True confession time. It’s been a few years since my backside was nestled in the driver’s seat of a Jeep Wrangler. In fact, this was the very FIRST time I’d slid behind the wheel of a 4-Door Wrangler … it’s been that long. But I have a legitimate excuse. For the past 15 years or so my duties only required me to test, review and evaluate pickup trucks.
But have no fear. I’ve successfully piloted Wranglers across rivers and ravines, boulders and badlands at no fewer than four separate Jeep Jamboree off-road events without getting “high centered” or puncturing an oil pan – including a successful crossing of the Rubicon Trail. So I submit that my perceptions and perspectives still carry a little weight – so feel free to read on with confidence.
The new 2017 Jeep Wrangler Sahara is built on the JK platform that made its debut in 2006 as a 2007 model. This is the third-generation chassis and body design offered to Jeep lovers since the iconic brand was acquired by Chrysler from AMC in 1987. The first revision to AMC’s venerable CJ was the YJ, followed by the TJ in 1997 and now the JK. Expect a fourth-generation Jeep this fall, and the eventual addition of a Wrangler pickup to the line – later rather than sooner, it appears.
The very first JK was introduced at the 2006 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) when past Chrysler group CEO Tom LaSorda drove it up the steps of the Detroit Convention Center and broke through a plate glass window, just as previous Chrysler exec Robert Lutz had done at the 1992 NAIAS with the then-new Jeep Cherokee. The four-door model made its debut the following April at the New York Auto Show. The full line-up of JK models went on sale the following October as 2007 models, including something for which Jeep lovers had lobbied for years – a spacious four-door model.
The JK is noticeably wider and more spacious the old TJ. The track is 3.4-inches wider and the two-door adds two inches to the wheelbase – while the four-door adds some 20 inches to the wheelbase over the two-door, riding on a 116-inch wheelbase. The good news for off-roaders is that the approach angle has been increased by about four inches (44.3° compared to 40.4°) s and the breakover angle on the Rubicon models was increased from 22.6° to 25.4°.
Out test driver was a top-of-the line 4-door Unlimited Sahara 4X4 in Firecracker Red, with a base sticker of $34,245 that included a laundry list of over 40 standard features. The powertrain features Jeep’s 24-valve, 3.6-liter fuel-injected V-6 Pentastar engine, mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. Together, they generate 285 bhp @ 6,400 rpm and 260 lb. ft. of torque @ 4,800 rpm. You get a Dana 44 heavy duty rear axle and a Dana 30 front axle, with a standard gear ratio of 3.21 for both. Optional axle ratios of 3.73 and 4.10 are also available. It rides on 18” x 7.5” polished aluminum wheels, shod with P255/70R-18 Bridgestone Wrangler A/T tires.
Thanks to its traditional square-as-a-brick design, don’t expect stellar EPA fuel numbers. After all, that’s NOT why you buy a Jeep. So be content with fuel economy of 16 city, 20 highway.
There are disc brakes at all four corners, and since this is a Jeep – yes, standard equipment includes skid plates for the fuel tank and transfer case. All models offer suspensions featuring stability control anti-lock brakes, traction control and an electronic limited-slip differential. Rounding out the list of “basics” is a shift-on-the-fly part-time 4-wheel-drive system.
But our tester went well beyond the basics. It appears every possible option box was checked, yielding a total price well north of 40 Grand — $45,045 to be exact. For those NOT living on a stock broker’s salary, the 4-door Wrangler is also available in less costly X, Rubicon, and Sahara (WITHOUT the Unlimited) trim.
Kicking off the list of 10 or so options on our Wrangler’s sticker was a $1,350 set of leather-trimmed and heated front buckets, followed by the $695 “vehicle information center.” Yes, I’m afraid even Wranglers – once famous for their bare bones simply – can now be ordered with the 21st Century’s ubiquitous touch-screen Bluetooth “infotainment” unit, which FCA US calls UConnect®.
