2009 Jeep Wrangler Sahara 4X4 Unlimited Hardtop Review
By Roger Boylan
The last time I drove a Jeep was in 1996. It was a 4X4 Cherokee, teal in color, rented from Advantage, and it took me and my family from San Marcos, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and back, not in much style but efficiently enough, and with a certain Jeepish spirit that no other vehicle can match. I thoroughly enjoyed driving it, but then I’ve always enjoyed the idea of Jeeps: that trademark seven-slotted grille, the historic link with Generals Eisenhower and Montgomery and Patton, the off-road ability, the panache–which, I’m happy to report, is still there in spades, at least in the Wrangler, the archetypal Jeep. The Sahara version of the Wrangler I drove for a week, courtesy of the Chrysler test fleet, was the new four-door Unlimited with Command-Trac four-wheel drive, an imposing stagecoach of a vehicle and bright orange, to boot: not exactly inconspicuous, if one were planning a furtive getaway, but seasonally appropriate for Halloween (and close enough to the burnt-orange hue of the University of Texas Longhorns, just up the road in Austin).
This Wrangler, with a sticker price of $26K (wildly negotiable, these days), was loaded with such niceties as power doors and windows, electronic stability control, fog lights, dual-stage front air bags, seat mounted side airbags, traction control (a seeming redundancy in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, but not really, as the two systems are intended to cope with different phenomena), and something called MyGIG Multimedia Infotainment system that included GPS and Sirius satellite radio. Oddly, it lacked grab handles above the doors, and I never could find the rear power window switches; those that I did find in the front were, irritatingly, located in the middle of the dashboard, as far from the relevant windows as possible. (However, this is a Chrysler quirk I recognized from my wife’s PT Cruiser.) Being a Wrangler, it also offered the do-it-yourself driver various options for partial deconstruction of itself, from removable doors to a forward-folding windshield (for a clear field of fire: shades of Bastogne, ’44), via a modular three-panel hardtop roof, called the 3-Piece Removable Freedom Top, that can be detached in three allegedly easy movements and a canvas replacement roof that can be mounted and dismounted in about twenty-five not at all easy ones. I declined to do so, after perusal of the manual and close inspection of the cloth roof, which was stored in the otherwise capacious cargo area, persuaded me beyond doubt that I’d get stuck about midway through the process and have to go about with half a roof and no doors. Not my idea of a good time.
Which, however, is exactly what I had with this Jeep. I found it very easy to live with, for a vehicle of such uncompromising originality. On weekdays I drove it as my daily commuter, and on the weekend took it into the Hill Country in search of a rocky patch where it could go about its four-wheeling business without excess stress on it or me. I was successful in both endeavors. The first pleasant surprise was the on-road ride, about which I’d heard many negative reports: jittery, bouncy, rattling, etc. This may have been true of Gen. Patton’s 1944 Jeep, but its ’09 descendant was as smooth and silent as a Lexus, except over such impedimenta as expansion joints and railroad tracks, which generated a brisk thump or two; but the thumps were muted, and nothing inside or out rattled or felt at all flimsy. (The panel fit was universally tight, I noticed.) This unexpected serenity was due to the Unlimited model’s length; it’s the first extended-wheelbase Jeep since the Scrambler of the early ’80s, nearly two feet longer than the two-door. Apart from those occasional thumps, the only sound was the wind, which did get a bit harsh in the afternoons, when I was driving straight into the headwinds from the South; after all, the Wrangler has all the aerodynamic efficiency of a shoebox. But there was no buffeting or howling, just a steady whoosh easily muffled by the excellent Sirius satellite radio my test car came equipped with.
The second pleasant surprise was the big orange crate’s fuel consumption. I expected it to guzzle fossil fuels like a thirsty dog, but in fact, I squeaked out just over 20 mpg on the highway, slightly above EPA estimates, in a week’s driving, and never had to stop for a refill. Part of the explanation is the size of the fuel tank, designed after all for the backwoods and Rubicon Trail, where there are no filling stations. Also, the power plant works well: a mostly smooth 3.8L V6 familiar to drivers of upscale Chrysler products such as the Town & Country Limited, it was recently, and successfully, tuned to get better mileage than the old Wrangler’s venerable inline-6. In the new Wrangler this engine makes 202 horses; it could use more, although not desperately. What it could definitely use, apart from another notch in the 4-speed automatic transmission, is a goose-up of torque from 237 at 4000 rpm to somewhere around 245 or so, for better merging speed and uphill tenacity. Still, I found that the engine responded adequately when needed, if a bit raucously. Cruising at 75 is fairly effortless, and could no doubt go on all day with no difficulty. The steering was also something of a pleasant surprise: I expected something with a more agricultural feeling but it was light and direct, with no mushiness or inaccuracy.
Worthy of praise also is the car’s (I know: Jeep’s) interior, once you get used to the slightly rudimentary appearance of the white underside of the roof panels, and the absence of vanity mirrors on the sun visors, commented on with alarm by my womenfolk; the seats, however, are downright h, and well-sculpted for a variety of American body shapes, slim and otherwise. Head and shoulder room is plentiful, and–except for the control screen¬–the dashboard has a pleasing old-fashioned quality, with simple round analog gauges, easy-to-use controls, and an inoffensive level of plastic trim. Rear seat room is adequate, and cargo space is voluminous, 85+ cubic feet once you get the trussed-up canvas roof out of the way and flip down the seat backs. Smaller storage areas, however, simply don’t exist, and there’s no room for a Big Gulp in the cupholders. The Wrangler still has its basic side.
Then of course there’s what this vehicle was built for: the trail. Not being much of a hearty outdoorsman, I decided it would be injudicious as well as plain phony for me to attempt hard-core off-roading adventures, but I live in the Texas Hill Country, which consists almost entirely of boulder-strewn fields and rocky hillsides. Out past the Devil’s Backbone, off the road to Blanco, my wife and I found a nice winding unpaved country road that led to another, narrower lane, and ultimately to a steep bumpy field of boulders over which the Jeep crawled happily, oblivious to fallen tree trunks and all protuberances and sharp edges, thanks to its 10 inches of ground clearance and body-wide skid plates. Having had no doubts from the start about the Wrangler’s peerless off-road prowess, we were soon satisfied, and after getting a few macho-looking snapshots and fording a ditch or two we soon returned quite contentedly to the paved thoroughfares of civilization.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed this car and would happily add one to my modest fleet. Indeed, if I ever buy a four-wheel-drive vehicle, I’ll go out on a limb and say confidently that it will be a Jeep Wrangler, although for homebodies such as I the four-wheel drive capability would serve more as a backup system in the event of mudslides or snowdrifts (the former very likely in Texas, the latter not) than as a weekend-warrior accessory. There are, no question about it, more practical vehicles. Still, there’s that ineffable Jeepness, the heritage, the sheer personality of the thing that transcends aesthetics. It’s not a beautiful car by anyone’s definition, but it’s not a boring car either, and it’s well-built and sturdy; and in my opinion, that’s the bottom line. As I’m sure Gen. Patton would agree.
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