Rock around the clock
Marc K. Stengel, Sun, 24 Sep 2006 08:00:00 PDT
So you've run out of half-and-half for the morning coffee. No problem. This may be a campout, but there's no need to rough it. Lake Tahoe's only about eight miles away, so let's just hop in a new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and make a dairy run. "Back in a bit, hon," you holler. One ten-hour round-trip later, and you're just in time for dinner.
It's all in a day's work when you're negotiating the Rubicon Trail, which is where Jeep chose to celebrate its 65th birthday by introducing 2007 versions of the venerable two-door Wrangler and an unprecedented four-door Wrangler Unlimited.
Starting from a base camp at Soda Springs, midway along off-roading's most famous 16-mile challenge, it will take a gaggle of plucky auto writers about five hours to convoy just under eight miles over a blasted mountain track strewn with boulder-sized geological dandruff from California's high Sierras and slashed by trilling streams of snow-pack run-off.
And that's just the easy half. Although the western trailhead at Georgetown, Calif., is about an equal distance away, heading back there to pick up the sunglasses you left behind will cost you eight to 10 hours-one way.
Suffice it to say that few other settings are as appropriate for showcasing the rock-hopping finesse of a no-compromise off-road icon like the Jeep Wrangler, whose very silhouette is probably one of the most easily recognized vehicle shapes on Planet Earth.
Then the new 2007 Wrangler Unlimited rolls into view, and it's not so easily recognized at all. Everybody knows that Wranglers don't have four doors. But this one does.
And everybody knows that the rear jump seats in a Wrangler are only comfortable for kidnap victims-if they've been suitably hog-tied first, that is. But the Unlimited has spacious rear seating...for three.
Front-on, the Unlimited is Jeepy to the core, and for 2007 both Wrangler models are styled to accentuate Jeep's military-industrial mystique: prison-bar grille, bug-eye headlamps, outta-my-way bumper and arching, ski-slope fenders tacked onto the sides of the wheel wells.
Walk towards the rear, however, and the longer, roomier Unlimited progressively reveals itself as both genuinely shapely and truly useful for carrying more people and cargo than the original Wrangler could ever contemplate.
The Unlimited's proportions are fetching, and it only helps that there are several possibilities for pitching a tent over the cockpit. First, there's a three-piece, bolt-on hardtop-Jeep's "Freedom Top"-that semi-permanently boxes over the rear cargo space but allows the removal of two stowable flat panels for open-air motoring amidships.
The "Sunrider" soft top can be furled to uncover one or both seating rows; peeled backwards to expose cargo while shading passengers; or battened down to leave the entire cockpit and cargo hold uncovered. And in this configuration, the strong diagonal of the rearmost rollbar stanchions gives the Unlimited its own trademark look that resembles no other vehicle on the road.
For 2007 Jeep is offering its pair of Wranglers in an almost bewildering array of price-and-content packages to appeal to a variety of budgets and off-roading skill sets. A basic two-door, Wrangler "X" starts at $18,765 and climbs to $26,750 in full-out "Rubicon" trim. Likewise, the Unlimited starts at $20,410 for a rear-wheel-drive "XC" and balloons to $28.895 for the four-wheel-drive "Rubicon." All two-door Wranglers are configured with four-wheel-drive only.
Accounting for all that pricing variability is a range of possible options and amenities. "Rock-Trac" four-wheel-drive, for example, is brawnier than "Command-Trac." Sirius Satellite Radio is available; an interface for iPods and MP3 players is built in. Seat-mounted side airbags are options, as are 17- and 18-inch wheels in place of the standard 16-inchers.
What all Wranglers share, however, is a new Jeep 3.8-liter pushrod V6 that's lighter, shorter and torquier than its precedessor. Also new are a six-speed manual transmission that's a delight to shift, especially in technical rock-climbing situations; and a four-speed automatic. Depending on powertrain configuration, Jeep's new V6 is a bit more fuel efficient with regular fuel as well, posting from 16 to 17 mpg/city and 19 to 21 mpg/highway.
A large part of the reason why our convoy of box-stock Wranglers and Unlimiteds was able to tackle the grueling Rubicon without incident-despite so many of us pampered auto-hacks wearing unscuffed Timberlines-is Jeep's clever integration of driver-selected front and rear locking differentials with a three-mode electronic stability program.
Literally with the touch of a button, the powertrain can be tailored to terrain, ensuring full-claw traction with all lockers locked; rear-lockers only when maximum steering finesse is required; or fully unlocked mode for fluid travel over pavement.
It is simply awe-inspiring to watch this new, larger Unlimited gator its way, at slower than walking speed, up eroded granite stairsteps, across gaping ravines and down bowling-ball cobbles while the bunch of city-slickers aboard is grooving to satellite radio. And with one of those very same city-slickers behind the wheel!
In the hard-core world of extreme off-roading, the new pair of Wranglers is not as prissy as Toyota's new FJ Cruiser, nor is it as raw-boned as Nissan's Xterra. But to get the best sense of how well Jeep enters its 65th year, one need only drive the newest Wranglers back-to-back with last year's 2006 model.
The boot-stompin', sun-worshiping personality is positively unchanged. But on pavement or trail, the 2007 model is quieter, more solid feeling, and offers better steering and transmission feedback.
Best of all, with its new four-door duds, Wrangler Unlimited finally puts the same kind of gritty off-road sophistication to the service of up to five companions and their bulky gear without limiting trail-busting wanderlust in the least. If you and your gang are wondering where's the next four-wheelin' rock-hop, your options now are pretty much Unlimited.
5-pass., 4-door; RWD & 4WD, 3.8-liter OHV V6, 6-sp. manual & 4-sp. auto; 205 hp/237 ft.-lbs.; 16-17 mpg/city, 19-21 mpg/hwy., w/ regular; cargo: 46-87 cu. ft.; tow: 1,000-3,500 lbs.; as-tested prices, incl. dual live-axle susp. & 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, 16/17/18-in. wheels, traction & stability control, front & opt. side airbags.: RWD-$20,410-$24,735, 4WD-$22,410-$28,895