The Jeep Wrangler continues to be all but peerless when it comes to combining 4x4 ability with rugged usability.
Tearing up muddy trails in various guises since 1941, Jeep has long been associated with the US army and the Willys of World War II. Taking inspiration from that iconic military heritage – and intended to honour current service personnel – is the latest special edition, the Jeep Wrangler Freedom launched in early 2014.
Priced from $35,000 in two-door, six-speed manual transmission trim, our black four-door, five-speed automatic-equipped Jeep Wrangler Freedom Unlimited flagship commands $41,000 – $2500 up on the equivalent Wrangler Sport Unlimited it's based on.
Employing the same 3.6-litre Pentastar V6 petrol engine used across the Wrangler range – the 2.8-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel is not offered – the Freedom sends 209kW of power (at 6350rpm) and 347Nm of torque (at 4300rpm) to either the rear or all four wheels via the Wrangler Sport's standard Command-Trac four-wheel-drive system.
Separating the Wrangler Freedom from its siblings, though, are exclusive army-inspired special edition touches. Outside, these comprise a weathered-looking bonnet and rear quarter ‘Freedom Star’, a Mineral Grey grille, body coloured wheel arch flares and ‘Oscar Mike’ badging – the latter referencing ‘On the Move’ or ‘On Mission’ in military speak. A black Mopar fuel filler flap and Rock Rails borrowed from the hardcore Wrangler Rubicon are further additions, along with well padded and supportive ‘Freedom Star’-stamped leather-trimmed cloth front seats.
Before we continue, though, let’s first address some glaring negatives. For driving on the road, the Jeep Wrangler Freedom is a hard sell. The ride is firm and busy, there’s constant chassis shimmying as it rides on bumps rather than absorbing them, and it simply refuses to settle when covering rough or pockmarked blacktop.
It doesn’t stop there, either, as vague steering teams with a wandering front end and significant body roll to reduce behind-wheel confidence, further hindered by tall 75-aspect 17-inch Goodyear Wrangler tyres prone to sliding on wet roads. The Wrangler’s everyday practicality is also thwarted by doors and a tailgate that require Hulk-like efforts to ensure they close securely, a huge 13.1m turning circle, wide guards, boxy dimensions (4751mm long x 1877mm wide), a tailgate-mounted full-size spare wheel and a large front bumper protrusion – the latter between 335mm and 350mm beyond the Freedom’s uniquely coloured grille.
Parking? Good luck. If ever there was a vehicle that warranted (read: mandated) the standard inclusion of a reversing camera or at least parking sensors, the Jeep Wrangler Freedom is it. If you live in or near the city and are after a pleasant higher-riding experience, you’ll be content spending at least $10k less for a Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V or Kia Sportage. And if you just want to pose around in a cool-looking 4x4-esque vehicle, drop between $50-80k-odd and buy either a Range Rover Evoque or the new Mercedes-Benz GLA.
But, if you’re the kind of person who loves the outdoors, jumping in puddles when its raining and getting covered in mud while away camping, a Jeep is probably one of the smartest decisions you could make. With the Wrangler being an even better one. There's no way around it. Off-road, this thing is unreal.
Water splashes, river crossings, mud baths, trees, ditches, trenches, ruts, the works.... the Jeep Wrangler Freedom simply eats it up. Snapped here on-test in its element through Victoria’s Toolangi State Forest, the Wrangler Freedom well and truly backed up its special edition name. If we apprehensively saw it and drove at it, the Freedom confidently drove over and/or through it.
Unmodified, and being steered by 4x4 novices, the Freedom was aided in no small part by its Wrangler Sport-matching 35-degree approach angle, 22-degree breakover angle and 28-degree departure angle. Even its Wrangler Rubicon-equalling 220mm ground clearance – down 8mm on the Wrangler Sport’s 228mm – proved no issue.
And while the Freedom’s on-road manners leave much to be desired, off-road these all but melt away, replaced instead by a feeling of supreme ability and competence. The steering’s slack nature no longer reduces feel but instead aids low-speed adventuring with its slow rack and dulled feedback. Body roll, too, turns into flexibility and impressive axle articulation, while an unsettled road ride becomes irrelevant as the Freedom easily traverses terrain any comfortable-riding road car would simply fall apart on.
Teamed with a smooth if a little sloppy automatic transmission, the V6 engine never really impresses or disappoints. A solid workhorse that pulls soundly from below 2500rpm-3000rpm, the engine winds out with a linear power delivery to 6000rpm when really pushed, and works particularly well with the gearbox's manual mode when 4x4 trekking.
Claiming 11.7L/100km from the factory, over our week with the car we averaged 15.8L/100km.
Brakes are smooth and progressive on or off-road, with a consistent pedal feel ensuring easy modulation, even when tackling bumps and inclines – annoyingly, however, the brake pedal itself is off-set height wise to the throttle.
The included hill descent control system also proved useful on at least one occasion. Dominated by hard-wearing black plastics and a basic layout, the cabin has some genuine positives too such as the thick-rimmed multifunction leather steering wheel that feels great in the hands, the matching Jeep-topped gear selector, and simple and reasonably well finished climate control dials.
These are, however, also contrasted by less polished elements such as the plastic handbrake and door handles, flimsy air vents, old and tacky-looking green-backlit multi-fonted instrument displays, auto down-only front power windows and rudimentary six-speaker audio system.
Bluetooth pairing via Jeep’s Uconnect multimedia system is also slow and complicated, though once synced works well roof on or off. There’s plenty of headroom inside, too, even when being bounced around traversing deep ruts. And while the rear bench combines a very upright backrest with a stubby 390mm-deep seat base, rear legroom is more than ample – though, the front seat rails could impact on larger-footed rear passengers.
What is excellent are the deep twin front cupholders, a cavernous, 255mm-deep leather-topped centre console bin and clever 60:40 split-fold rear seats that, once dropped, not only tuck away two out of the three rear headrests behind the front passengers seatbacks, but also expand cargo space from 498L to 935L. And while at first the centre console-mounted power windows switches and mirror adjuster and dash-top-mounted tweeters seem oddly placed, once you unplug the doors’ wiring looms, drop the hinges and remove the doors, all becomes clear.
Yes, it’s far from perfect. The tether strap door hinges have a mind of their own, the thumb push/hand pull door releases could easily become tiresome for owners and downright annoying for occasional passengers, and the compact driver’s side foot well is a clear sign of an obvious left-hand-drive production bias.
Understandably, though, the Jeep Wrangler continues as a popular style statement choice for many buyers, with bush bashing this vehicle’s true domain.