War icon. Mud monster. Off-road king. Some might fancy fantasizing about themselves in that light when driving one of America’s true automotive icons — the Jeep Wrangler. But just like playing cowboys and Indians, that’s a dream outdated as so many Westerns.
|1. A 3.6L V6 is rated at 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
2. A new 5-speed automatic helps achieve 17 mpg city and 20 mpg highway.
3. The Wrangler Unlimited boasts 31.5 cu-ft of cargo space and 70.6 cu-ft with the rear seats folded flat.
4. Prices start at $25,695.
It’s hardly a bag thing, though. Wranglers of old were crude machines that really did belong trudging through soft ground. Fast-forward to the present day and Fiat holds the reigns at Chrysler. There’s a four-door variant — the Wrangler Unlimited — and the whole package is better mannered for daily driving.
The last time AutoGuide.com had the chance to sample a Wrangler Unlimited, it was to experience the car’s venerable off-roading resume at work. But what about the other 90 percent of the car’s life? Most owners won’t go off road and if they do, it won’t be often.
Instead, like most SUVs, Wranglers are likely to spend more time tooling around the blacktop. Thankfully, Jeep is well aware of the need to balance its rowdy off-roader with city composure.
Last year Chrysler made important updates to the Wrangler powertrain. Now it comes with a 3.6-liter Pentastar V6 that makes 285 hp and 260 lb-ft of torque.
Just as you would expect, there’s a second lever to put the car into low- and high-geared four-wheel drive modes. Unless wasting gas gives you kicks, or it’s snowy, that lever will be on 2H most of the time.
Assuming that’s the case, a firm foot to the gas pedal makes the car squat with purpose as it powers forward, though you won’t really be going as fast as it’s squishy suspension suggests.
Great for navigating bumps and backwoods, the soft-sprung Jeep gets tiresome during daily driving, especially at higher speeds as it sways and leans. True, this sort of drive is something to be expected, but it’s also to be considered carefully if this is meant to be a commuter car.
Boxy cars are usually easy to see out of, and in most ways that’s true with the Wrangler. Big side mirrors make driving in a crowded city less stressful. Being able to see exactly where the car ends in front is also helpful.
What isn’t, on the other hand, is how the full-size spare bolted to the rear makes an already small window even harder to see out of. In Jeep World, full size spares just make sense. Skipping it while wheeling would be stupid, but once again this isn’t the backcountry.
Much Thirstier Around Town than Estimated
Fat tires, a rugged suspension and power-a-plenty are as much a part of the vehicle’s DNA as its image. Unfortunately that also means you can expect hereditary fuel economy problems carrying over too.
The five-speed automatic is more refined and Chrysler says it helps improve fuel efficiency. EPA estimates for the automatic suggest 17 mpg in the city and 20 mpg on the highway. While the car petered around 19 mpg on the highway, it averaged an abysmal 14 mpg after a week spent mostly around town. Don’t be fooled — the fuel-saving measures don’t do much. Still, Jeep insists the mileage is an improvement over past models.
Plenty of Passenger Space, Practical Four-Door Setup
Being comfortable and driving a Wrangler might not have had much in common in the past, but Jeep is making a concentrated effort to change that.
Arguably one of the industry’s best, Chrysler’s uConnect telematics system is simple, snappy and functional. It gives Wrangler owners hands-free calling, a touch screen and all the capability you would expect from such a system.
Optional heated seats go the extra mile in cold weather as well, keeping you and your co-pilot’s bottoms baking. Fine as those features are, the car has a number of bush-minded quirks that are a boon off road but a bane overall.
Twist a few knobs, and the roof panels come right out. It’s fantastically easy to do, but that’s not always a good thing. The test car this time around only had a handful of miles logged on it, but a 2012 version AutoGuide.com had earlier in the year already suffered from water leaking through those panels. Given that, it’s hard not to think they might be a little too easy to take off. Rugged is fun; soggy seats not so much.
The Wrangler Unlimited’s removable doors and roof are enertaining, but so is a game of strip poker. Ask yourself something: how often do you play strip poker? Similarly, how often are you really going to drive around without doors and a roof?
Big Plusses Mean Big Minuses Too
As for those uniquely hinged doors, they’re intriguing, but have their drawbacks too. You’re not likely to try parking on a hill and getting out during a test drive, but you should. That’s because the doors swing freely, held by a nylon strip to keep them from flying around and smacking the front fender. Similarly, you’ll have to hang on while opening them and facing downhill. You’re also likely to be dishing out unintentional door dings on a frequent basis.
In a week’s time driving the car that included passengers ranging from five-foot females to a competing bodybuilder, not a single person closed the doors on the first try. You need to slam then in the truest sense of the phrase.
None of those passengers complained of being cramped. There’s plenty of useable space in the second row: 40.4 inches of headroom and 37.2 inches for your legs. That’s more headroom and almost as much rear seat legroom as the Grand Cherokee.
Towing capacity varies based on which axel ratio you choose. You’re limited to 2,000 lbs with the 3.21 ratio while the 3.73 ratio raises that figure to a 3,500-lb maximum trailer capacity.
The truth is, there isn’t much of a compelling case to buy the Wrangler Unlimited. It tries to marry two worlds more at odds than Rush Limbaugh and Stephen Colbert.
On the one hand, it’s a capable off-road vehicle and on the other it’s a viable people carrier with plenty of space for four or even five passengers. Unfortunately, it crosses wires by trying to be the best of both worlds by taking too much from the “good” column in both cases.
The powerful Pentastar V6 feels mighty, but it comes at a serious fuel cost. On the other, the wheelbase is a full 20.6 inches longer than the two-door model. There’s no disputing that both two- and four-door models are able-bodied 4×4 vehicles, but the longer wheelbase will inevitably be a bane in the bush.
Because of that, the Wrangler Unlimited remains a guilty pleasure rather than a practical purchase.