Here is a vehicle that is leaps and bounds ahead of the model it replaces in every conceivable aspect.
Model tested: 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport CRD, 2.8-litre turbo diesel, five-speed automatic transmission (140kW & 460Nm)
Part One – On road
If you’ve ever seen the YouTube clip for the opening of a 1960s television series called The Rat Patrol, then it’s hard not to have a soft spot for the Jeep.
The series intro featured two WW2 Jeeps in full combat guise getting airborne as they came over a sand dune in North Africa. It’s truly heroic stuff as they head out into the desert to foil the enemy tanks. I need to keep reminding myself that it's only a TV show, but still, ever since watching that series as a wee small boy, the Jeep brand has always meant the real deal when it comes to off road exploits.
The modern day Jeep Wrangler, or more specifically, the Wrangler Rubicon, carries that legendary off-road reputation of this iconic brand but in the most contemporary package possible, given the complex web of safety laws and requirements that car manufacturers need to comply with today. It’s not about causing havoc in North Africa any more, but about lifestyle and the ability to go anywhere in pursuit of demanding recreational activities.
That said, despite the fact that up to 70 percent of Jeep Wrangler owners do take their vehicles off road, most of their kilometres are spent firmly on the tarmac to and from the office, fighting peak hour battles.
So it’s entirely fitting that this review of the more family friendly four-door Wrangler Unlimited SUV is based entirely around suburban duties, while an off-road review is planned for the harder core Jeep Wrangler Rubicon further down the track, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Jeep has lifted its game big time under the leadership of Italian-Canadian CEO of Fiat S.p.A. and the Chrysler Group LLC, Sergio Marchionne, who is well known for demanding continuously higher benchmarks in terms quality. It’s paying off too, if the recently launched Jeep Grand Cherokee is anything to go by.
Here is a vehicle that is leaps and bounds ahead of the model it replaces in every conceivable aspect – from the car’s design, handling and performance, as well as quality levels never before seen on a Jeep-branded automobile.
After attending the launch of the Grand Cherokee, I came away with the realisation that this vehicle’s handling prowess alone is close to that of some of the premium European SUVs in both ride quality and its ability to feel thoroughly planted at speed through a corner.
While the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is a four-door, four-wheel drive SUV, it doesn’t provide quite the same level of on-road comfort or performance as its premium based Grand Cherokee sibling. There has been a good deal of attention paid to quality, fit and finish inside this Jeep, and that’s something that always taken a back seat with regards this model.
Mind you, the new Wrangler is all ‘Jeep’ and if you need to be reminded of its heroic origins, just look across at the passenger-side grab handle and you’ll notice the embossed “Jeep – Since 1941” – it's reason enough why some folks keep buying the Wrangler.
It’s not just the extra creature comforts that make this cabin more civilian friendly, the materials and well laid-out switch gear have a premium or soft touch feel about them. The three-spoke leather-bound steering wheel, complete with remote audio and cruise control functions, looks to have been donated directly from the Grand Cherokee (good thing). Even the traditional round air-conditioning duct bezels have the same metallic look finish as the grab handle.
The seats are upholstered in a black fabric trim that’s both comfortable and durable and the level of seat and side bolster isn’t bad for a serious off-roader either.
There’s new front door trim too, with welcomed soft touch armrests and door handles that are nice to hold and large enough to get a good grip of.
That said, there’s still a level of rugged simplicity built into the Wrangler, such as the webbed door hinges that simply won’t hold the door open on their own long enough to be convenient.
While the test car wasn’t fitted with the optional Media Centre package, which includes the 16.5cm touchscreen with Sat Nav and 30GB hard drive, it did come with a better than average Infinity audio system, with six speakers and a 386 watt amplifier and subwoofer.
Cargo space isn’t bad at 495 litres with both rows of seats up, and that grows to 935 litres with the rear seats folded, and with plenty of ceiling height.
From the exterior however, the latest Wrangler is pretty much unchanged from the last iteration and there’s no complaint from me in that department. The more it looks like a 1941 ‘Willys’ the better, from where I sit. This is still very much a hard core off road trailblazer, but at least now there’s a few more creature comforts and you can listen to your iPod.
You’ve still got those classic Jeep traits like the seven slotted grille uprights (from nine on the original) like the industrial grade door hinges and manual bonnet latches, in exactly the same position as they were on the '41 model, but thankfully, these are now plastic, not metal.
Of course the Jeep Wrangler is a far more practical vehicle nowadays with rear cargo access easily gained via a split tailgate system. It’s also the only SUV in its class that doubles as a convertible with both hardtop and softtop, complete with padded roll cage.
There are just two powertrains available in the Wrangler model range – one diesel, one petrol – and we’ve gone for the torque-rich diesel. It’s a Euro 5 compliant 2.8-litre turbo-diesel with a very decent 147kW and a whopping 460Nm of torque from as low as 1600 rpm. That’s why we like diesels for SUVs such as this four-door Wrangler, which weighs in at almost 2200kg.
It might be on the heavy side, but it’s certainly not slow for a vehicle in this class and with this off-road capability. 0-100km/h will arrive in just 10.7 seconds and its top speed is 172 km/h.
Give it a boot full of throttle and the Wrangler gets up and goes, like no tomorrow, and there’s a tonne of torque to prolong rapid progress up a steep incline.
Is it noisy? While there’s no chance that you’ll mistake this engine for anything other than a diesel, especially when accelerating away from a set of traffic lights, it’s clear that Jeep has gone to reasonable efforts to subdue the clatter inside the cabin. In fact, it’s probably louder outside than inside.
Like most single-turbo-driven diesels, if you jump on the throttle aggressively there’s a fair amount of turbo lag, so the best idea is to always feed in the power gradually, which all but disguises the unwelcome lag.
The five-speed transmission works well enough the torquey diesel and shifts are relatively smooth.
CO2 emissions are down to 194g/km due the standard fitment of a diesel particulate filter. The manual version also gets Stop-Start technology, which effectively shuts down the engine when the driver engages neutral, but then seamlessly restarts when the clutch is re-engaged.
What surprised me most about this family friendly Wrangler is how this chassis handles corners with minimal body roll. That’s the rather stiff five-link front and rear solid axles with heavy-duty shock absorbers at work, which provide extraordinary articulation in the deep ruts or when rock crawling. The price you pay for off road domination, however, can be a rather jittery ride over anything that isn’t billiard ball smooth, but there isn’t a rattle to be heard anywhere inside the cabin.
The four-wheel disc brakes haul this truck up with consummate ease and are nice and progressive with solid pedal feel.
Despite the rather low overall height of the Wrangler Unlimited, you sit atop the world and there’s still a sense that you’re driving a vehicle that feels unstoppable in every way, and that’s without ever venturing off the beaten path.
While it does seem odd to review a vehicle with such a prodigious off-road reputation in the city, the fact remains that almost all its working life will be spent on the tarmac. As such, there's the usual suite of active and passive safety devices such as ABS, ESC, Electronic Roll Mitigation and Hill Decent Control.
That said we look forward to putting the Wrangler Rubicon through its paces on the formidable Lithgow trails in the next few weeks.