The winner and still champion.
by Mitch McCullough
Base Price (MSRP) $14,890
As Tested (MSRP) $22,285
It's a long way from Omaha Beach to Malibu Beach, and today's basic Jeep really isn't the same vehicle that helped save civilization some 60 years ago. But even though the original 1941 part numbers are long gone, somehow the persona of the Jeep has remained the same: A light, compact, but rugged truck, capable of scouting uncertain terrain, and burdened with a minimum of bodywork.
At various times it's been called the Universal Jeep, the CJ (for Citizen's Jeep), and, since 1987, the Wrangler. The current model, which debuted in 1997, is by our count at least five generations removed from the World War II original. But it's still the hot setup for off-roading, the undisputed king of mud, swamp, and sand. At the same time, it's also much easier to live with than ever before. Wrangler is still no Cadillac, but it is quieter, roomier and more comfortable than any of its predecessors. It rides better. It handles better. It's even more capable off-road. It's still affordable.
And it gets better every year. For 2000, the six-cylinder engine used in up-market models was re-engineered for reduced emissions, and a new five-speed gearbox was introduced. Now, 2001 brings additional refinements, most notably a new soft top designed for better sound isolation and durability. Side windows are now deep-tinted in the best current fashion. The redesigned center console includes rear cupholders. There's an accessory locker available called Add-a-Trunk. Sahara models come with a CD player integrated into the radio, and a subwoofer option will help your neighbors appreciate that new top's sound insulation.
Underneath, the fuel-tank skid plate is thicker, too.
Wrangler is available in three models. At first glance, the base SE looks attractive, but its low price quickly rises when upgraded upholstery, a rear seat, rear-seat-area carpeting, a stereo and other options are added-although not having a rear seat is certainly an option for those who don't think they'll ever use it. The SE comes with a four-cylinder engine that is best teamed with the standard 5-speed gearbox.
Sport and Sahara models come with a much more powerful 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine. Sport ($19,155) includes an AM/FM stereo, too, along with a back seat and full carpeting. The top-of-the-line Sahara comes with more features, more style and adds more than $2,000 to the price of a Sport. You can also add significantly to the cost of the Sport by ordering a lot of options. You can see prices of some of them on the specifications page, but you'll have to do your homework at the dealership to obtain an accurate bottom line.
No vehicle is more instantly recognizable throughout the world than the Jeep Wrangler. That remains true in spite of the fact that nearly every body panel was redesigned for 1997 for a softer, gentler appearance. But the open fenders, flip-down windshield, big grille, plastic side curtains and exposed hinges and fasteners are still there, giving the Wrangler that rugged, no-nonsense look that has appealed to us for nearly 60 years.
One of the biggest decisions when buying a Wrangler is selecting the top. Purists prefer the soft top, a high-quality piece of equipment that can be configured according to the weather. Folding the top down takes only a third of the time it took before, and if a screwdriver is handy, the windshield can be flipped down for breezy, low-speed touring in the back country.
We still prefer the optional hard top ($920 on SE and Sport, $1,160 on Sahara) because of its practicality. The hard top provides more security for expensive gear; I get uncomfortable leaving camera equipment or fly rods and reels protected only by fabric and clear plastic. The hard top also offers better protection from weather. It comes with full-height doors and wind-up windows. I felt dry and secure while driving one through a violent thunderstorm at dawn. Rearward visibility is aided by the rear-window defroster, wiper and washer. Wind noise is greatly reduced. The top can be removed and stored when not in use.
For those who want the best of both worlds, Jeep offers a package that includes both hard top and soft top in matching colors. Either top is far easier to remove or install than tops of years past and provides much better sealing from the elements.
If elegance can be defined in terms of neatness and simplicity, then the Wrangler comes with an elegant interior. The modular instrument panel and heating and ventilation system are huge improvements over the last-generation Wrangler (the one with the square headlights). Rotary heating, ventilation and air conditioning knobs are an improvement over the old slider controls and are easy to operate when wearing gloves.
High-back front seats are comfortable and offer good lateral support. For those who have dogs or drive through deep mud, the interior can be easily cleaned. Removable carpets, slotted map holders, water-resistant seat fabrics and drain holes make cleaning with a garden hose an option if necessary.
