There is a lot of talk in the automotive industry these days about retro designs coming back on new vehicles, but for the Wrangler Unlimited, its timeless styling has been a part of this vehicle line for more than 60 years. Expanding the passenger volume and cargo-carrying capacity by lengthening the wheelbase by 10 inches, the new Wrangler Unlimited harkens back to the under-appreciated, long-wheelbase CJ-8 Scrambler.
If you like retro charm, the Wrangler has it in spades. However, one of the retro throwbacks on the Wrangler that we wouldn't mind seeing changed is the anemic 4.0L I-6, which has been the mainstay for too many years. Unwilling to rev, and mustering only 190 hp at 4,600 rpm, we'd like to see the Wrangler benefit from a smooth and modern powertrain, such as the 3.7L V-6 found in the Liberty. At least, the Wrangler can now be had with a six-speed manual or the four-speed automatic found on our tester, both making better use of the 4.0L powerband and improving economy. We'd also like to see the dash dropped, in favor of a design more in line with the old-school Jeep exterior, and less like an old Geo Tracker.
With 15 inches of total extra length comes more stability, ride improvements, and an increased tow rating to 3,500 pounds, which is 2,000 pounds more than the standard Wrangler. The Unlimited includes and new insulated Sunrider soft-top design that can open just the front portion, if desired. Our staff felt that the Wrangler Unlimited was best enjoyed with the top down, when the sun was shining and the driver wasn't in a hurry to get anywhere. If you do get a Wrangler, the upgraded stereo, adding speakers to the rollbar, and adding a subwoofer in the center console are a must.
On the highway, the improved ride was readily apparent, and even though the Wrangler was not a performance machine, the nimbleness, noises, vibrations, and direct feedback that come with the overall driving experience make the Wrangler enjoyable to drive, even at 30 mph. Off-road, the Wrangler Unlimited came into its own, showing the more modern in the test how a veteran does tackles the terrain. The coil spring suspension on solid axles were compliant, flexible, and rugged, and the extended wheelbase improves the Wrangler capability, without taking anything away from its ability. The excellent articulation helped the Jeep to keep its feet on the ground at all times and traverse the challenging two-tracks without too much help from its limited-slip differential.
Admittedly, the Wrangler Unlimited doesn't compare directly to any of the other SUVs we tested and really needs to be evaluated in a different context. Nevertheless, the Jeep is such an American institution that we recommend any red-blooded car guy enjoy it at least once, just for fun. The Wrangler is an experience, not unlike drinking a Coca-Cola from a glass bottle or watching baseball on a sunny summer afternoon. If you are looking for off-road prowess with retro charisma, then the Wrangler is what should be on your list, and we think you will appreciate the additional refinement found in the Unlimited.