Back to the future in the Jeepiest of Jeeps |

Back to the future in the Jeepiest of Jeeps


Despite its expanded wheelbase, there’s still a pretty good reason that the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (the four-door version of the Wrangler) sports a speedometer that only goes to 100 mph.

And it’s not that this stately 4×4, the real king of commercially built off-road vehicles, is not stable. In fact, with an extra 20.6 inches of wheelbase added to the standard Wrangler’s frame, the resulting 116-inch total is quite truck-like.

Even the tires that come with the Sahara trim level, 255/70R18 Bridgestone Dueler A/Ts, are both subtle enough to ride comfortably on the highway, and provide reasonably combat-worthy off-road traction.

No, mostly it’s that the 3.8-liter V6 engine, mated (on my test vehicle) to an old-school four-speed automatic, has to work pretty hard to keep the 4,300-pound, four-door Wrangler rolling along at Coloradobahn speeds down on the dry roads below snow level. You will probably never see one going 100 mph, unless it’s been dropped out of an airplane.

As America’s most historically connected automobile, the pure, rugged, unadulterated spirit of the WWII Jeep certainly lives on in the Wrangler, for better or for worse.

The sometimes noisy engine’s got grunt when off-road grunt is what you need, with an austere 202 horsepower (by comparison, the base engine in a Hyundai Sonata now produces that much power) and 237 lb.-ft. of torque; don’t try to drag race, or expect to get anything more than the EPA-estimated 19 miles per gallon, pretty much ever.

On the pavement, the Unlimited’s commanding presence turns it into a reasonably sized and not easily intimidated urban cruiser. Off-road, it’s able to suck up the bumpiest of gravel roads with nary a problem, though the right stretch of washboard can indeed cause you to go sideways, even in 4×4 mode (the poor traction control does its best but isn’t really designed for off-pavement motoring), so you do have to remain vigilant. The Wrangler’s long turning radius also requires some forethought if you do end up on very tight mountain trails.

It’s best to celebrate its basic Jeepliness, or go out and buy a Grand Cherokee if you’re looking for more comfort. Despite leather seats, remote start, power doors and windows and an optional navigation system, Wrangler’s still about rudimentary, back-to-the basics motoring.

With the exception of the fully computer-integrated engine, you can indeed still hammer and spot-weld almost any of Wrangler’s parts back together if you’ve tipped over sideways deep in the middle of a Moab trail somewhere.

And while the four-door thing may cause some purists to cast aspersions, the Unlimited is absolutely rough enough to do anything required of a non-modified 4×4, with tons of clearance, healthy approach and departure angles, skidplates, front and rear tow hooks and an actual, lever-activated high- and low-range CommandTrac 4×4 system.

In the summer, you can yank the doors off whenever you want, and with the three-piece Freedom Top, you can easily pop off the panels above the front passenger cabin, or enlist the help of a few friends to remove and garage the rest of the top (and, lo and behold, a roll-away Sunrider soft top is tucked away). The hard top and heated rear glass will keep you toasty all winter.

Opt for the Sahara package and you get bling aplenty, including a super-shiny chrome grille, mirror fronts, a billet gas cap and chrome brushguards on the rear brakelamps, plus alloy wheels.

The massively whomping 368-watt Infinity stereo (with subwoofer) takes the Wrangler’s lack of soundproofing and turns the Jeep into a gigantic boombox, and is standard; the touchscreen navigation system, with burnable hard drive and multiple media interfaces, is not, but it also considerably modernizes the machine.

A few matters of practicality, though: rear visibility is pretty iffy with the hard-top roof in place, as a toaster-sized wiper motor, the hinges and then the rear-mounted spare and the high-center brakelamp (and smoked glass) don’t leave much room for light molecules to pass through.

And Jeep’s traditional, totally upright and ergonomic, WWII-era seating and steering position remains the same, so don’t plan on doing much lounging. Though your rear passengers do indeed have comfortable seats, or you can drop the second-row seats and have an 83-cubic-foot, carpeted storage area.

For the 2011 model year, you can order either the two-door or four-door Wrangler with a body-colored hard top, with a more contemporary center stack (I kept forgetting where the window controls were on the 2010) and wheel-mounted radio controls, plus optional electric side mirrors. They also promise improved acoustics on the inside of the cabin, which seems like sacrilege considering the heritage involved.

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