New Wrangler X offers performance and value.
by Mitch McCullough, Editor-in-Chief
Base Price (MSRP) $15,230
As Tested (MSRP) $21,185
Jeep Wrangler remains the undisputed king of mud, swamp, and sand. Light, compact, rugged, equipped with lots of suspension travel and ground clearance, one of these will take you just about anywhere. Spiritual successor to Jeeps that date back to World War II, the Wrangler is an icon, the most recognizable vehicle in the world.
The current model debuted in 1997 and is by our count at least five generations removed from the World War II original. Better off road than any Jeep in the past, it's also much easier to live with than ever before. Though no Cadillac, the Wrangler is quieter, roomier and more comfortable than any of its predecessors. On the road, it rides better and handles better than ever.
And it's affordable: Wrangler starts at just $15,230 for the basic four-cylinder model, not a bad deal for the world's most capable icon. For 2002, Jeep has expanded the Wrangler model line, making the six-cylinder engine available for considerably less than last year. The new Wrangler X comes with the 4.0-liter inline-6, wider tires, full carpeting, cloth upholstery, and other creature comforts for just $18,410; though options may drive you over that figure, a properly outfitted Wrangler X can save you $1000 over last year's prices.
Wranglers get better, and quieter, every year. Increased air flow improves the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, which is quieter than last year. Improved sound is available from a new premium audio system. Last year, the soft top was designed for better sound isolation and durability.
Four models are now available: SE ($15,230), X ($18,410), Sport ($20,080), and Sahara ($23,450).
The SE comes with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 120 horsepower that works best with the standard five-speed gearbox, though a three-speed automatic is available ($625). 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. If you don't want a rear seat and don't mind the easy-to-clean vinyl upholstery, it's a good vehicle for fishing, hunting, and exploring. Having one attached to the back of your motor home comes in real handy. A variety of options are available, including the hard top ($920), which I prefer for security and convenience.
The new Wrangler X and the Sport and Sahara models come with a much more powerful 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine rated at 190 horsepower and 235 pounds-feet of torque. A heavy-duty five-speed manual transmission is standard; three-speed automatics are optional. The inline-6 gives up some fuel economy to the inline-4 around town, but the six-cylinder gets 19 mpg on the highway compared with 20 mpg with the four-cylinder.
Wrangler X comes with cloth upholstery, upgraded front seats, a fold-down rear seat. full carpeting (covering the rear seat area, cargo area and wheel housings), AM/FM/cassette, digital clock, padded roll bar, and P215/75R15 Goodyear Wrangler tires.
Sport adds full metal doors, wind-up windows, fog lights, tilt steering column with leather-wrapped wheel, courtesy and underhood lights, and other features.
Sahara comes loaded with a high-zoot stereo, premium cloth, air conditioning, cruise control, gas shocks, monster tires (30x9.5xR15), premium fender flares, and other features.
In spite of all the refinements, the Wrangler has not been sold out to the cute-ute craze. 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 2001. If a screwdriver is handy, the windshield can be flipped down for breezy, low-speed touring in the back country.
I prefer the optional hard top ($920 on SE and X, $795 on Sport and Sahara) for its practicality. The hard top provides more security for expensive gear; I get uncomfortable leaving camera equipment or fly-fishing gear 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 one morning before daybreak. 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.
Outfitting a Wrangler to suit your needs is part of the fun. Take your time and carefully review all the models, options, and packages available to ensure you get exactly what you want.
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 (pre-1997) 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. For 2002, airflow has been increased and the fan makes less noise.
The 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.
The Wrangler offers room for four people or two people and their 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.
Research firm J.D. Power and Associates gave the 2001 Wrangler high scores for the quality of its interior features (such as the seats, windshield wipers, door locks, heater, air conditioner, and stereo system), and the 2002 model is nearly identical.
The Wrangler X is a good choice for those who want more power and a more comfortable interior at a compelling price.
We drove a Wrangler 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.
On the road, the Wrangler isn't the penalty box it used to be. It offers a reasonably smooth ride. Corners are handled with 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.
Jeep engineers achieved this balance with a rigid chassis and a coil-spring suspension. (Older Wranglers, pre-1997 models, used a leaf-spring suspension that dated back some 50 years.) Coil springs mean less friction and more freedom to fine-tune suspension geometry; the rigidity of the chassis permitted this fine tuning. Coil springs offer 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 the 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 it around tight corners is not a good plan.
I drove a base Wrangler SE on a short off-road course at DaimlerChrysler's Chelsea, Michigan, proving grounds. It offered 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.
The inline-6 used on the Wrangler X and other models offers much more power and is the best choice for most buyers.
Regardless of model, buyers who contemplate a lot of off-road driving can benefit from optional gas shock absorbers, a locking rear differential, tow hooks and a 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. A lot of people like 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 because a skidding tire builds up a little dam in front of it that scrubs speed off more quickly. If unsure, 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.