Data comes through a 6.5-inch screen backed with a 40 GB hard drive that powers the sound system (including a 5-year subscription to SiriusXM radio), map and navigation system controls. You’ll also find a handy tire pressure monitor on the IP. Duplicate controls sit to the left of the air bag on the driver’s steering wheel, including voice commands and Bluetooth connectivity for your mobile phone. It also featured a body-colored grille and a remote starting system. Other options included air conditioning and a 430-watt stereo unit.
Our Wrangler also came with the optional 3-piece hard top, in addition to the standard Sunrider canvas soft top. This premium top comes with a rear-window wiper and heated defroster, requiring a bulky roof-mounted power control that obstructs rearward vision. Given the fact there are sizable headrests on the rear seats, plus a full-size spare mounted above the rear bumper with a big high-mount brake light on top, both blocking your view, rearward visibility is not much bigger than a Planter’s peanut! Seriously!
If there is one option this Wrangler could REALLY use, it’s a back-up camera! Visibility is probably a bit better with the canvas top, and certainly improves when driving topless. But the poor rearward visibility in hard-top mode is especially noticeable when backing out of parking spaces at grocery stores and at the mall. The Jeep’s smallish side view mirrors aren’t much help either – whether we’re talking parking situations or out on the highway. Given the fact Wranglers still come with hood cinches instead of springs and the pop-off doors have straps, a back-up camera may not seem very Wrangler-esque. But hey, there’s touch-screen navigation on board, so why not go all the way and add a back-up camera?
But that’s my only serious rant. Under Chrysler (now FCA US) control, the Wrangler’s sparse interiors have seen considerable upgrades. The cabin’s molded plastics are nicely shaped, and simple yet functional. Since the doors come off the four power window switches are located on the center stack, just above the climate control knobs and right between the twin air vents. Satin-finish metal accents are mounted on the vent bezels, door handles and dash-mounted pull bar, reducing unnecessary glare. Chrome bits are kept to a minimum, appearing only on the shifter and surrounding the Jeep logo on the steering wheel.
Seating comfort was outstanding. And for those of you who tote coffee mugs and “necessary” papers as part of your daily routine, you’ll find the requisite cup holder and mesh storage cubby on the door panel. And now that Wranglers come with four doors, you can transport your friends to the beach, or out to eat in relative comfort, since both front and rear passengers are granted plenty of leg room. Also, with the Wrangler’s elevated stance, everyone gets an clear view of their surroundings
The exterior is … well, Jeep-like. Tradition dictates that it be nearly as square as a square rule, and so it is. No need to talk about sleek bodywork or drag coefficients here. The only rounded bits on the outside are the tires, wheel arches, taillights, the hood, and the buttons on the door handles. But traditional Jeep owners wouldn’t have it any other way. And in case you DO get stuck in the mud, the front bumper comes with tow hooks.
It’s true confession time again. While we did drive this Wrangler on a gravel road for a bit, we didn’t engage in any serious off-roading. No use risking out driving privileges, huh? But after a week’s worth of mostly city driving – a mode most owners will use 95 percent of the time when operating their Unlimited Sahara 4X4 – I think those who sign on the dotted line and drive one away from their local Jeep dealer will be very pleased. It’s waaaaaaaay more comfortable on the highway than the Jeep Wranglers I remember from the late ‘90s. The leather buckets support your backside nicely and the suspension absorbs bumps and potholes without undue drama.
Bottom line? While Jeep Wranglers are famous for their take-no-prisoners wild side, the current version is also capable of displaying a more civilized nature. Since there’s no longer a need to wrestle with paper maps to reach your destination, and you can listen to either classical music or light jazz on your satellite radio, this Jeep has clearly shifted gears, making many of the required upgrades to stay competitive here in the digital 21st Century. While our tester was a fully optioned Wrangler, and a bit on the pricey side, there are more basic units on your dealer’s lot. Thankfully, all come with enough basic old-school charm to remain true to Jeep’s rugged roots.