For years, the Jeep Wrangler was the cash cow of Chrysler, adding steadily to the bottom line while the company made minimal investments to the product and to the ancient plant in Toledo, Ohio, where they were built.
Gradually the company woke up to the value of the brand, and now Jeep is the busiest company under the Chrysler umbrella, with the recent addition of products such as the Compass, Patriot, Commander and, for 2008, a completely redesigned Liberty.
This parade of new products has met with a mixed reception. Jeep loyalists are concerned that the brand is being diluted. But there is one undeniable bright spot: The Jeep Wrangler, which finally received a long-overdue makeover for 2007. That makeover included the addition of the four-door Wrangler Unlimited.
In May 2006, Jeep sold 5,754 Wranglers. In May of 2007, Jeep sold 12,332. The single biggest reason for the more than doubling in sales is the addition of the four-door Unlimited, which suddenly opens up a new market for the Wrangler. Sure, you’ve always been able to get a back seat in a Wrangler, but it was best used for emergencies. The Unlimited’s rear seat is actually a moderately comfortable place.
On the road, the Wrangler Unlimited still looks a little peculiar. It’s 20.6 inches longer than a regular Wrangler, and all 2007 Wranglers are 5.5 inches wider than the 2006 model.
As nice as this extra width, length and the resulting weight may be on the road, Jeep’s ultra-loyal off-road fans were not impressed, pointing to the fact that the Unlimited was offered in rear-wheel-drive as evidence that Jeep executives may be taking their eyes off the ball. Indeed, the first Unlimited tester I got was rear-drive, and I couldn’t test it properly off-road.
But this time, the Unlimited test model had four-wheel-drive, and after some reasonably serious off-roading, I’m impressed. Yes, it’s bigger, and as a result, less-nimble than a regular Wrangler. But it will still beat most anything short of a Hummer in the boonies. And it doesn’t beat you up as badly as it once did, either.
The Wrangler is powered by a fairly conventional 3.8-liter, 202-horsepower V-6, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. There’s a big Dana rear axle, an optional limited-slip rear differential, and enough under-chassis bracing and skid plates to make stump-jumping less than suicidal.
The test model, a midlevel Sahara, started at $26,305, and options including side air bags, a towing package, 18-inch aluminum wheels and an upgraded stereo raised the price to $29,830. The cloth top fit snugly and kept out a surprising amount of noise on the highway.
The jury is still out on some of Jeep’s new products, but there’s no question that the Unlimited is a big, big hit.