The iconic Jeep Wrangler has survived another makeover without compromising its essence as a rough-and-tumble off-road champ.
All-new for 2007, Wrangler is bigger and brawnier yet includes such civilized options as electric windows and satellite radio. The signature seven-slot grille remains, but now it slants back slightly between flared composite fenders.
Wrangler is unique in the automotive strata. Tracing its lineage to the World War II military Jeep, Wrangler has kept the faith as a simple utility vehicle while gradually being updated with more power, capability and features.
There's even a new long-wheelbase four-door model that's selling like crazy.
The test Jeep was a full-on Rubicon off-roader, named for the famous Rubicon Trail in California that serves as a 12-mile torture test for man and machine.
The Rubicon version is fully outfitted with heavy-duty suspension and four-wheel-drive components, all ready for the rugged trail. I drove it over a steep boulder-strewn track near Black Canyon City but didn't tackle any Rubicon-level obstacles.
The tough suspension treatment makes Rubicon a handful on the highway, with a punishing ride and dicey handling. Wind roars around those boxy corners and the off-road tires emit plenty of whine.
But what Wrangler lacks in highway grace is more than offset by its command of the wilderness once the pavement is left behind. Which is what sustains its popularity among the real off-road drivers.
PERFORMANCE: The 3.8-liter V-6 has the feel of a truck engine, with loads of torque accompanied by plenty of roar. Acceleration is modest, but not bad. The Jeep is strong on hills and, of course, over steep obstacles. But driving a Rubicon with an automatic transmission is akin to riding a dirt bike with training wheels. A six-speed manual comes standard, as well it should. Fuel mileage is grim, no doubt the result of heavy weight and boxy shape.
DRIVABILITY: If this were a normal automobile or SUV, I'd pan it for its rough ride and awkward handling. But that's the price for Wrangler's superb performance in the boonies. Sure, there are people who buy Wranglers because they look cool and attract the opposite sex, but the real draw should be their ability to tackle tough terrain. A Rubicon that stays on the street is a waste. I would like to see more steering precision, however. The current system feels vague and numb. Refinements for off-road driving include higher ground clearance, improved axles, electric front and rear locking differentials and an electronic-disconnect stabilizer bar, which improves off-road wheel travel while retaining on-road stability.
STYLING: The bigger size is immediate apparent, taller and 5.5 inches wider, but Wrangler is still instantly recognizable. There are some refinements, such as integrated turn signals, but the iconic look remains.
INTERIOR: The cabin is wider with more features but fairly Spartan. The seating position is upright and the materials are rugged rather than refined. Such optional amenities as electric windows, satellite radio and navigation system help civilize the experience, but Wrangler sacrifices comfort for utility. The rear seat is tiny and hard to access, and there's scant space for cargo. The four-door model was designed to solve those problems.
BOTTOM LINE: An uncompromising off-roader that's also fun for cruising. There's really nothing that compares.
Jeep Wrangler Rubicon
Vehicle type: Four-passenger, two-door SUV, four-wheel drive. Engine: 3.8-liter V-6, 205 horsepower at 5,200 rpm, 237 pound-feet torque at 4,000 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Wheelbase: 95.4 inches. Overall length: 152.8 inches. Curb weight: 4,129 pounds. EPA rating: 16 city, 19 highway.
Base price: $26,090. Price as tested: $31,125.
OPTIONS - Three-piece modular hardtop with rear window wiper, washer and defroster, $1,585. - Automatic transmission with skid plate, $850. - Power windows, locks keyless locks, keyless entry and alarm, $585. - Side air bags, $490. - Upgraded audio with six-disc DVD and MP3, $350. - Deep tint sunscreen window, $300. - Satellite radio, $195. - Floor mats, $80. - Locking fuel cap, $15. - Shipping, $660.