EXPERT REVIEW

Orlando Sentinel's view


File it in the “why didn’t they think of this before?” category: Offering a lengthened, four-door Jeep Wrangler may not be on par with, say, the arrival of the extended-cab pickup truck or the minivan, but the 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited is undeniably a game-changer for Jeep.

Jeep Wranglers have long had a second row of seats, but with no easy way for passengers to get back there — and once they did, accommodations were comparable to a wobbly park bench — few considered the Wrangler to be a genuine four-passenger vehicle.

Two years ago, Jeep began offering a lengthened version of the Wrangler — but still with two doors. For 2007, though, the fact that all Wrangler models were due for a redesign — after a decade of only modest updating — provided an irresistible chance to try to grow Wrangler’s strong, but relatively flat, market.

It was a gamble, as Wrangler customers might be the most loyal, traditional bunch in the business. Twenty years ago, a change as seemingly minor as replacing the round headlights with rectangular headlights resulted in an outcry among the Jeep faithful, and it wasn’t long before round headlights returned. All but the most traditional Wrangler owners, though, seem to be embracing the opportunity to own a Wrangler that can easily seat four or five, still go off-road, and retain an ultratraditional profile.

And for those who don’t want four doors, well, the two-door Wrangler remains.

On the road, the Wrangler Unlimited looks a bit odd, like a stretched-limousine version of a conventional model. The Unlimited is 20.6 inches longer than a regular Wrangler, and all 2007 Wranglers are 5.5 inches wider than the 2006 model. That is causing a bit of grumbling among true off-roaders, because though there is indeed a welcome 5.5 inches more elbow room, it’s that much more to squeeze between trees and rocks on the trail. This is probably a good place to point out that although the Unlimited’s rear seat, and access to it, is improved, no one will confuse it with a La-Z-Boy, especially if you sit back there during off-roading.

The other major change is under the hood. Wranglers have been offered with a 2.4-liter, 147-horsepower four-cylinder in the base models, and a 4.0-liter, 190-horsepower six-cylinder in the uplevel versions. All Wranglers now get a 3.8-liter, 202-horsepower V-6, even the entry-level X two-door model, which starts at $18,105.

Though this new engine may have just 12 extra horsepower above the one it replaces, it’s smoother and, with 237 foot-pounds of torque — that’s the measure of pulling power — it has all the off-road grunt you need, even for the supersized Unlimited. Two transmissions are offered: a six-speed manual, and for an extra $825, a four-speed automatic.

There is another difference between the regular Wrangler and the Unlimited: The regular model is offered only in four-wheel drive, while the Unlimited comes in four-wheel drive or — gasp! — rear-wheel drive. One thing the Wrangler has never been is a poser — a vehicle that has the big tires and high ground clearance and body cladding that suggest it can tackle the outback, hiding the fact that it’s just two-wheel drive. The Wrangler Unlimited — indeed, the one tested for this story — falls into that latter category. Really, though, if there is profit to be made off posers, and it appears there is, it’s hard to blame Jeep for pursuing that market. Just be ready for “all hat, no cattle”-type comments from real Wrangler off-roaders.

The test Unlimited was the midlevel Sahara model, with the X at the bottom, the Rubicon at the top. Base price was $24,075, which included a substantial amount of equipment, such as electronic stability control, traction control, cruise control, power locks and windows, remote keyless entry, a seven-speaker Infinity stereo with CD player, 17-inch aluminum wheels and air conditioning, which is not standard on the base Wrangler.

Options included side air bags — $450 well spent — the automatic transmission, a three-piece hard top ($695), and Sirius satellite radio. With shipping, the list price was $26,940. It’s quite easy to add enough features, including a satellite-linked navigation system, to get a Wrangler’s sticker price to well above $30,000.

With the redesign, Jeep improved the soft and hard tops. The standard soft top is easier to remove and re-mount, and the hard top, which also can be removed, has pop-out panels that offer an open-air feel without having to take off the whole assembly.

On the road, the Wrangler Unlimited is the best-riding Wrangler ever, which could be damning it with faint praise. But on all but the roughest pavement, the ride is quite good, steering is much improved, and highway stability is far better than ever. Brief rides in four-wheel-drive Wrangler Unlimiteds suggest that, properly equipped, it remains one of the best off-roaders available at any price. Fuel mileage, EPA-rated at 17 miles per gallon city, 21 mpg highway, is about what you would expect.

Jeep is facing a challenging 2007: The big Jeep Commander isn’t selling well, and the all-new, Dodge Caliber-based Jeep Compass and Patriot seem awfully similar to each other. There’s a nice rebate on the brand’s traditional bread-and-butter model, the Grand Cherokee, as well as the Liberty, and both are being offered with low-priced lease deals. In just a few years, Jeep dealers have gone from having only two models to sell, to six, or seven if you include the Wrangler and the four-door Wrangler Unlimited.

Out of all that, there appears to be one major hit: the Wrangler Unlimited. Why it took so long to arrive is anyone’s guess.

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