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Jeep Wrangler Unlimited review

By Tim Scott, 04 Mar 2011 Road Tests

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited review

It’s that time again as we say goodbye to a particularly popular long-term test vehicle: the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

It’s that time again as we say goodbye to a particularly popular long-term test vehicle: the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited.

The two-door Jeep Wrangler has been with us for decades under various monikers, and for any extended touring forays has really only ever been a two-person proposition.

So, when Jeep extended the wheelbase by 500mm, added rear doors and brought us the Unlimited, it also extended the possibilities and brought families into Jeep showrooms for a look-see.

Of course, there have been family-sized wagons in the Jeep catalogue for years, but not in the form of what’s probably the most capable off-roader it offers. Even in Sport form it’s a formidable four-wheel drive, but with variants like the Rubicon, with the Off-Road Group that provides a Tru-Lok remote-locking rear diff, electronic front sway bar disconnect and a 3.73 final drive ratio as standard kit, it’s batting off a serious wicket.

Its family appeal was part of the reasoning behind our request to Jeep to take an Unlimited for a long-term test; of course it would still be subjected to the severe flogging we’ve dished out to all our long-termers, but besides that we wanted to examine the Jeep’s flexibility and practicality.

In previous dealings with any Wrangler we’ve always praised the sweet 2.8-litre four-cylinder diesel, so that was under the bonnet when we picked-up our six-speed manual Unlimited Sport back in April last year. We asked for a tow bar and the Jeep was optioned with the aforementioned Off-Road Group (great value at $1500) and also the Renegade Pack ($2500) which comprises Freedom Top, side-steps, spare-wheel cover, MP3 stereo with seven Infinity speakers, 368-watt amplifier and detachable subwoofer with the latter deeply impressing then-editor Matho, who loves his tunes.

Add $450 for premium paint and all up the $39,990 base price increased to $44,440 and we reckon that sub-50k for a go-anywhere tourer is pretty good value.

We were looking forward to the novelty of topless motoring, but the hard top stayed firmly in place as the Jeep was immediately whisked from our grasp by sister mag Street Machine, when photographer Simon Davidson punted it to Speed Week at Lake Gairdner, SA.

“Initially, I was taken aback by the amount of space available with the rear seats folded down,” Simon said. “The roll cage limits the amount of space, and the length available from the rear of the front seats back was short, given the size of the vehicle. The outside appearance gives the illusion of a large vehicle with the wide guards and extended bumper, but the interior is medium.”

We were interested to see how the stock vehicle had made the trip. “The Wrangler drives as I expected on the open road and dirt, effortless in both situations, but not king of either one,” Simon continued. “The diesel engine could have some more poke; but I wasn’t in a hurry. The fuel tank capacity is short range and can be a pain to fill.

“I’m six-foot-five and the seating is just okay – it took a while for me to find a comfortable position on the long haul; very upright, but this was with the rear seats laid down, forcing my seat upright to maximise leg room, so numb-bum was persistent. Cruise control helps the comfort on the long haul.”

So, overall opinion?

“Driving the Wrangler I felt like a retired American drill sergeant,” Simon said. “The Wrangler felt more like a recreational vehicle than a serious 4X4. I enjoyed my time driving, but it would not be my first choice in a car that size.” Two weeks in and 4000km! That was on the standard, road-oriented Goodyear Silent Armor, which survived the dirt, corrugations and salt intact.

Upon its return, Matho removed the hard top and discovered that the switch between the Unlimited’s roofing options is not a spur of the moment option for a run to the beach, unless you’ve got mates, Torx tools and a bit of time. The soft top is mounted inside the hard one, which you have to lift it off to get to the vinyl. However, if you opt to keep the hard top in place there are removable targa-type panels above the front two seats to let the daylight in, but you must remember to take them with you!

“I’m glad I had a bloody big shed when I had the Jeep, because storing the hard top is not simply a matter of whacking it on a shelf,” Matho said. “Given the Jeep and the space again, I’d take both hard and soft tops, the former for when security and weather protection are the main issues, and the other all the rest of the time. If I had to choose between one or the other, my sensible self would win and get the hard top; at least the Targa-style lift-out panels above the front seats give you some easy open-air fun.”

Anyway, with the soft top in place next stop was to have all the bush-serious mods fitted, as we were champing at the bit to head back out of town. We went back to Jeep to have propriety steel barwork fitted at both ends and the front housed a Warn 9000lb winch. We swapped the side-steps for some tubular rock rails.

Jeep driving lights and a bonnet protector were added, too, and knowing what we had in mind a full set of neoprene seat covers had been installed to keep whatever trailed into the cabin off the upholstery. Of these Matho said, “They get a bit warm on your back and don’t fit as well as I’d expected, but they’re definitely tough and protective.”

Once the protective equipment was in place we dropped by our mates at ARB St Peters, in Sydney, to have ARB Nitrocharger Sport suspension fitted (see G’Bye Sport, left) and to pick up a set of six Cooper S/Ts, bagging the extra tyre as extra travel insurance.

