Monday, January 7, 2008

Wrangler still a road warrior

TEST DRIVE | Redesigned for 2008, it hasn't lost a step

The 2008 Wrangler two-door model continues as an iconic Jeep that almost still looks like it just stepped out of World War II, with traditional crisp lines, round headlights, fold-down windshield and seven-slot grille.

Wranglers were redesigned for 2007, and the Wrangler two-door is roomier, more comfortable and has higher refinement because it shares features of the new-for-2007 four-door Jeep Unlimited model, which is the only new four-door convertible.

The $18,660-$27,220 Wrangler two-door comes as the base X, Sahara and Rubicon, which I tested. It's sold only with four-wheel drive and is available with a folding soft top and removable hard top.

The Rubicon is the toughest customer among Wrangler two-door models when it comes to off-road use, but proved civil on roads -- unlike the old two-door Wrangler. That one often felt as if it belonged in the 1940s.

The $20,580-$29,535 Wrangler Unlimited four-door (Dec. 10, 2006 AutoTimes) comes with rear- or four-wheel drive. It's the most comfortable, roomiest Wrangler, but lacks some of the rugged look of the two-door version.

The 2008 Wrangler two-door has a fairly new 3.8-liter V-6 with 202 horsepower and 239 pound-feet of torque. The V-6 replaces an ancient inline six-cylinder engine and has more horsepower and torque. It provides lively acceleration in town and decent 65-75 mph passing on highways.

The new engine also delivers better fuel economy. The two-door provides an estimated 15 and 19 with both the standard six-speed manual and $825 four-speed automatic transmission. Only regular-grade gasoline is needed.

Those aren't economy-oriented figures, but the Wrangler doesn't pretend to be an economy vehicle. For one thing, the two-door is heavy for its size, weighing from 3,760 pounds for the X with a manual gearbox to 4,129 pounds for a Rubicon with the automatic.

Manual transmissions can be fun in sporty vehicles such as the Wrangler, but the Wrangler's responsive automatic is more convenient in city area driving -- although most Wrangler rivals have a more modern five-speed automatic.

The Wrangler two-door doesn't pretend to be a sports car -- for one thing, it's too high. But some think it's such a car because it is fun to drive.

My test Rubicon adroitly handled sweeping curves. Its steering was quick, although rather heavy, and the brake pedal had a nice linear action. The advanced four-wheel-drive system, which isn't for use on dry pavement, helps it cling to slippery roads and off-road terrain. There's a low-range gear for tough off-roading.

The ride occasionally gets bouncy on uneven expressway pavement and gets jumpy on bumpy side streets. That's to be expected with a heavy duty suspension and a short 95.4-inch wheelbase, or distance between axles.

However, lower spring rates, advanced shock absorber tuning and heavy-duty powertrain and body mounts isolate the passenger compartment from vibrations. Occupants don't get bounced around, as they did in the previous-generation Wrangler.

This Jeep two-door model is more secure than it once was for those who drive it hard. That's because safety items include an anti-skid system with rollover sensors, roll bar, anti-lock brakes with a brake-assist feature. Front side air bags are optional.

Wrangler occupants sit high, although it calls for extra effort to get in this Jeep, and pushbutton door openers aren't for those with long fingernails. Front seats provide good side support, although the rear seat isn't very comfortable. The interior is generally quiet, but becomes noisy during hard acceleration. Large side mirrors help driver visibility, but rear headrests partly block rear vision.

Gauges could be larger, although they aren't all that difficult to read, and the dual front console cupholders are rather low. Some controls are easy to reach and use, others aren't.

Even the base X soft top model has standard full-metal doors with roll-up windows, bucket seats, tilt steering wheel, AM/FM/CD/MP3 player and outside mounted spare tire.

Options for the X include air conditioning, 17-inch aluminum wheels, front side air bags and power windows and door locks.

Standard for the Sahara are air conditioning, cruise control, leather-wrapped wheel and 18-inch aluminum wheels. Sahara extras include power windows and locks with remote keyless entry.

The Rubicon has very serious off-road items such as an electronic-disconnecting front stabilizer bar, heavy duty front axle and transfer case, electronic locking front/rear differentials and rock rails.

Rubicon options include power windows and locks, front side air bags and remote starter.

The Wrangler two-door is comfortable during laid-back open-cockpit cruising on balmy days or during rugged off-road treks, while still being practical for daily driving in all kinds of weather. It's remained true to its heritage, which is a definite plus when all-new vehicles seem to be introduced every other day.

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