Test Drive: 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

Four-door version of tough-and-ready Jeep adds spaciousness to legendary off-road talents

by James M. Flammang

2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited
(70th Anniversary edition)

With an ample helping of accuracy, Chrysler's Jeep division calls its Wrangler "the benchmark off-road vehicles." In fact, that's been a true statement ever since the first military Jeeps rolled off the assembly line during World War II - long before the term "off-roading" was coined.

Naturally, today's Wrangler is far removed from that maneuverable little four-wheel-drive runabout that helped the Allies win the war. Yet, the basics of the Wrangler remain in place, augmented by modern technology.

For 2011, both the regular two-door Wrangler and the four-door Wrangler Unlimited got "all-new" interiors that promised "improved ergonomics." Sahara models gained a new body-color hardtop. Wranglers have all-new steering-wheel controls, and power-heated mirrors and heated seats may now be installed. Larger rear windows provide enhanced visibility, and five new body colors have been added. A new storage area includes a lockable console, and a new USB device interface is installed. So are 12-volt accessory outlets, and a new 115-volt power outlet is available.

"Signature" Jeep design features include "classic" round headlamps, a seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel flares, exposed external door hinges, a fold-down windshield, and a sport bar. Wranglers stray away from the SUV pack by offering removable and convertible tops, as well as removable doors. Full-frame or half-doors may be installed, with hard, dual, or soft tops. With the Wrangler Unlimited, Jeep claims to offer the only four-door convertible on the market.

Standard features include electronic stability control, Hill-start Assist, and Trailer-sway control. Continuing to claim "legendary, benchmark capability," Wranglers again come in three models: Sport, Sahara, and Rubicon.

As always, high ground clearance combines with short front and rear overhangs, to cope with an array of off-road obstacles. Off-road enthusiasts need to know some specific statistics: a 44.3-degree approach angle, 25.4-degree breakover angle, and 40.4-degree departure angle. Three skid plates provide underbody protection for the fuel tank, transfer case, and automatic-transmission oil pan.

All Wrangler models use a 3.8-liter V-6 engine, developing 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque, driving a six-speed manual gearbox or optional four-speed automatic transmission. Sport and Sahara models are fitted with a second-generation Command-Trac part-time, two-speed transfer case, with a 2.72:1 low-range gear ratio. Rubicon models get an Off-Road Rock-track two-speed transfer case with 4.0:1 ratio, along with electric front- and rear-axe lockers, electronic sway-bar disconnect, and 32-inch off-road tires. Called an active sway bar system, the Rubicon's electronic-disconnecting front stability bar is said to provide additional wheel travel on "challenging terrain."

The Wrangler's stability-control system has three modes: full on, full off, and partial on. Specific open-air choices include the standard Sunrider soft top, which incorporates a sunroof, or a three-piece modular Freedom Top.

Driving a Wrangler can almost "grow on" a person - even one who doesn't ordinarily favor Jeeps. Not completely, but by maintaining an open mind, a Wrangler Unlimited can be more inviting than the non-Jeep fan might realize.

More than most vehicles, however, the Wrangler is just about as expected:
* Stiff riding
* Not so maneuverable in ordinary driving
* Not quite noisy but hardly quiet, either
* Tough-looking and tough-acting
* Not so easy to climb into; running boards are only partially helpful

Performance is adequate, but there's a slight hesitation when first stepping on the gas, especially in reverse. You have to give it a more substantial push on the pedal to get rolling. Even on a slight upgrade, too, the Wrangler is short on pickup.

Some drivers may have a hard time remembering where the power-window controls are, on the vertical console. Closing the driver's door on our test Unlimited required a hard push. As expected, gas mileage is dismal, with an EPA fuel-economy rating of just 15 mpg in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway.

Exterior hinges and other tough-looking design elements strike some people as practical, and others as silly. Adding a four-door model sent the long-lived Wrangler nameplate into a new direction, but some purists have been less impressed and would have preferred that this model remain as it was before. Many Jeep fans love the roominess, however, and the bigger Wrangler draws attention on the street. Still, few non-Jeep owners are likely to put a Wrangler of any stripe on their shopping list.

In what sounds like comic-book or action-movie nomenclature, Jeep has a new limited-edition model called the Wrangler Call of Duty: Black Ops Edition. Developed from a partnership with Activision Publishing, the "Black Ops" edition is finished in black, with taillamps guards and dark Rubicon wheels. All Wranglers are made in Toledo, Ohio.

Two-door Wranglers start at $22,845 (including destination charge). With more than $4,000 in options, our four-door Wrangler Unlimited (70th Anniversary edition) came to $36,235.

Attention Editors: This complete 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited review is available now for your publication. Please contact us at JF@tirekick.com for details.

© All contents copyright 2011 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang