“It’s a Jeep thing; you wouldn’t understand”. This was the vaguely condescending response I got when I queried my then-girlfriend and current wife about why in the world she would choose such an unrefined and slow mode of transportation. Surely, you can understand my point of view. I mean, the Jeep Wrangler is the ultimate, absolute antithesis of everything performance-related in the automotive world. Well, that is true so long as we are talking about road-going performance. Some, like my wife, get more excited about the prospect of slogging through mud and muck than teeter-tottering on the bare naked edge of control around a downhill decreasing-radius corner. And, for those who get their jollies in the dirt, the Wrangler Rubicon is the ultimate starting point for a true performance vehicle.
The Wrangler Unlimited’s exterior style remains true to its stack ’em high and send ’em overseas cubist pedigree. Overall, it looks a lot like the original two-door version stretched to house a backseat and a little more cargo space. And there you have it. In fact, Jeep’s engineers extended the standard model’s wheelbase 20.6 inches to make such accommodations.
My tester came in a shade of dark green straight out of a Vietnam-war flick, complete with jungle-ready mud tires. Among other off-road equipment, it was fitted with locking front and rear differential, rock rails, skid plates and a 4.10 rear axle ratio. With its suspension and the aforementioned tires, the Wrangler’s looked every inch the OEM monster truck.
Considering the Chrysler’s current cabin quality, my expectations for the Wrangler’s interior fell somewhere between Yugo and Ford Tempo. Obviously, leather and other high-zoot convenience features aren’t de rigeur for any vehicle designed for the great outdoors. So I wasn’t surprised to encounter stain resistant cloth seating and lots of plastic and rubber. But the plastic was brittle, nasty and poorly fitted. The rubber looked like it had a half life half as long as the Jeep’s. The Wrangler Unlimited illustrates the difference between spartan and disposable.
The Unlimited’s instrumentation is straightforward and glove-friendly. Navigation is touch-screen and electronic in nature, so mud-bogging with the top down is probably not a great idea. Semi-city slicker that I am, I was delighted to find that the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited’s sound-deadening materials do a halfway decent job sealing out the outside world—a tall order considering its tires and removable hard top.
While driving my tester, I couldn’t escape the thought that I’ve now come full circle in terms of Jeep power trains. I’ve driven everything from a 1980s CJ to a 1997 TJ to this four-door Rubicon tester. During this journey, I’ve sampled everything from the utterly gutless 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder (which was crippled even further by enormous mud tires) to the 4.0-liter inline six, the 4.2-liter inline six, and finally this year’s 3.8-liter V6.
There is no doubt in my mind that this most recent engine is the best in terms of power and refinement. Of course, put this engine in a family sedan and you’ll get a decidedly different take on its virtues. Drive through the city and you’ll find the mill’s acceleration adequate and its fuel consumption disconcerting.
Now, if you are a Jeep die-hard, you are going to find this part of my review downright unforgivable. I didn’t get a chance to take the Rubicon off-road. Single digit temperatures and scheduling made a trip to the trails impossible. However, I’ve logged plenty of time in Wranglers off-road, so I know just how good they are. With its ground clearance, 4WD system and suspension, the current generation Wrangler can handle its business in the dirt. Frankly, it’s the asphalt jungle where Wranglers have historically fallen short. Way short. Besides, admit it, you spend far more time on the street anyway.
The Unlimited Rubicon is a better handling Wrangler than the two-door versions of yesteryear. I realize that this is a little like being the best player on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster. But driving the Rubicon on city streets I was able to keep all my teeth in my head, which is a win as far as I’m concerned. However, it must be said that the Wrangler Unlimited’s off-road roots generate plenty of slack in the steering wheel and a tendency to walk the road.
According to the spin doctors at Chrysler, the Wrangler Unlimited is generally purchased by married men with kids and an upper-middle-class income. ChryCo’s demographic profile makes sense to me. The Warngler Unlimited is the perfect vehicle for the outdoor enthusiast who needs extra space for camping gear and kiddos but doesn’t need it for daily driving duties. However, if you live in the city and you really just like the off-road look, do yourself a favor, go get a Columbia fleece jacket and a Toyota Corolla. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.