Karl Brauer, Editor in Chief
Forget Daddy's T-Bird, this is the car that had our editors shouting "Fun! Fun! Fun!" until Chrysler took it away. The word was like a rash all over our evaluation sheets. "This vehicle would be so much fun to drive to the beach with the top-off, full of friends!" and "Has a carefree, fun feel to it, similar to a Miata," are two representative comments drivers used to describe the Jeep Wrangler Sport. After spending a week with the Jeep, in both on- and off-road situations, it became apparent that this is the Wrangler's primary purpose-nothing more, nothing less.
Jeeps have been around for over 60 years in one form or another. Long before the Explorer and Blazer arrived on the scene, Jeeps were hauling American troops through some of the ugliest places on the planet. While they've softened a bit in the past few decades to more effectively accommodate today's mainstream buyers (and simultaneously increase mass market appeal), modern Jeeps haven't lost their utilitarian character. With its seven-slat vertical front grille, framed by round headlights, and its rubber, steel and plastic lined interior, the Wrangler Sport 4WD (painted in a shimmering Desert Sand Pearl Coat) that we drove for a week had our editors humming the "MASH" theme wherever they went.
Of course it wasn't always easy to hear that "MASH" theme when riding in the Wrangler. Despite a reengineered 4.0-liter Power Tech inline six-cylinder engine, life inside the Jeep was pretty noisy. This engine makes 181 horsepower and a respectable 222 maximum foot-pounds of torque at a low 3000 rpm. It also makes plenty of noise and because cabin isolation, even in a modern Jeep, is something of a misnomer, it often seemed like we could hear each piston firing under that flat hood. But we doubt the average Wrangler buyer is looking for cabin isolation. Instead they're probably after a go-anywhere, do-anything funmobile (there's that word again) with attitude.
The Wrangler Sport handles this duty with ease. Our test vehicle's standard 4.0-liter engine was mated to Jeep's optional three-speed automatic transmission. This setup sapped a bit of our Sport's "sport," but the Power Tech's broad torque band would not be denied and the Wrangler never felt lethargic or unresponsive. A few times the transmission seemed confused about what gear to use, and with only three forward cogs to choose from the engine was hitting over 3000 rpm at 70 mph. Certainly the Wrangler has many strengths, but extended freeway travel is not one of them.
In addition to engine, road, and wind noise, the Jeep's boxy shape and light weight make it particularly susceptible to strong head- and crosswinds at high speeds. This not only affected freeway driving, but also fuel efficiency. Rated at 15-mpg city and 18-mpg highway, our mixed driving loops generated a paltry 14.5 mpg and had us running on fumes in just over 200 miles after a fill-up.
When placed in its element, however, the Wrangler blossoms like Thora Birch in a bathtub. The excruciatingly slow steering, stiff suspension and low gearing transform from liabilities into assets once the Jeep hits terra (in)firma. Our test vehicle, for instance, made quick work of a steep and rut-covered hillside that had local mountain bikers hoisting their Treks over their shoulders. Though one editor would have appreciated a seat height adjuster to improve outward visibility (and for $24,000, Jeep should include one), most drivers found the Wrangler easy to place when navigating rough terrain. The engine's monster torque kept us from needing 4Low when ascending sharp inclines-even with the automatic transmission. 4Low did come in handy when it was time to creep back down the steep hillside. Engaging low gear and placing the shifter in first allowed us to concentrate on keeping the Wrangler pointed in the right direction while engine braking kept our speed below 10 mph. It's not as sophisticated as Land Rover's and BMW's Hill Descent Control, but it works almost as well.
Jeep's Quadra Coil suspension uses simple coil springs, gas shocks and antiroll bars at both ends of the vehicle. Although primitive in nature, this system allows for an additional 7 inches of articulation over the old leaf-spring design. We applaud Jeep's engineers for coming up with a suspension that can tackle the meanest driving conditions planet Earth has to offer without beating up passengers when traveling on tax-funded roads. Highway travel can be a bit bouncy, but nothing the average truck buyer hasn't already experienced. Around-town travel is even more enjoyable because wind and road noise aren't a problem and because those 222 foot-pounds of torque make the Wrangler feel quite peppy (though that slow steering can get old if you have to navigate through a tight parking lot).
The Jeep's interior blends nicely with its exterior in terms of function and ruggedness. The HVAC/stereo controls, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and clear gauge cluster all appear quite contemporary. At the same time, the Wrangler's metal roof, rubber door handles and plastic dash quash any possibility of confusing this Jeep with its larger, more expensive sibling, the Grand Cherokee. You're not going to find any soft-touch plastic or supple leather, but the optional high-back bucket front seats offer substantial support and even a fair amount of side bolstering. Our test vehicle was outfitted with a full-length center console that provided little in terms of storage, but made for a great armrest.
Rear seat accommodations aren't quite so lavish. The rear bench's seat bottom and seat back are narrow and hard, offering little in the way of back or leg support. Legroom itself is better than we expected, but getting in or out of the rear area is a major undertaking-even with the flip forward front seats. Front seat entry/egress isn't much better, with a high step-in height and substantial "lip" to challenge even the most agile of passengers.
Of course, our Wrangler was outfitted with the Dual Top group, meaning a metal roof and full metal doors were in place to block easy passage. Yank the top and the doors, (a doable, if somewhat daunting, task) and you're ready for that beach run with full access to both the front and rear seats. This brings us to one of the Jeep's most attractive features: a seemingly endless list of possible configurations. After watching a 30-minute video included with our Jeep Wrangler, we knew how to: remove the hard top, install the soft top, remove the metal doors, install the canvas doors, fold-down the rear seat, remove the rear seat, fold the windshield forward and secure it to the hood.
None of these tasks is a simple matter, involving much more work then simply dropping the top on your typical modern convertible. But as a multipurpose toy that individual owners can configure to match their own personality, the Wrangler has few peers. Whether stationed in Guam or serving duty in Greenland, the Wrangler, like a well-trained marine, can conquer any terrain while being quickly setup to make the most of its surroundings.
One of our editors called the Wrangler a "four-wheel-drive Miata." From storage capacity to sticker price this label didn't seem too far off. But many would question the validity of a $25,000 vehicle that doesn't even have a four-speed automatic or independent suspension. Our test vehicle did have air-conditioning, an AM/FM stereo with CD, and even a tilt steering column. But trying to turn a Wrangler into a luxury vehicle misses the point. Better to get the standard issue five-speed manual transmission, low quality radio (you can't hear it at freeway speeds anyway) and soft-top. We'd probably stick with the larger six-cylinder engine and optional antilock brakes, but the rest of the Wrangler Sport, in standard form, is perfectly capable of accomplishing this Jeep's primary purpose: Go-anywhere F-U-N!
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