I fell into a common trap with the last few Jeep Wranglers I’ve tested by focusing on their continued refinement and improved on-road manners instead of their go-anywhere capability.
|Engine: 3.6 L V6, 285 hp, 260 lb-ft.
Transmission: Five-Speed Automatic
Fuel economy: 17 MPG City, 20 MPG Highway, 17.2 MPG Observed
Price: Wrangler Unlimited starts at $27,390 after destination, $41,665 as tested for loaded Sahara model
Not this time.
I’m not going to discuss the Wrangler’s wobbly steering, excessive wind noise or dive bar mechanical-bull-riding suspension. It’s time to take the Jeep where it’s meant to be: the mud.
When I told the folks at Jeep my plan, they asked me repeatedly to get it dirty. And instead of giving me an off-road special like the short-wheelbase Wrangler Rubicon, I got a long-wheelbase four-door 2015 Wrangler Unlimited Sahara to prove just how capable any Wrangler can be.
More spacious than a regular Wrangler, the monstrous Unlimited measures 173.4 inches in length, an increase of over 20 inches compared to the two-door model. Starting at a base price of $27,390 after destination charges the price jumps to $33,785 in Sahara trim. But my tester goes further.
SEE ALSO: 2014 Jeep Wrangler Sport S Review
After adding items like the Connectivity Group, Max Tow Package, heated front seats, automatic climate control, colored hardtop, Alpine sound system with navigation and a remote starter, the price jumped to $41,665. What do all these options have to do with off-roading? Not much, but it does make the Wrangler more comfortable when tackling the trails and the tow package does include shorter ratio 3.73 front and rear gears.
I had a seriously sketchy road in mind, but before I decide to start small and test the Wrangler’s basics before jumping knee-deep into the muck.
First I went bombing through a grassy field. That’s almost an insult to the Jeep because any vehicle could probably make it across, but not like this thing can.
Most vehicles will make it across a big open field, but the ride is unpleasant as the car bump stops, bottoms out and crashes over uneven surfaces. The Wrangler just laughs it off. As I cruise at 30 MPH over a dry unmaintained field, the Jeep’s suspension delivers a smooth, controlled ride. In fact, the drive here is more pleasant than some of the surrounding broken pavement roads.
Time for a Workout
Next I took the Wrangler to a man-made moderate off-road course. Short in duration, the course is carved out of deep brush and is designed to test off-road prowess. First is a set of rollers set on a slight incline. Rollers are a series of metal tubes that freely roll within a frame. Think of them as industrialized versions of the bottle return rollers found at a local liquor stores or parcel rollers at shipping depots.
By placing both wheels from one side of the vehicle on these rollers, the side-to-side power distribution can be tested. If the vehicle lacks locking differentials or some form of a limited slip differential (LSD), the two wheels on the rollers will spin and the vehicle won’t move. My Sahara did not feature the optional rear LSD or the locking differentials found in the Rubicon and Willys Wheeler models.
SEE ALSO: 2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Review
But thanks to modern traction control systems, by using the Jeep’s brakes the Wrangler is able to send power to the wheels not on the rollers and advance forward. It’s not the best off-road setup by any means, but it works in a pinch.
Ground Clearance and Suspension Travel
Next on the trail is a series of logs and man-made dirt mounds set strategically to test ground clearance and suspension travel. With the largest mounds measuring just over eight inches high, the Wrangler Sahara’s 10.2-inch ground clearance is never really put to the test, but the suspension did get a thorough workout. The mound placement from side to side are perfectly located to try and upset the Jeep’s suspension. Although the Wrangler was bouncing around on the course, it never slipped a tire, hesitated or tried to bump steer off the course.
Putting it all Together
There is a road that I’ve been meaning to test for years, but I’ve never had the right vehicle to do it. It’s a dead-end with a posted warning that the surface is clay, the road is unmaintained and to use it at your own risk. Perfect.
I picked a day with steady rain that transformed the clay road into a greasy muck. Puddles are I can see puddles ahead, but have no idea how deep they are. Sliding the 4X4 transfer case into four-wheel high, I ease onto the throttle and begin. At best I’m a novice off-roader with minimal experience and little coaching. With a steady throttle at all times, I recall what I’ve been taught and react appropriately as the Wrangler slides back and forth through the goo.
I used all 10.2 inches of ground clearance at certain points because some of the ruts were roughly a foot deep. The Wrangler’s differentials dragged through the sludge as the Bridgestone Dueler A/T tires clawed for traction. Mud flew everywhere and the road behind me looked like dual backhoes dug trenches, but the Wrangler soldiered on. Best of all, the Jeep is ready and willing to do it again and again.
Even if the Wrangler is more civilized than it used to be and now features a 285 HP 3.6-liter V6 that is shared with a family sedan and a minivan, it’s still a purpose-built off-roader. Once you experience its go anywhere capability experienced, the urge to drive over everything is irresistible. Thankfully, it’s more than willing to oblige.