SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Lumbar? Yeah, right.
DVD players? Are you kidding?
And supple leather? Better go back to your cappuccino after your game of racquetball, dude.
At its core, the Jeep Wrangler is the ultimate toy.
Hardly refined, barely comfortable, the Wrangler is like that mousetrap ride you used to enjoy on summer trips to the amusement park.
“You’ve got to be crazy not to love this,” John Hales of Monterey, Calif., told me on a recent trip to the ultimate Jeep resort, something Chrysler calls Camp Jeep. “This is freedom.”
Not to mention fun.
They’ve been running Camp Jeep for 10 years now – mostly in Virginia and Colorado. This year was Chrysler’s first run in California.
The premise is simple: You can roll up in your own Jeep and spend a few days climbing mountains, traversing a ravine and pounding the blood out of your vehicle.
The bottom line: It provides the true off-roader experience that brings out the best in the 2005 Jeep Wrangler Sport Unlimited, our test vehicle in California and back in the Midwest.
The real secret: After getting back on city streets, where the only off-roading usually involves a mall parking lot, the new Wrangler was just as capable.
For the un-Jeeped among us, the regular-length Wrangler comes as a two-door in four trim levels – SE, X, Sport and Rubicon. The Unlimited is an extended-wheelbase that also arrives with two doors, but only in Standard, Sport and Rubicon trim. With 15 extra inches in length, the beauty of the Unlimited is that it doubles the cargo capacity of the traditional model and increases rear-seat knee room for two more passengers who are forced to sit on the bench.
The dials and gauges look like a return to 1980. The seating position (close to the glass) is like a go-kart.
Take the highway in the soft-top Wrangler and you might need earplugs to negate the flapping cloth and plastic top. This is still pretty primitive – just a hair above motorcycle levels. But at least the interior can be cleaned with a hose.
A hard-top version is available and recommended. I’ve known too many people who have had their plastic Wrangler windows cut and had everything stolen with soft-top models. Also, an extraordinary amount of patience is required for the removal or installation of the soft version. But as an added plus, the soft-top can be folded back to provide the ultimate sunroof.
SE models are powered by a 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder that is mated to a six-speed manual transmission (new this year) and kicks out 147 horsepower.
A four-speed automatic is optional. All other trim levels get a hearty 4-liter in-line six-cylinder that makes 190 horsepower. Maximum towing capacity is 3,500 on Unlimited models.
The 4-liter offers all kinds of torque and excellent acceleration. It puts the fun in the Wrangler’s fun quotient.
The turning radius is tight – perfect for shopping mall “off-roading” – and the handling is reasonable.
As for drawbacks, there are a few.
Wind and road noise might bother some folks who have never owned a Jeep. The step-in height is more than your average SUV. And the suspension might be too jarring for some.
For those who don’t buy in, there are 10,000 Camp Jeep campers (and many others) who will take your spot.
At the heart of it, this isn’t about being refined. This is about off-roading, tough, go-anywhere driving.
It’s about an affordable ($23,745 in base Unlimited models), classic, fun-to-drive ride.
No leather. No lattes.
And proud of it.
2005 Jeep Wrangler Sport Unlimited
Vehicle type: All-wheel-drive, front-engine, two-door, four-passenger sport utility vehicle
Key competition: Land Rover Freelander
Base engine: 147 horsepower 2.4-liter in-line four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed manual or four-speed automatic
Standard safety equipment: Four-wheel disc brakes; dual front air bags
MPG rating: 15 city/19 highway
Manufactured: United States
Warranty: Basic warranty is three years/36,000 miles
Base price: $23,745
Price as tested (including destination and delivery): $26,025