2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited First Drive

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests (1)
  • Comparison
  • Long-Term

2004 Jeep Wrangler SUV

(4.0L 6-cyl. 4x4 4-speed Automatic)

A Wrangler for the Wreal World

The Jeep Wrangler is one of the few, no-compromises, one-mission-in-life vehicles left on the market today. Like a two-seat sports car, the Wrangler makes a powerful "lifestyle" statement — in essence that the person behind the wheel is a fun-loving and outdoors-living type who actually goes off-road with his 4WD vehicle. Still, there are quite a few Wrangler owners who don't need all-out trail-busting ability, and wouldn't mind extra cargo capacity along with a smoother and quieter ride.

Jeep tried to address this concern over two decades ago with the Scrambler, which was essentially a longer version of the old CJ-7 (the forerunner of the Wrangler) that had two seats and an open back, like that of a small pickup truck. Evidently, folks weren't ready for a stretched CJ, and as a result, that vehicle went over about as well as "Titanic" conversations on a cruise ship.

Now, however, people embrace automotive oddities a little more readily — witness the success of the Cadillac Escalade EXT, a mutation of a crew cab pickup and an SUV. Although that first stretched Jeep wasn't a smash success, we were told by Jeep reps that the new Wrangler Unlimited was a response to current and potential Wrangler owners' requests for a bigger, yet not too different Wrangler.

The Unlimited is 15 inches longer than the standard Wrangler, which represents a 10-inch stretch in wheelbase with the remaining five inches being rear overhang. The majority of the expansion goes toward increasing cargo capacity. Compared to the standard Wrangler, the Unlimited has double the capacity behind the rear seat, for a total of 29.5 cubic feet and a few more inches of legroom for the rear passengers. Another advantage of the Unlimited is increased towing capacity, which moves up to 3,500 pounds (compared to just 2,000 pounds for the standard Wrangler).

Topping things off is a unique "Sunrider" three-way soft top. The Sunrider offers a choice of an open roof over the front compartment (similar to a targa top), along with the standard fully closed and fully open positions. Other standard features for the Unlimited include air conditioning, an automatic transmission, an AM/FM/CD stereo, foglamps, deep-tinted windows, massive Goodyear Wrangler (what else would you expect?) tires and disc brakes all around. Antilock brakes are not available, as the heavy-duty Dana 44 rear axle won't accommodate that technology. The standard (and only) power plant for the Unlimited is the tried-and-true 4.0-liter straight six that puts 190 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque to the pavement. More sound insulation and a tip-and-slide feature for the driver seat were added as well.

We initially drove short-wheelbase Wranglers on a mix of city streets and open highways to get reacquainted with the standard vehicle's ride characteristics. This author was immediately reminded why he didn't care for the Wrangler in past test-drives: A choppy ride along with plenty of wind, engine and road noise makes me wonder why so many people choose to use these as everyday drivers. With such a short (93.4-inch) wheelbase and high center of gravity, the Wrangler wouldn't be our first choice for a long freeway cruise.

The next day, after a product briefing, we took the wheel of the Unlimited and set out for a few hours' drive (mostly freeways and two-lane highways) and immediately noticed the difference. Whereas the standard Wrangler felt almost jittery at higher speeds, the Unlimited was secure and planted. Through the turns and over the bumps, it was the same story — the Unlimited was more composed and delivered a much better ride. We also noticed that the overall noise level was appreciably lower. Earlier in the day, the engineers had informed us that they fitted the Unlimited with revised springs and shocks as well as an additional cross member out back to ensure an improved ride and no loss of structural rigidity.

In terms of performance, with a weight increase of 200 pounds over the already pudgy Wrangler (for a total of 3,730 pounds), the Unlimited ran out of steam at higher speeds, particularly when merging into fast-moving freeway traffic. You wouldn't expect such a heavy, non-aerodynamic 4WD vehicle to be frugal with fuel, and with estimates of 14 city and 18 highway, this Wrangler is anything but.

Of course, nobody buys a Wrangler for economical commuting; it's all about off-road prowess. We got a chance to test the Unlimited's off-road skills and they are indeed amazing. Led by a seasoned team of off-road instructors, we popped the Unlimited in 4WD Low and scrabbled up rock-strewn hills and through narrow, muddy trails. Unlike your author, the Unlimited never broke a sweat and the steering that seemed a little slow on the street was perfect in this environment — you don't want any sudden motions when maneuvering over dicey terrain.

Several times, while attempting to get up especially rough passes, we banged and scraped the underside of our Unlimited. Although the sounds made us cringe and gave us a quick adrenaline pump, they seemed to delight the Jeep reps and off-road gurus. They'd grin as they shouted out encouragement such as: "Don't worry about it, that's what the skid plates are for. C'mon, you're doing fine, don't let up and lose your momentum." After we were done playing on the 40,000-acre "Y.O." working ranch(located around 90 miles northwest of Antonio), we understood why there are so many off-road fanatics and why Jeep has such a strong reputation in this area. Not once did we get stuck, and it wasn't as if we didn't try. The off-road instructors informed us that some of the terrain we navigated was rated a 10, meaning most difficult.

With a list price of around $25,000 nicely equipped, the Unlimited presents a viable option for active folks who never would have considered a Wrangler before. Playing in the rough is all well and good, and the Unlimited upholds Jeep's reputation by taking anything you have the nerve to dish out. But in the real world, the one with freeways, potholes and work commutes, the Unlimited shines compared to its rough-around-the-edges little brother. This is a Wrangler we could easily live with, and that's something we never thought we'd say.

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