Ride Review: Jeep Wrangler Unlimited

By Randy Stern December 12, 2012

Categories: Our Homes, Vehicles & Rides

2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport. All Photos by Randy Stern

What you are seeing here is a gay icon.

In the midst of the post-Stonewall fervor, we trumpeted our fight for liberation as we took to the streets. The first Prides were more than political rallies with us marching down the streets. From the West Village in New York to Castro Street in San Francisco, the definition of a GLBT society was forming, yet splintering based on attraction and identity lines.

This was true for here in the Twin Cities. Though it would take years before the liberation movement reached beyond the core of Minneapolis and St. Paul, but our community signaled a beacon for us to come from the outlying areas where we were not welcomed to the place we now call home.

Part of this history was a vehicle that defined our initial outlook on society – hypermasculinity and just plain bravado. Regardless of gender or gender identity, we arrived through the streets of our community in a vehicle that suited these notions of our society.

For every Jeep CJ-5 that rolled down Hennepin Avenue, there told a story of liberation.

Forty years later, the Jeep remains a popular icon in our community. Our tastes have changed, as have Jeep. At its core is still an icon that draws us to the brand – the Wrangler. Without it, Jeep would be a shell of itself.

We are forever grateful to Chrysler and Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, who made sure that the Wrangler is a global player between the two companies. The future is bright for Jeep and the Wrangler as the first round of enhancements to the breed were implemented over the past few years.

To celebrate this icon, a 2013 Wrangler Unlimited Sport showed up at our doorstep.

Given the Jeep’s ability to manage any road condition and terrain, the purpose-built SUV remains one of the toughest vehicles on the planet. It starts with traditional Jeep traits – the seven-slot grille, round headlamps, boxy cabin, front fenders and a hood that is latched with clips on each side. As traditional as the Wrangler looks, it is still contemporary.

The Unlimited is an outgrowth of the Wrangler’s legacy by adding an additional set of doors. This expands the boxy look further to accommodate passengers both front and back, along with their cargo. Even better is the color of this tester – the aptly named Dozer. If you choose this, or the lime-green Gecko color, you cannot miss it in a mile away from where you stand.

The mix of traditional and contemporary is found inside the cabin. In 2011, the interior was refreshed with a new dashboard integrating the latest Chrysler elements adding better quality materials as deemed by its partner, Fiat. The plastics may seem hard, but are of better quality and materials. The instrumentation is simple and straightforward, despite some older read outs from Chryslers over the past decade or so. As long as you know that the power windows are on the center stack and the power mirror adjustments are below, then it becomes clear how much the Wrangler is more for adventure than luxury, comfort and refinement.

There is a pair of comfortable seats for the front row occupants. The driver’s seat offers manual adjustments for rake, recline and height, which offer a good mix of support and comfort. The cloth used is very durable for every day use, as well as tackling harder terrain. Rear seat room is fine for average-sized adults. Rear door access makes life easy for those who need to sit in the back. There is also plenty of cargo space behind the second row for a weekend adventure into the woods or to the Pride picnic.

Controlling the seven speaker Alpine audio system is an old school Chrysler audio head unit – that still works very well. The good news is that your Bluetooth-connected phone goes through this system using UConnect, Chrysler’s connectivity software. If you need your dose of OutQ, it could be one of twelve SiriusXM satellite radio presets for this audio system.

Last year, Chrysler dropped its Pentastar V6 under the Wrangler’s hood. The 3.6litre engine gives the Wrangler the most power it ever had in its history. There is 285 horsepower on tap with 260 pound-feet of torque ready to tackle anything. Since before Chrysler integrated Jeep from its acquisition of American Motors in the late 1980s, there had never been a Jeep that performed as well as with the Pentastar V6. This engine has changed the Wrangler forever.

A five-speed automatic transmission drives this Pentastar V6-powered Wrangler. Jeep’s Command-Trac 4WD lurks underneath the frame-mounted body. The shift-on-the-fly system uses a two-speed NV241 GII transfer case to leverage torque and grip to all four wheels, when needed.

The biggest surprise about driving the Wrangler Unlimited is its poise. The solid ride you get from the lowest possible model in the Wrangler lineup is due to its extended wheelbase to accommodate the four-door body and the rigidity that went into securing the midsection of the Jeep. The suspension is taut, but absorbent over bumps and road imperfections. Minimal feedback is transmitted to the cabin.

The Wrangler can take a curve or two. It is not without some roll on extreme turns, but the suspension at all four corners control the body and frame reducing frightful reactions from meek drivers. Brakes are responsive and sharp for regular and panic stops.

The steering rack has great turning reaction for tight turns in 2-HI. The response from the wheel is quick, but you could feel a loss of road feel and some play at center. It is not enough to affect the Wrangler’s agility at every turn. However, if you switch the transfer case to 4-HI, it becomes a different story. Because the front axle is engaged, it retards the steering system from making sharp turns. To accomplish u-turns or even tight turns into a driveway, you would have to switch the transfer case to 2-HI to quell the struggle between the steering box and the front axle in 4-HI.

One of the issues that had been brought up in the past with the Wrangler is fuel economy. Now that the Pentastar V6 is part of the package, there is a marked improvement on efficiency even with more performance. The Wrangler Unlimited averaged 18.3MPG – at par with other SUVs these days.

There is price to become a hardcore Jeep fan. The Wrangler Unlimited Sport starts at $26,890. This example, the upgraded Sport S model with several additional options, came out to $32,310. This is perhaps a good price for a Wrangler Unlimited, but you can go higher – much higher. For the optimal Jeep experience, you need to tick the Rubicon with a trove of additional equipment that a true off-roader would need. A fully equipped Rubicon will set you back into the low $40,000s.

After years of blazing through our community, today’s Wrangler remains an icon. It is not the most practical vehicle on the road, but if you pull up in one, people notice. It has a presence that is unmistakably rugged and strong – same as it ever was even during the early years of the liberation movement. Yet, it is never complicated. The technology may have been enhanced, but it is still a Wrangler through and through.

The point of the Wrangler is to be ruggedly simple. It is refined as it needs to be, but its primary job is to get you through the rough stuff all year round. Hence why it remains an icon within and beyond our community.

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