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From any angle, it's still a Jeep

Wrangler Unlimited is longer, but keeps that unrefined style.

September 22, 2004|Larry Printz | Allentown Morning Call

In an age where most cars and trucks have been homogenized into one generic mass, there are still some vehicles that are individualists. The Jeep Wrangler is one such vehicle.

What the Wrangler shares with its off-road competition is four-wheel drive and a rugged structure. But that's where the similarity ends.

The Jeep is tested on the Rubicon Trail to ensure its off-road agility. Its upright windshield and familiar boxy shape pay little heed to aerodynamics. Its interior is notable in the absence of over-the-top comfort and convenience features. You want power windows and a DVD player? Buy a Grand Cherokee.

The Wrangler is the offshoot of war-tested toughness and is the purest of SUVs. So it's probably disconcerting to the Jeep faithful that a long-wheelbase version of the Wrangler, the Wrangler Unlimited, is now on sale. This is especially true since Jeep public relations types use words like "quieter" to describe its advantages.

But the Wrangler Unlimited successfully expands Jeep Wrangler choices without diluting its essence. The Unlimited gets a 10-inch-longer wheelbase than the standard vehicle. At 103.4 inches, it's almost as long as the Jeep Liberty SUV. All that extra room is put to good use: 2 extra inches of rear leg room and 13 inches added to the cargo area. Overall length is just shy of the Liberty as well, at 167 inches.

The Unlimited is priced at the higher end of the Wrangler lineup, which consists of the SE, X, Sport, Rubicon and Sahara models.

The added length holds other benefits. As you would expect, the longer wheelbase lends the Wrangler Unlimited a better ride than its shorter brethren; back and forth pitching, as well as body lean are somewhat reduced. With the additional space, adults actually fit comfortably in the back seat. It's a bit quieter. And it even boasts a higher tow rating: 3,500 pounds, versus 1,500 for the standard Wrangler.

Thankfully, refinement is at a minimum here.

The only drivetrain is the tried-and-true 4-liter in-line six-cylinder motor, producing 190 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque mated to a four-speed automatic transmission. Low-speed grunt is good, but it gets winded when revved at highway speed.

The engine note is positively agricultural. While loud, it won't drown out your Mantovani CDs.

If you want leather seats, look elsewhere -- this Jeep is all business. You can tell as you climb into the vehicle. Open the door and you'll see exposed exterior door hinges, along with a strap to hold the door from swinging open too far.

Manual door locks, roll-up windows, cloth seats and lots of exposed sheet metal transmits this vehicle's bare-bones message. But seat comfort is better than you'd expect. The radio isn't what you'd expect. Its reception is weak and the sound quality mediocre, but most owners won't care.

If you're used to some peace and quiet, you've come to the wrong place. The soft-top test model features plastic side windows, which can rattle along with the top.

This year's Jeep Wrangler features the Sunrider option. The Sunrider allows a 45-by-23-inch opening in the soft top, without folding down the whole roof.

And believe me, with more than 20 steps, folding the roof takes time. Again, this is part of the Wrangler's "charm," but that soft top made accessing the cargo compartment impossible. With the soft top in place, the fabric prevented the swing-out rear cargo door from opening.

Inside, Unlimited models get full-steel doors, tinted windows, Sunrider soft top, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD stereo, sliding front seats, folding rear seat, air bags and power steering.

Options are as basic as the vehicle, including running boards, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, engine block heater, hard top, a locking fuel cap, leather-wrapped steering wheel and cruise control.

You can get a theft-deterrent system for $75, but that seems useless in a vehicle you can enter by unfastening Velcro straps on the soft top.

The Jeep Wrangler Unlimited test vehicle was priced at $25,520. That's the same price range as the Liberty with a similar-sized package. But the Liberty can't offer the classic image or top-down, beach-buggy fun of the Unlimited.

While other vehicles outclass the Jeep in refinement or options, there is only one tried-and-true Jeep, and all its warts are still showing.

So what.


2004 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

Base price: $24,385

As tested: $25,520

Drivetrain: 4-liter six-cylinder, with four-speed automatic

Horsepower: 190

Torque: 235 pound-feet

Curb weight: 3,445 pounds

Wheelbase: 103.4 inches

Overall length: 167 inches

EPA mileage: 16 city, 19 highway

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