Once again, Simon Davidson took the helm and headed west for Alice Springs and out into remote terrain he termed “interesting”. The travel insurance came in handy when a mulga stake popped a sidewall. The Jeep tackled the Flinders before being handed over to Matho for his mission to Chambers Pillar, Finke and the Oodnadatta Track. Dust ingress was taking its toll; the soft top’s side windows allow powder through, even though Simon had taped the leading edges shut to protect his camera gear from the red peril.

Both guys returned reports that the aftermarket gear had improved things, especially the suspension, which had controlled the jittery ride of the factory suspension. “With aftermarket suspension, the ride and handling improved considerably,” Matho said. “The Jeep would pound along crook tracks without bucking or banging nearly as much as many more sophisticated 4X4s do and I appreciated it for this. It made it a great traveller in the outback after the rains had done so much damage. As Ron Moon always insists, there’s nothing quite like live axles when the going gets tough.”

A further addition in answer to a problem Jeep itself attested to was the fitment of a Tough Dog steering damper (see In Steerage Class, right). Jeep had issued a replacement for its factory damper to help control the Wrangler’s lively front end. We went a step further with a big-bore unit.

As we said at the beginning, the Unlimited broadened the appeal for families, so we’d better find one! The perfect opportunity arose when Sam Maclachlan, editor of Australasian Dirt Bike magazine, asked if we had a vehicle for a family holiday he was taking in the NSW Snowy Mountains; step this way, sir! So how was the transition from two off-road wheels to four?

“I think the areas that surprised me the most were the lack of cabin noise (relatively speaking), the finish and that it felt in no way related to the first car I ever steered – a Willys Jeep on a property many years ago,” said Sam. “I felt the engine could be broader, though low-range means it can get over most things. Fuel economy was good too, and as much as it looks like a little 4X4, it can swallow a lot of gear, people and dogs. Overall, if I had the option of grabbing it as a family truckster, I wouldn’t hesitate. I’d even leave the soft roof option for summer months. A good rig!”

And it certainly appealed to the family; Sam’s kids loved the Jeep. It wasn’t all smooth sailing, however. We’d asked for a Dolium Boab storage drawer system to be fitted, and when it arrived we realised that it wasn’t going to fit with the subwoofer still in the cargo area. Thankfully, it’s detachable and the team at Opposite Lock, in Brookvale, Sydney, used its ingenuity to fabricate a custom-built system to house the slides and cargo boxes. A National Luna fridge/freezer and battery box were also wired in and will feature in an upcoming story.

We dropped back to ARB St Peters to swap the Jeep rear bar for a new bar and wheel carrier from Kaymar before the Wrangler’s nose once more pointed west to Rose Isle Station in far-west NSW, for its final fling. Peter Dunhill made the trip and highlights some of the negatives and ones we’ve pointed out before.

“Lack of footwell space is restrictive, with no footrest and mismatched pedal heights, and the stability control is intrusive on loose surfaces,” he said. And one point that bothered some, but not all, testers: “Driving the Wrangler is fun, despite its little annoying nuances such as being slow to re-fuel – trying to speed up the process is about as easy as catching a fish with a tennis racket. Lucky fuel consumption is okay.

“With plenty of character from its long history, the Jeep is a highly capable off-road machine. The Wrangler’s 4X4 ability comes from its simple design philosophy, which is also the reason it starts to fall short compared to vehicles incorporating a more modern chassis approach,” Dunhill noted. Fair enough, it can’t be all beer and skittles.

Our long-term Wrangler has clocked up 25,000km and most of those were in the bush. It has had to perform commuter duties but none of those were in its unmodified state, which, if we’re fair, has been a rattly and harsh affair, but we’d gone to town (excuse the pun) with the serious bush mods. We know the Jeep would be easier to live with if equipped with a set of all-terrains and lighter-duty suspension.

We’ve seen quite a number around the burbs, often with kids’ faces visible in the rear, so maybe families really are choosing the Unlimited. According to Jeep, it sold 1298 four-doors compared to 1017 shorties. Surprisingly, the split is 994 to 304 in favour of petrol power in the four-door. However, with the rear seats folded flat, couples also have a serious touring proposition with the increased cargo capacity over the two-door.

So, we bid farewell to our long-termer and to sum up I will leave it to the man who spent most time in the Jeep, Matho.

“If I weren’t about to build a house, I’d have seriously considered buying our long-term Wrangler. I really liked it, even though I know I probably shouldn’t have. I mean, it’s a pretty crude old girl despite masquerading as a sociable five-seat, four-door wagon, and all the Cruiser and Patrol owners out there ponce about with a genuine feeling of superiority when you rock up in it. But I bonded with it, crudeness and all.

“And when I say the Jeep was crude, I’m not referring to the beaut turbo-diesel engine. It’s a purler – smooth, grunty and reasonably economical, I rated it highly with the exception of its off-the-bottom tendency to stall if I was a bit slack with revs and clutch getting off the line. With the six-speed manual box behind it, it hauled.”

“So maybe when the house is built and finance is a happy word again, I’ll go looking at a Wrangler. The pricing’s good, it’s a more practical 4X4 than most people give it credit for, and it’s fun. And, of course, I just like it.” And Matho wasn’t the only one.