Editor’s note: This review was written in July 2008 about the 2008 Jeep Wrangler. This year’s Wrangler gets standard Hill Start Assist. To see what else is new for 2009, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Just as Jeep has expanded its lineup, it’s also expanded its classic Wrangler. It gains two more doors, better road manners and more creature comforts, but remains a capable offroad vehicle.
What’s good about the Jeep is its cargo area, offroad capability and Spartan interior, plus the fact that it’s unique. What’s bad about this Jeep is that it comes with a variety of interior features that might discourage some from really getting it dirty.
The Unlimited is longer — almost 10 inches longer — than the regular Wrangler; two extra doors will do that to a car. It doesn’t look unnaturally long or oddly proportioned, though, which is interesting because it’s only about a quarter-inch wider than the two-door version. Usually when a car gets longer but not wider it looks goofy, but the Wrangler doesn’t. Thanks to the standard offroad tires on our Rubicon model, though, it rides quite high.
Traditional Jeep styling remains. The grille has the same seven slots as the two-door model, and the fenders flare widely out from the sides. Our test vehicle came with a soft-top and the subsequent array of zippers required to remove it. That zip-off roof is probably the feature that most clearly says “Wrangler”; thanks to consistent rain, I never had a chance to drop the top, but it’s the same multi-step process Wrangler devotees are used to.
As with past Wranglers, the Unlimited values function over form. It’s not designed to be a luxury car, so there’s a fair bit of exposed metal. The interior surfaces are all hard to the touch, to facilitate cleanup.
The seats are supportive and height-adjustable. As is the case in the two-door Wrangler, there is no dead pedal (an area to the left of the gas and brake pedals) to rest your foot on while driving. Other reviewers have complained about this, but I got used to it after a couple hours on the highway.
One of the things older Jeeps have is a rough-and-ready interior you can hose out when you’re done playing — heck, they even put drain plugs in the floor. To keep it contemporary, they also put a navigation system and hard drive in ours, so be careful where you point that hose. In fact, our test model came with a carpet, and finding the drain hole proved impossible for me. Maybe it was there, but if it was I would have needed to cut a hole in the carpet to be sure. It may be a Wrangler, but I wouldn’t suggest trying to hose this model out.
The extra length is more noticeable inside. Rear seat space is OK, but the cargo area is huge. I used it to donate some clothes and kitchen items to charity, then later put my bike, tent and sleeping bag in it, and it carried a surprising amount of cargo. The charity items included about nine 18-by-12-by-10-inch boxes, and the bike was a 58-cm road frame, so we’re not talking about a bunch of tiny things. Cargo capacity with all the seats in place is 46.4 cu. ft., larger than the Nissan Xterra’s 35.2 cu. ft. and the Ford Escape’s 29.2 cu. ft.
The soft-top can occasionally slap like a sail at highway speeds, but it didn’t happen as consistently in the Wrangler Unlimited as I’ve experienced in older Jeeps. If that bothers you, there’s a hardtop version of the Unlimited that solves that problem.
The Jeep felt pretty pokey, both when driving around the city and especially when on the highway. That’s partly because of the combination of slow accelerator response and a four-speed automatic transmission. The thing is, the 3.8-liter V-6 makes 202 horsepower and 237 pounds-feet of torque, so there is muscle there, it’s just not very quick off the line or when passing at highway speeds. The transmission takes a second to kick down, and when it does there’s still more noise than acceleration.
The Wrangler Unlimited gets the same mileage estimates as the two-door version, and it’s not great: 15/19 mpg city/highway. Those estimates were consistent with my experience, but again, I didn’t drop the top. I should also note that I tend to get better mileage than most of my driving friends.
There are four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, and I found stopping performance to be strong, predictable and easy to modulate. That’s a nice thing to have in a vehicle that probably shouldn’t be storming down highway off-ramps.
I stuck to pavement for the majority of my drive, so I can’t speak to the Wrangler Unlimited’s credibility as an offroad vehicle. One thing that did surprise me was how nice the ride was. It made short work of the absolutely terrible roads here in Chicago and was comfortable at speed on the highway. There was some wandering from side to side, but it didn’t bounce up and down like a porpoise, as older CJ-Series Jeeps did.
The handling was also just OK, but you have to remember that this is a vehicle designed for offroad service. You don’t want to take it to a slalom course. One thing that stood out to me and another reviewer was a large amount of play in the steering wheel. The Wrangler Unlimited lacks the pinpoint response of other vehicles, but I got used to it.
Overall, it’s a vehicle that demands you pay extra attention to a few things: How fast you’re going, where you are in your lane and what’s going on around you when you’re on the highway. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re an experienced driver, just know that this car demands more attention than many other cars out there.
What did our rough, tough, rock-bashing machine come with as far as options? A navigation system and the optional Infinity sound system. The navigation system was nice, though I believe I’m in the minority in preferring a knob-based system to this model’s touch-screen interface.
I didn’t like the Infinity sound system, but it should be noted I’m not an audiophile. I didn’t notice any need for a boost in sound when cruising at highway speed with the soft-top attached, but I did notice all the room the subwoofer ate up in the cargo area. Maybe with the top removed the extra oomph from the stereo is warranted — and wanted.
A truly nice touch was the YES Essentials odor- and stain-resistant seat material. I didn’t test it extensively, but it’s a nice thing to have when you’re always out working up a sweat.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, our preferred source for crash-test data, ranks the Wrangler Unlimited Good in frontal-offset crash tests. Models without side-impact airbags are rated Marginal in side-impact tests. (The front-seat-mounted side airbags are a $490 option, and the Wrangler Unlimited was not tested with them.) IIHS has not tested the Wrangler Unlimited for rear crash protection.
All Jeep Wrangler Unlimiteds come with antilock brakes and an electronic stability system.
The Wrangler Unlimited — all Wranglers, really — hold a rare space in the market. There aren’t too many vehicles that let you zip off the top, cruise campus, then go climb a mud wall. For some, those abilities — and its cool factor — forgive all other Wrangler sins. The fact that Wrangler drivers can now more comfortably carry more passengers and gear is just all the better.
This car is an offroad niche vehicle, and it’s hard to find fault with how it fills that niche. It’s when the Wrangler Unlimited is compared to other small SUV — most notably car-based models — that you start to notice some shortcomings. It’s not particularly easy to load stuff into, thanks to a high load floor and a swing-out rear gate that makes loading items a pain. The mileage isn’t great, and our test vehicle — while loaded with some nice things — stickered at $34,290.
In the end, I think you have to be honest with yourself before you decide to buy this car. Do you have a real need to go off-road? Do you regularly carry big, bulky items? Is it OK if you’re not pampered all the time? If so, the Wrangler Unlimited is worth considering and saving up for — it’s designed to fill that niche. But if you need a car for a long highway commute, that’s not the niche the Wrangler Unlimited is really best at filling. If you do decide to go that route, just be prepared to make tradeoffs in mileage, high-speed stability in turns and a lack of luxury in the cabin.