Jeep's Wrangler Unlimited has a style all its own but could it offer realistic family day-to-day transport? Jonathan Crouch decides
Ten Second Review
Bigger, better built, with a far better ride and a diesel engine option at last, the Jeep Wrangler is now something more than a novelty plaything. True, it's still hardly the most practical 4x4 unless your idea of practicality is wallowing in mud but it's now usable in Surbiton as well as across the Serengeti. And if you're prepared to put up with a slightly utilitarian feel, it'll reward you with a unique character all of its own.
Back in 1938, the US government's original brief for a 'light reconnaissance vehicle' resulted in the development of the Willys Jeep, and the subsequent production of 368,000 of them for use during World War 2. General George C Marshall described it as "America's greatest contribution to modern warfare". The spiritual successor to the Willys Jeep is today's Jeep Wrangler. Much separates the two designs of course. What's ideal for a theatre of war doesn't necessarily work for a family trip to the cinema and over the years, through CJ, YJ and TJ Wrangler models, as different company owners have come and gone, Jeep designers have struggled with the need to develop this icon without losing its distinct appeal. Their biggest challenge came with this 'JK' version, launched in 2007 with the need to justify its existence in a modern 4x4 market that claims to have an answer to every need. Jeep's response was offer two Wrangler 'firsts': five doors and diesel power.
Previous Wranglers never had to be very good on road. As long as they didn't shake your fillings out on the way to your surf shack, all would be forgiven once you set a tyre on the rough stuff. But Marlboro men are in short supply these days and to keep this car in customers, Jeep had to appeal beyond those who might use their cars as weekend mountain playthings. So they started again with the chassis for this car - it's now 100% stiffer, so the whole thing doesn't bounce about so much on country roads. Extra torsional rigidity and an upgraded five-link suspension system help too. Don't get me wrong, this is no RAV4 but it works a great deal better on the tarmac than something like the Toyota does on the mud. Even more important is the 174bhp 2.8-litre turbo diesel engine fitted to virtually all UK Wranglers, though a 3.6-litre V6 petrol unit is also offered on the two-door version. The diesel offers a hefty 410Nm of torque but the pulling power is available only in quite a narrow band between 2000 and 2600rpm, so you have to swap cogs around the 6-speed manual gearbox quite often to make full use of it. Body roll is not surprisingly greater than you'd find in a 'school run' 4x4 but I was surprised to find that it's now quite possible to cruise at 80mph and hold a civilised conversation. Cutting to the chase, yes, if you wanted to, you now could quite happily live with this as an only car. But if you think that means this Jeep has gone soft for rough terrain work, then you'd be wrong. Switch from two to four wheel drive, make full use of the low range transfer case and you'll find that it's now even more capable thanks to greater ground clearance, improved approach and departure angles for steep slopes and a clever brake lock differential system that can slow down a spinning wheel to equalise torque across an axle and so boost traction just when you need it most. The only thing I'd change is this low-mounted rear numberplate, which can be quickly dislodged by proper mud-plugging.
Design and Build
This is unmistakably a Jeep Wrangler. Iconic features like the seven-bar grille, the fold-flat windscreen and the removable doors are all present and correct and the two-door short wheelbase model should do little to upset diehard enthusiasts. Sales growth though has come from this four-door Unlimited version, a car that looks something like a mini-Hummer and is 50cm longer and 12.7cm wider than its stablemate. Out back, this two-tier tailgate opens to reveal a boot capacity of either 1310 or 2320 litres, depending on whether you fold the 60/40 split rear seat. That extra half a metre's length makes possible a back seat with room for two adults or maybe three kids in a space that though not generous, is perfectly adequate. No, it's not super high quality in here but least you no longer feel you're piloting something that would pass muster as an exhibit in the Imperial War Museum: there's everything you need and nothing you don't with loads of wipe-clean surfaces that encourage you to use the car in the way it was intended, rather than making you feel worried every time you get in with muddy boots. It's really all rather refreshing compared to the SUV norm.
Market and Model
Two-door short wheelbase diesel Wranglers sell in the £18,000 to £22,000 bracket, with the exception of the 3.6-litre petrol version which is more hard core and will cost around £23,000. The diesel-only four-door Unlimited version commands a premium of around £1,500 over the two-door. Competitors? The only direct one I can really think of is Land Rover's Defender which is £3,000-£4,000 more, much cruder, much slower, far less acceptable on road and really not that much better off it. Whether you go for two or four-door bodystyles, there's a choice of either 6-speed manual or 5-speed automatic transmission for diesel buyers and all UK Wranglers get this 'Freedom Top' plastic roof which can be removed totally or the individual panels above the front seats can be lifted off, Targa-style, and stored in the car. Alternatively, you can specify a fabric roof. Another welcome but this time slightly more unexpected standard feature is ESP stability control, plus there are ABS brakes with brake assist, traction control and technology to help prevent a rollover. There's even the option of a 20-gigabyte hard drive with USB interface and this colour sat nav screen which looks rather incongruous in a Wrangler. Heaven only knows what General George Patton would have made of that.
Cost of Ownership
What's the 'greenest' car you can buy? A Toyota Prius? A Ford Ka? Or perhaps a Jeep Wrangler? On what's called a 'dust-to-dust' calculation of a car's environmental impact, from its creation to its ultimate destruction, you'd probably be shocked to learn that it's the Jeep, according to figures released by CNW Research in America. Think about it and it makes sense. The proportion of energy and CO2 used to make a car is much higher than the amount it consumes in its life. And Wranglers, after all, are designed simply, don't cost much to make, are easy to scrap and go on for ever. Small cars and hybrids are just the opposite. On top of that, today's diesel Wrangler doesn't stack up too badly in terms of running costs on the spec sheet either, the 2.8-litre diesel returning around 33mpg on the combined cycle, though this Unlimited model's 227g/km Co2 figure isn't anything to write home about. You might have a harder job selling the 'greenest 4x4' argument to your pub buddies in the unlikely event that you've gone for the 3.8-litre petrol version, with its 24.4mpg combined fuel figure and 275g/km of CO2 return. Insurance is set at group 10.
You've still got to be serious about hardcore off-road driving to consider a Jeep Wrangler - but not quite as serious as you had to be before. This Unlimited model makes a decent fist of providing versatile family transport for the user who doesn't mind making a few sacrifices at the altar of comfort, ride and handling. It's got a style all of its own and its heart and soul remain on the Rubicon Trail rather than on Staples Corner. Thank goodness for that.