Dirt roads. Paved highways. A narrow passageway through woods covered by water or snow. Regardless of the destination, the route is what really matters when the mode of transportation is the Jeep Wrangler.
1. For 2011 the Wrangler gets a significant interior makeover that includes a new steering wheel with redundant controls, a new center stack and dash, added storage compartments and even heated lather front seats (a $700 option).
2. The Wrangler is sold in two-door and four-door versions with an MSRP range of $22,045 to $32,745. Out Wrangler Rubicon test car starts at $29,245.
3. Unchanged for 2011 is the engine with a 3.8L V6 that makes 202-hp and 237 lb-ft or torque with a terrible 15/19-mpg.
As the ‘need-to-be-somewhere’ crowd heaved shovelfuls of snow in back-busting unison to create exit paths for garage-stranded vehicles, the smiling ‘just-want-to-have-fun’ driver of a 2011 Jeep Wrangler Rubicon left tire tracks across a snow-congested driveway. It wasn’t the only time people gave an envious nod. Shifting from two-wheel drive to 4WD high at 40 mph instantly upped the SUV’s traction quotient, enabling the Wrangler to cut through choppy snowdrifts as two sedans and a pick-up truck became stuck on a snow-swamped expressway over the winter.
Offered in three trim levels—Sport, Sahara and Rubicon—the latter (our test model) is outfitted as the off-road warrior. Its two-speed transfer case provides a 4.0:1 low-range gear ratio, whereas the Sport and Sahara versions have a part-time, two-speed transfer case with a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio. The Wrangler Rubicon also includes electronic locking front and rear differentials, an electronic sway bar disconnect, and 32-inch BF Goodrich off-road tires.
While its massive tires give the Rubicon a claw-like grip on wet surfaces, on dry pavement the tires project a noisy interlude inside the passenger compartment. Even though Jeep engineers intensified the vehicle’s acoustical treatments for the 2011 model year, the Wrangler has never been—and still isn’t—a quiet SUV. With its military-use heritage, the this Jeep remains a duty-focused vehicle. Trudging through pothole-pitted roads, snow clogged arteries, and nasty off-road terrain is this compact SUV’s specialty.
INTERIOR GETS REVAMPED
The Wrangler’s dashboard stack display no longer seemingly borrows its inspiration from a stepladder. While the former interface point for radio, HVAC and other controls came across as a design afterthought, the current stack conveys an unbroken flow with its lower sitting, slightly wider presentation. Instrument panel controls remain appropriately sized for glove- or mitten-covered fingers, but now the dials are easier to reach. As a new feature, secondary buttons for cruise control, radio and other vehicle functions take position on a new, wider-spoke steering wheel.
Although the two-door Wrangler isn’t flush with stow spots, the makeover includes the addition of a bin on top of the instrument panel as well as a new lockable console. Wrangler’s rough-and tumble character gets softened as door armrests and other touch points are no longer rock hard. On bone-chilling outings, the best new-for 2011 upgrade is the heated front seats. Other updates include the addition of 12-volt accessory outlets, a new 115-volt outlet, Bluetooth streaming audio (part of the Media Center), and a passenger grab handle emblazoned with ‘Jeep Since 1941’.
Entering and exiting the two-door’s back seat is still challenging, so anyone taking rear seat duty needs super-flexible limbs. Two-door Wrangler’s cargo space behind the upright rear seat stays at just a tad more than 17-plus cubic feet, making the cargo bay considerably smaller than the Ford Escape, Honda Element and other compact SUVs. Although the Wrangler’s rear window is approximately 15 percent bigger than the predecessor, the driver’s rearward vision remains compromised by the rear seat headrests.
The Wrangler’s interior facelift is not, however, wrinkle-free. Although the carpeting is thicker than in 2010, it doesn’t fully cover floor panels. And the mechanical seat lever-adjusters frequently stutter and stammer when engaged. While far from a radical makeover, the revisions are noticeable and give the interior a more pulled together look and feel.
POWER OFF-ROAD, NOT ON-ROAD
In off-road excursions, the Wrangler Rubicon’s 3.8-liter V6 is loaded with gusto, but the engine that produces 202 hp and 237 lb-ft of torque lacks pep on the highway. Drivers that intend to spend more time on-road than off-road need to note two fundamental realties: the Wrangler doesn’t unzip with acceleration, and it doesn’t take long to drain the 18.6-gallon fuel tank. EPA estimates for the two-door 4×4—whether fitted with the four-speed automatic or six-speed manual transmission—are 15-mpg city and 19-mpg highway. In contrast, the Jeep Patriot in a 4×4 configuration snags estimated EPA fuel economy of 22/28-mpg with a 4-cylinder engine mated to a 5-speed manual transmission.
While the Wrangler is a one-trick pony in that it offers only a V6, the SUV seemingly has two ride and handling personalities. The on-road demeanor has an energetic, bouncy up and down rhythm while the off-road character reveals a slow, deliberate attitude. But the body-on-frame SUV’s driving dynamics grab with a charm that is uniquely Jeep Wrangler. The two-door’s 95.4-inch wheelbase and perfectly matched front and rear track (61.9 inches) compliment this SUV’s 10.2-inches of ground clearance and its substantial approach and departure angles.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon’s interior alterations do a nice job of unifying the cabin presentation. Few vehicles strike all the right notes with regard to price, power, fuel economy, attributes, and capabilities, and the Wrangler is no exception. What truly stands out is Wrangler’s off-road prowess. What remains Wrangler’s nemesis, however, is finding a better balance between being a backwoods brute and wearing a halo on the highway.
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