akin to lateral support. Also new for ’07: optional power windows and locks for the [still] removable doors. The power window controls are now located in the center of the dashboard just below the stereo. The rest of the spartan dash gets a Chrysler parts-bin makeover; a vast improvement for Jeep, but nothing special in and of itself.
Jeep’s streamlining and improved chassis insulation deliver a much quieter (if not quiet) ride. Wrangler owners have come to expect rigs that porpoise down the highway, skitter through corners and labor to a stop. Thanks to the new Unlimited's added width and wheelbase, its dynamics are far more refined than its ancestors’. Through quick slalom-like maneuvering, the body continues to dance the Tango after the orquesta típica stops playing. But it recovers quickly. You can navigate city traffic with greater confidence, to the point where the Unlimited is a plausible daily driver.
Wrangler drivers can kiss their beloved 4.0-liter in-line six goodbye; the venerable I6 couldn’t meet federal emissions standards. All ’07 Wranglers are now blessed with Chrysler’s 3.8-liter V6, good for 215hp and 245ft-lbs torque. While its genesis might not inspire much joy in Mudtown (Dodge Caravan and Chrysler Town & Country?), the pushrod powerplant is simple enough to take the requisite beating and gives Wrangler improved torque at higher revs; it can get out of its own way when asked. Zero to sixty? Top speed? About as important to Wrangler lovers as a Porsche Cayenne's towing capacity to its target audience.
I’ve yet to take the new Wrangler Unlimited off-road, but junketed journalists report that the model is the genuine article; including tales of a Jeep rolled, righted, repaired and restored to service. Experience suggests that the new model’s extra length won’t help it in up-and-over situations, but learning your 4X4's limitations is all part of the fun.
Ironically enough, Jeep is about to experience the “fun” of learning its brand limitations. Making the Wrangler more urban-friendly while maintaining its die-hard demeanor was the right thing to do. Turning its back on its heritage was not. Is the new old-style Jeep good enough to protect the brand's rep from their silly soft-roaders? Yes, but only just. Which tells you just how good the Wrangler Unlimited is, and just how bad those CUV's really are.