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Purpose-built for off-roading, the 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited doesn't fare quite as well on the pavement. But with four doors, you can bring plenty of company out into the wilderness, and you won't lack for amenities--the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited can be had with satellite radio, Bluetooth cell phone integration, and even an in-dash music and photo server.
For our test car, we had the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon, which comes with full off-road gear, including skid plates, heavy duty rear axle, and an electronically disconnecting front sway bar. Unlike most SUVs, the Wrangler is the real deal, able to crawl up canyons and ford rivers. The Unlimited is stretched, getting an extra set of doors in back, with more room for passengers and cargo. Because of the extra length and military styling, various people commented that it looks like a Hummer. We had to refute that comment, noting that Hummers look like the Jeep, because the Jeep came first.
Test the tech: Quarry crawl
With the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, we got the rare chance to test it on a serious off-road course. Earlier this year, as part of our local automotive journalists association, we took this Wrangler Unlimited on a highly technical area of the Hollister Hill off-road recreation area called The Quarry. This old quarry has hills covered in small-to-fist-size rocks, making for an extremely unstable surface, along with heavily rutted dirt roads with big drop-offs.
We started out by putting the Wrangler Unlimited in the 4L position with its four-wheel-drive shifter, pushing the button to disconnect the sway bar, and putting the automatic transmission shifter in its lowest range. Then we aimed the front of the car up a rock-strewn hill and started the ascent. The stock 32-inch Goodyear MTR tires bit in and held on as the Jeep made it up the hill with out a hint of backsliding.
We easily crested the top, with plenty of clearance over the lip of the hill, and had to make an immediate left turn. There, we waited for some Land Rovers to go down a nasty dirt road that had bad ruts and a sharp right turn. At one point on that road, the cars ahead of us had their rear right wheel hanging in mid-air, something we would have to put the Jeep through, too. When it was our turn, the Wrangler Unlimited crawled down the road with very little effort on our part. We didn't even feel the section where we only had three tires on terra firma. We held the high ground on the rest of the dirt road until we made it off the hill.
Our final challenge involved heading down a rocky slope. On this one, the Jeep was unperturbed as it made its way down. We merely had to control the brake and keep the automatic in its lowest range. Unlike some of the more upscale off-roaders, the Wrangler Unlimited doesn't have descent control. But what stood out for us about the experience is that, even with amateurs like us behind the wheel, the Wrangler Unlimited tackled some difficult terrain. In fact, it made it easy and relatively effortless. We had spotters and someone to tell us which settings to use, but this is a vehicle that most people could safely take into the wilderness.
In the cabin
As a tech car, the Wrangler Unlimited has a surprising amount of features going for it. Purists might think putting power windows on a Jeep makes it a tech car, but the Wrangler Unlimited can be optioned with satellite radio, Bluetooth cell phone integration, navigation, and even a music server.
Our test car had the standard sound system, with seven Infinity speakers and a 368-watt amp. It's pretty impressive for a standard system, with two tweeters poking out of the dashboard, mids in the lower dashboard and attached to the rollbar, and a big subwoofer in the cargo area. The audio from this system was good, although it sounded a little muffled. We were able to get a decent thump from the subwoofer.
We also had the optional six-disc in-dash stereo, which can play MP3 CDs and even DVDs. Strangely, it's rated for DVD video, although there is no option for a rear-seat video screen. Even though the stereo only has a two-line LED screen, we found it easy to scroll through folders on our MP3 CDs. We also had Sirius satellite radio, which was fairly easy to access through the stereo interface, with the option of choosing categories instead of just scrolling through all of the stations. An auxiliary input on the stereo's faceplate makes it easy to plug in an MP3 player, as well.
Although we didn't have the UConnect option (Chrysler's Bluetooth cell phone integration), the buttons for it were present on the stereo. We've used this system before and found it works well for basic hands-free phone operation. One of the more advanced tech features available on the Wrangler Unlimited is the MyGig entertainment system. This system would plant an LCD in place of the stereo interface, which gives you a hard-drive-based navigation system that also has room to store music and photos. Only a few cars today offer this type of option.
Because this is a Jeep, the doors are designed to come off, and you can fold down the front window for that complete open-air effect. But as a trade-off, the doors don't have controls for the power windows--all the power window switches are mounted in the stack. Likewise, the car doesn't have power-adjustable mirrors. The optional Freedom Top lets you remove the panels over the driver and/or front passenger, or remove the whole top. Because it's a long-wheel-base Wrangler, there is a lot of top, and removing the whole thing would require a few strong backs.
Under the hood
The Wrangler Unlimited isn't much fun to drive around the city or on the freeway. It moves forward sluggishly, and with the MRT tires, as on our Rubicon edition, it skitters around corners. It's powered by a 3.8-liter V-6 that puts out 205 horsepower at 5,200rpm and 240 ft-lbs of torque at 4,000rpm. The latter number is more important for off-road situations, and the Wrangler Unlimited is at home in the dirt, as we described above.
But on pavement, the Wrangler Unlimited always feels like it's going faster than it really is, partly due to the excessive road noise from the tires and the top, which provides virtually no noise insulation. Although it has electronic roll mitigation, cornering feels unsteady due to the high center of gravity and the deep tread of the tires. But the strongest reason for not making the Wrangler Unlimited your daily driver (unless you live up a canyon) is its gas mileage, rated at 14mpg city and 18mpg highway by the EPA. In our driving, we observed considerably less, averaging 13.6mpg for combined city and freeway driving. Our city average tended between 12mpg and 13mpg. On the plus side, the Wrangler Unlimited gets an emissions rating of ULEV II from California's Air Resources Board, so it pollutes less than a lot of cars on the road.
Our Wrangler Unlimited had the optional four-speed transmission; a six-speed manual is standard. With the automatic, the car whined and complained as it downshifted when we gave it the gas to get up a freeway hill. The manual six-speed would have been an interesting transmission to try in the Jeep, and probably would have given us better observed mileage.
The Wrangler Unlimited doesn't have side curtain airbags, but does have front airbags for the passenger and driver, plus optional side airbags for the front seats. It also has a full set of electronic roadholding gear, including traction control, antilock brakes, and a stability program, a nice addition to a vehicle like this.
The base price for our 2007 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon was $29,240. Our option list included pearl coat paint ($225), the Dual Top package ($1,585), the Power Convenience package ($800), front-side airbags ($490), automatic transmission ($825), six-disc in-dash stereo ($350), Sirius satellite radio ($195), and a locking fuel cap ($15). With its $660 destination charge, our Jeep came out to $34,385.
With its weak fuel economy, we wouldn't recommend the Wrangler Unlimited as a primary road vehicle. And while we appreciate all its cabin electronics, we don't think they make a lot of sense for a car that's best kept as an occasional driver for off-road situations. Although a bit more expensive (pushing 40 grand), the Land Rover LR2 is more at home on the road, and does all right off the road. The Toyota FJ Cruiser approaches the off-road capabilities of the Jeep Wrangler Unlimited for less money, but it doesn't have all the optional electronics.