If the Donner Party had Jeeps, they never would have found themselves on the menu.
Jeeps can eat up just about any trail.
During a recent rock crawl through Utah, the state where the actual Donner wagon train hit its first delay of many on the move west, the Jeeps never got stuck. The complete Jeep lineup from the Compass to the Grand Cherokee made child's play of rocks, ridgelines and mountain passes.
My particular test vehicle, the new and improved 2011 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, never stalled, stuttered or paused at any big boulder challenge in front of it. It was almost stoic as it glided up rock faces or down potential disasters for other vehicles. Four-wheel low gobbles up tough terrain, leaving any driver feeling as if he can conquer anything.
More importantly, the Wrangler Unlimited has been spruced up with a major interior overhaul that should appeal to people whose toughest off-road test is a two-track to the family cabin. The idea is pretty straightforward and somewhat the same as when Jeep introduced the Wrangler more than 20 years ago and the Unlimited five years ago: Attract more customers.
The Unlimited arrived in 2007 as the four-door, long wheelbase Wrangler. Most people at the time said, "Duh, where has this been?" It opened up a whole new market to Jeep enthusiasts who grew up and got themselves a family. The two-door Wrangler, while iconic and fun, could do just about everything but carry more than two adults. The Unlimited changed that.
Comfort had been issue
And while every Jeep nearly lived up to its long-built reputation for off-road prowess, its interiors lacked the comfort and completeness it should have. The plastic was hard, the features sparse. Roughing it may come into play in the wilderness, but it shouldn't on your commute to work or grocery getting, or cruising along on the highway. We're a spoiled bunch nowadays and for most of us, roughing it is when the cable goes out during a lightning storm.
So the interior was rebuilt with a new instrument panel, new seats and a much cleaner look with upgrades in materials and fit and finish.
The work pays dividends.
There are new comfort features, such as heated seats, and cosmetic additions, such as new instrument gauges. There are also new storage spaces and a lockable center console, which is handy when the top is down (taking the cloth top down is still difficult, though; it requires two people and a good five minutes to unzip, unsnap and pop out the different brackets and holders).
Other new features, such as the 115-volt outlet, was a true Godsend during the trip as every camera in Utah needs to be recharged often because everywhere you turn is another postcard shot.
The combination of practicality and sophistication bodes well with the Unlimited.
The current U-Connect system, which Jeep will upgrade to the next generation in the coming years, is still behind other competitors. The USB connection mounts on the face of the stereo instead of in a more reasonable location, such as the center console or the base of the center stack. Additionally, the Unlimited I tested could not play music directly off my iPhone4. I had to plug the USB cable into the phone and then run an auxiliary cable from the phone to the stereo. It makes the front of the stereo in the Jeep look like the back of my stereo at home, which no one should have to look at.
So is the interior improved? Absolutely. It just feels cleaner, well built and complete. And while it will easily carry four adults comfortably to the opera or other city activity, the Unlimited felt more at home with its interior covered in red dust. And if you don't need the second row for people, the seats fold up nicely and create 86.75 cubic feet of storage space.
Smooth, quiet ride
But most people won't get out into the wild with the Unlimited and they'll enjoy it just the same on the highway. Jeep added a few acoustic improvements to make the ride quieter, though those are difficult tests when the roof down.
The ride, however, is surprisingly smooth on the highway. The 3.8-liter V-6 engine produces 202 horsepower and 237 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough power on any surface. The gas mileage is nothing great ? though considering the Unlimited's abilities, it's pretty good at 15 mpg city and 19 mpg highway. Scale a mountain and it's likely to be a little worse.
But where the Unlimited lives, mileage is not the most important feature. There is a reason there are three skid plates on this Jeep rocks can do all kinds of damage to the transfer case, gas tank and transmission oil pan.
The Rubicon model I tested, which includes a two-speed transfer case and front and rear axle lockers, electronic sway bar disconnect and 32-inch off-road tires, should only be bought by someone who intends to ride on a lot of roads less traveled.
The front lockers turn this vehicle into a bulldozer, ready to climb through almost anything. (Really, few people "need" this kind of capability, though Jeep will sell you one just in case you think you "need" one.)
Really, though, Jeep says something few other vehicles can. It projects a lifestyle. Few vehicles can be identified by their brand name as easily as the Jeep Wrangler.
People who know nothing about cars or trucks know a Jeep and could pick one out in a parking lot long before they remember the Lexus RX400h is the hybrid version. Many little boys are known to have a Jeep gene, which tests their ability to try and break every toy they own.
And the Unlimited manages to add two doors and still keep all of its iconic looks without sacrificing its abilities. Those big round headlights, the seven slotted grille, the big wheels and high ride all remain.
The Unlimited can do nearly anything a two-door Wrangler can manage.
But it's just a little bit nicer.
firstname.lastname@example.org (313) 223-3217
Overall: *** 1/2
Iconic and easily identifiable. Everyone will know you?re a Jeep person.
Well laid out. Improvements are noticeable in quality of materials and thoughtful design.
Unmatched performance off road, good performance on road.
Pros: Can go anywhere and makes a strong statement about the owner.
Cons: Many of its great off-road characteristics don't make for great on-road riding.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor