From the October 2006 issue of Car and Driver.
The Jeep Wrangler would be our nominee for the most capable off-road vehicle sold in America. But for every owner who takes his Wrangler to the Rubicon there are 10 owners who use theirs in the urban jungles of Hollywood and Manhattan. How do you improve a machine with such a widely diverse audience?
For the 2007 Wrangler, designated internally as the JK, the first step was to judiciously enlarge it and add—for the first time ever—a four-door model, the Wrangler Unlimited (not to be confused with the ’04 stretched-wheelbase two-door Unlimited). Compared with the old two-door model, the new one is 5.4 inches wider, and its angular fenders cover wheels set about three inches farther apart. The wheelbase is also up two inches, but overall length is down roughly three. It’s still 4.6 inches shorter than a Honda Fit.
The result is instantly identifiable as a Wrangler, with its characteristic grille, round headlights, boxy greenhouse, exposed hinges, and jutting fenders. Although the JK is the first-ever Wrangler with a rounded windshield, it still folds if you’re willing to pull about a dozen bolts.
All of this adds up to a much wider and more spacious-feeling cabin. The juggling of length and wheelbase along with a new roll-and-tumble rear seat have also yielded substantially more cargo capacity.
The JK has a new engine, a 205-hp longitudinal version of the 3.8-liter V-6 that first saw the light of day in the unlamented 1991 Chrysler Imperial. This V-6 is shorter than the ancient inline-six it replaces, allowing for more crush space in frontal crashes. It also delivers more power and slightly improved fuel economy.
As in the previous TJ Wrangler, a six-speed manual or a four-speed automatic feeds the usual combination of a New Venture two-speed transfer case and heavy-duty Dana axles, both of which are upgraded on the top-of-the-line Rubicon model. Although the basic suspension layout is much the same as before, new geometry provides a better ride and greater control without restricting axle motion. A key new feature is a disconnecting front anti-roll bar that provides on-pavement cornering control but can be disabled via a dashboard switch to improve off-road axle articulation.
To demonstrate the JK’s off-road ability, Jeep conducted the first drive in Zambia, where pavement is scarce, the terrain is challenging, and tow trucks are nonexistent. With only about 10 minutes on paved roads, we couldn’t conclude much about the Wrangler’s boulevard behavior. But we did notice that the JK’s 205-hp V-6 felt no quicker than the ancient 190-hp engine in the old TJ. No doubt the JK’s 200 or so extra pounds have offset the power boost.
In more than two days off-road, however, we developed a fondness for the JK. The machine was tight, emitting no squeaks or rattles, even when the trails were pounding the wheels one at a time. The ability to disconnect the front anti-roll bar really helped reduce head toss under these circumstances.
Brimming with confidence in their new machine, the Jeep crew guided us over formidable boulders, rocky river beds and banks, and twisting sandy hillside paths blazed by impalas. Every Wrangler was a Rubicon, with lockable front and rear differentials, 32-inch-diameter off-road tires, and improved axles and transfer case.
When you shift into low range, the V-6’s electronic throttle switches onto a more progressive throttle curve. Combined with the 4.00:1 low range, the engine will simply idle up and down astonishingly steep terrain. On some of the toughest sections, we were switching the quick-acting front-diff lock several times within 50 feet to trade traction for turning ability. Moving those switches from the bottom of the console to the steering wheel would be a useful improvement when playing mountain goat.
The three skid plates and the tubular-steel rock rails that come with the Rubicon package collected plenty of scary-sounding Zambian scratches. But they protected the main underside mechanical components as they were designed to do.
The four-door Wrangler Unlimited has a 20.6-inch wheelbase extension and offers a back seat for three and increased luggage space. Despite their length, the Unlimiteds on the trip made it through every challenge the two-doors did.
These JKs are on sale this fall and should be priced much like the previous models. Whether you spend your time in the African jungle or the asphalt jungle, if you’re a Wrangler fan, you’ll like the new machine.
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