It’s a climb up into the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon’s cabin thanks to its 10.5-inch ground clearance and big tires. Once you’re there, it’s throwback time. The last time the Wrangler got an interior update was in 2011, when it received a curvier, more carlike dashboard, as opposed to the blockier, cheaper one that preceded it. Nothing has changed in the intervening six years, with the switches, controls and materials still reminiscent of Chrysler’s freshly post-bankruptcy days.
The front seats are decently comfortable but not terribly big or very adjustable by modern standards. The backseat can fit three people in a pinch, but it’s low to the floor, putting passengers in a knees-up position and not giving them much in the way of legroom.
The beauty of this interior is its customizability. Don’t like the silver trim color? You can replace it with a Mopar colored trim kit, paint the removable bits yourself or go to any number of aftermarket parts sites for all kinds of embellishments. There are seat covers in just about any color you can imagine and varieties of fabrics — there’s even colored leather replacement upholstery. There are dozens of aftermarket tops, replacement tube doors and custom holders for all kinds of accessories, from fire extinguishers to flashlights to coolers. The resources available to make a Wrangler your own are immense, limited only by your imagination and wallet. The only real problem is that the inexpensive standard interior in my test car came in a vehicle costing nearly $50,000. For that much money, it should be decidedly better than it is.
Ergonomics & Electronics
The Wrangler’s gauges are small, but they’re easy to read and don’t overload the driver with all kinds of information. In many ways, the Wrangler’s vintage nature carries through to its electronics — there isn’t much in the way of fancy technology in here, as you wouldn’t really want much in an interior that’s meant to get wet. The Wrangler’s controls are simple and easy to use, with switches that are easy to find, including those that activate the locking axles and sway-bar disconnect.
The multimedia system itself is positively ancient by Chrysler’s own standards — now that the old minivans have been retired in favor of the new Pacifica, the Wrangler remains the only vehicle in the Fiat Chrysler Automobiles stable that features this style multimedia system, which dates back to the previous decade. Yet while it isn’t the latest Uconnect system, there’s something to be said for its dead-nuts simple operation and design. It’s not flashy, but for audio and multimedia files, it works quite well.
The optional Alpine premium audio system is a must-have. It’s designed specifically for the Wrangler’s horrible acoustics and speaker placement, and its more robust speakers, dedicated amp and floor-mounted rear subwoofer make a huge difference. If you opt for the regular stereo, you won’t be able to hear it if you remove the top and doors. The Alpine system knows when you’ve got the top down and adjusts output accordingly.
Cargo & Storage
The Wrangler Unlimited features 31.5 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seats, which fold flat to open up a cavernous 70.6 cubic feet of total cargo room. If you opt for a two-door Wrangler you don’t get nearly as much space. That model features a two-passenger bench in the back that folds forward but not much out of the way. It is removable, however, allowing for 55 cubic feet of total cargo room, but then you’ll have reduced your Wrangler to a two-seater.
The 2016 Wrangler Unlimited has not been rated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in any crash test except a rollover, where it scored three out of five stars, making it one of the last few passenger vehicles on the market rated below four stars. Test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety are decidedly mixed: The Wrangler four-door scored good (out of a possible good, acceptable, fair and poor) for small and moderate overlap front tests, but only marginal for side-impact and head restraint tests. There are no crash avoidance technologies available on the Wrangler — like forward collision warning or autonomous braking — or even parking sensors, blind spot monitors or a backup camera.
To top it all off, the Wrangler’s headlights are abysmal. The incandescent bulbs cast a tragically weak beam and are rated poor by IIHS. Optional LED headlights are available for 2017, but the standard headlights are truly terrible (and one of the first things most new owners swap out for aftermarket units upon purchase).
Value in Its Class
The Wrangler is an expensive vehicle, especially considering the level of technology and refinement you get. Even base models cost more than you might expect, but they do have one benefit: They hold their resale value better than nearly any other vehicle on the market. Still, a basic 2016 Wrangler Unlimited Sport starts at $28,690 including destination fee, and it goes up from there. There are often special editions each year and always a unique color or two. The price for my tester, a top-trim Rubicon with the Hard Rock package, began at $37,990 but ended up at an eye-watering $48,120 — and there were still options to be had.
All competitors have fallen by the wayside over the years as safety regulations and fuel economy requirements have taken all the true off-roaders, well, off the road in the U.S. The Ford Bronco, Nissan Xterra, Toyota FJ Cruiser, Hummer H3, Suzuki Samurai and even the Land Rover Defender have all come to an end while the Wrangler soldiers on.
There are still a few competitors that might be comparable, one of which comes from Jeep itself. The Grand Cherokee Trailhawk has many of the same abilities as the Wrangler but is wrapped in a much more civilized package. That package is also heavier, lacks a removable top and doors, and isn’t as happy off-road as the Wrangler, relying on electronic systems instead of mechanical force to get the job done. You could also head over to a Toyota dealer to grab one of the last old-style SUVs around, the Toyota 4Runner, which is available in a very capable TRD Pro trim that has a good deal of off-road equipment. Like the Grand Cherokee, the 4Runner offers those abilities in a much more civilized SUV wrapper than you’ll find in the Wrangler. Finally, the least expensive model from the only other all-SUV brand offers some off-road abilities in a much more compact model: The Land Rover Range Rover Evoque goes off-road in the same way the Grand Cherokee Trailhawk does, through electronic traction manipulation. Compare all four here.
In the end, the Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon offers buyers a singularly unique experience. It does only two things well, but it does those things supremely well: go off-road through extremely rough terrain and look incredibly cool just about anywhere it pulls up. Many owners love it despite the driving experience, not because of it. It’s sloppy, loud, uncomfortable, slow, ponderous, wallowy, inefficient, cheap-feeling, questionably safe and not particularly reliable — and on top of all that, it’s expensive. But nothing else out there delivers the playful feeling a Wrangler does, nor the instant community you join when you buy one. Never has there been a vehicle where the phrase, “either you get it or you don’t” applies more.