This little sport-utility offers more sport than utility. There's room for four people or two people and gear, but not both. For weekend excursions, the best plan is to leave the back-seat passengers behind, flip the rear seat forward (or remove it) and head for the hills. There's enough space behind the rear seat for a fly rod, a vest and a pair of waders. Flip the rear seat down and there's plenty of room for a tent, a cooler, camping gear and even more fishing equipment. It doesn't get much better than that.
The Wrangler's modest towing capacity is sufficient for those who need to pull a personal watercraft or snowmobile.
The Wrangler Sport is a good choice for those who want more power and a higher level of standard equipment. The six-cylinder engine gives up some fuel economy around town, but gets 19 mpg on the highway.
We drove a Wrangler Sport through the Arizona mountains north of Phoenix. Spring runoff had carved deep gullies in the muddy trail as we slogged past Buckhorn Canyon toward Fort Misery. The primitive road wasn't even on our map, and for good reason. A car simply would not have made it up the muddy, rutted hill climbs. A big four-wheel drive sport-utility might have gotten through, but not as easily as the Wrangler.
When we turned off the trail and onto Interstate 17, heading south toward Phoenix, we were grateful for the Wrangler's smooth, comfortable ride. That's the essence of the newest-generation Wrangler. It provides the ultimate in off-road capability without punishing its occupants on the long road back to civilization. It's the right choice for perilous off-road treks like California's Rubicon Trail. But it's also fun for cruising around the neighborhood. And it makes a statement about your lifestyle--or at least what you'd like your lifestyle to be.
The Wrangler isn't a luxury car, but it isn't the penalty box it used to be. Paved roads seem much smoother. Corners are handled with more dignity. It feels stable at 80 mph. And wet pavement is not to be feared. At the same time, the Wrangler's off-road capability is superior to that of even the legendary Jeep CJ. It's an impressive balancing act.
Wrangler's engineers achieved this balance by replacing Jeep's 50-year-old leaf-spring suspension with a coil-spring setup. They mounted it onto a rigid new chassis that provides a stable platform for the suspension to do its job. Coil springs mean less friction and more freedom to fine-tune suspension geometry. And they allow enormous suspension travel. Wrangler's Quadra-Coil suspension boasts an additional seven inches of articulation over the old leaf-spring suspension.
Greater approach and departure angles mean that Wrangler can cross trenches and clamber over rocks and fallen trees that would trap the old Jeep. Few vehicles can match the Wrangler's rock-climbing ability. At the same time, it does not feel like a utility truck when winding down a curvy road.
Still, the Wrangler is no sports car. It offers competent handling, but the basic design is essentially that of a truck, with a high center of gravity. Hurrying this or any sport-utility vehicle around tight corners is not a good plan.
We also sampled a base Wrangler SE at DaimlerChrysler's Chelsea, Michigan, proving grounds. The short off-road course offers some challenging dirt trails and rocky climbing sections. Where an Explorer would have struggled, it was barely a test for the Wrangler. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine does a good job in this element. This engine is entirely competent for getting around town and is an excellent choice if your Wrangler will not be your primary car. And the SE's slender tires work well in heavy rain, snow and mud.
Regardless of model, buyers who contemplate a lot of off-road driving can benefit from optional gas shock absorbers, locking rear differential, tow hooks and heavy-duty battery and generator. Three different tire sizes are available, including huge 30x9.5x15 Goodyears designed for desert conditions. For all around use, especially snow and slush and rain, skinnier tires are a better bet. We think the best compromise are the optional P225/75R15 Goodyear Wranglers.
Anti-lock brakes are a $600 option. ABS is a great idea if you drive your Wrangler mostly on pavement as it will allow you to maintain steering control under full braking. We recommend it for most folks as it can help you stay away from opposing traffic in a panic stop, and maybe save your life. However, highly skilled drivers find that ABS lengthens braking distances on gravel roads as it will not let you lock the brakes, which is sometimes desirable in the dirt. If unsure, then order the ABS.
With its stiff chassis; compliant suspension; smooth, strong engines; and comfortable interior, the Jeep Wrangler is an enjoyable companion on the highway and around town. And it just can't be beat off-road.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.