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2007 Jeep Wrangler First Drive
The Rubicon Trail!

Story and Photos By Michael Cohn

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All JK All The Time
If you were to poll owners of '97-'06 Jeep Wranglers, most would probably tell you that they don't like change. They fear change. To them, change means messing with something they love. This is nothing new. We saw the same thing in 1997 when the TJ debuted. It didn't take long, however, for the TJ to endear itself to the die-hard Jeep crowd.

Once photos of the 2007 Wrangler (JK) appeared, the community was immediately divided. Some people liked the new styling, the extra width, yada yada yada. But many die-hard TJ owners scoffed at all this new technology and myriad changes.

Here's the interesting thing, though. Jeep conducts many focus groups and really does pay attention to what owners say. Each year at Camp Jeep, owners get to vent their frustrations and let Jeep know what's on their wish list. When Jeep asks owners what they'd want changed, they often say "Nothing. Leave it alone." But if they rephrase the question, such as"Would you like the Wrangler to be more comfortable? Would you like it to be quieter inside?" they get an entirely different response - "Yes!"

Then the Government and the bean counters step in.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JKSo here's where we're at for 2007. For all of you TJ lovers, hear this now. If you don't want change, you want the Wrangler to be dead. It's that simple. Really. Jeep literally cannot produce the TJ anymore, even if they want to. It won't meet 2007 Governmental requirements.

There's the short version.

OK, so let's put all that grumpiness aside and let's talk about what's here now - the all-new 2007 Jeep Wrangler. It's wider. It can have 4 doors. The Unlimited is longer. And it rocks!

We've seen the new JKs now since they debuted in Detroit and New York earlier this year. But it was high time we got in the seat and drove these newfangled four-wheelers. And Jeep agreed.

They could have introduced the new Wrangler anywhere, but despite logistical nightmares and costs, they did it on the famous Rubicon Trail. Just weeks after the brand new plant opened up and weeks before any Wranglers have been released to dealers, they flew wave after wave of media types into the Lake Tahoe area and shuttled us to the Rubicon to play on the rocks.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
Awesome view flying into Rubicon Springs.
2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
Mark Smith, Jeep legend, and part owner of Rubicon Springs.

Because of time constraints, we were flown by helicopter into Rubicon Springs, where we spent the night in tents and enjoyed the unmatched hospitality of Mark Smith and his Jeep Jamboree USA staff.

There were plenty of Wranglers lined up in camp and the afternoon was spent going over them with fine-toothed combs. The loose and casual atmosphere also allowed us all the face time we wanted with Jeep PR, Marketing and Executives.

The air was crisp and cool, and you could seemingly spot every star in the Milky Way that night, as we stood around the bonfire having drinks and probing the Jeep folks for juicy tidbits of info.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
Our JKs sat ready for us to check them out.
2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
Media types freezing and telling lies with Jeep brass.

One of the most interesting conversations I had was with Mark Moushegian, Design Manager for the Wrangler. Uncommon for car designers, Mark actually was assigned the exterior and the interior of the new Wrangler. Mark cleared up a common misconception for me. Most people are under the understanding that the JK is based on the Rescue concept vehicle. On the contrary, Mark had penned the Wrangler almost two years prior to the Rescue! Incidentally, Mark also designed the Dodge Hornet concept this past year.

Mark would give us the walk-around the following morning, discussing the design aspects of the new Wrangler, pointing out Wrangler hallmarks, such as the seven-slot grille, round headlamps, trapezoidal wheel flairs and upright windshield. These cues are all retained but in a more updated look. Curves are introduces, not only overall, but subtly in areas that you don't notice immediately.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
Mark Moushegian (left) listens as Mark Smith (right) tells us about the history of the Rubicon Trail and Rubicon Springs.
2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
Exec. VP, Global Sales, Marketing & Service, Joe Eberhardt (left) freezes with the rest of us during the introduction at Rubicon Springs.

Mark Smith told us a bit about the Rubicon Trail itself and we also heard from engineers and execs, but as we stood there nearly freezing during the 39 degree sunrise, all eyes were sneaking glances at our chosen JKs for the trail ride, wondering how their heaters would work.

Finally, it was time. We had ogled the Wranglers front to back, top to bottom the previous night but we really just wanted to drive them. Let's go!

We've already covered all of the main specs, features and options in previous articles, so this one will focus on what we actually got to drive.

My ride for the trail was a two door, six-speed manual Rubicon. The tops were down and the windows gone and stored elsewhere. Jeep wanted us to ride in the open air and we were perfectly willing to do so - especially since the heaters really do work nicely.

Nothing like being thrown right into the fire. No howdy, small-talking, get to know you ice breaking on the road here. Grab a Jeep and hit the trail in 4 Low. The JK has the easiest-shifting transfer case lever I've ever used. Gone is the fighting and cajoling to get into low-range, due to the redesigned shifter. I did notice, however, that the clutch has a very deep cycle in order to fully disengage it.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
It didn't take me long to find a nice rock to crawl up and test the flex.
2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
The JK crawled right up the rock without any fuss, whatsoever.

The transmissions and transfer cases are essentially the same as the outgoing TJ Rubicons (6 spd. manual or 4 spd. automatic). The 4.10 gear ratio of the Rubicons is also the same, though the Dana 44s are different. But these similarities made it easy for us to check out the new 3.8L V-6 engine - the only one offered in the US. At a glance, the new engine shows more power than the ages-old inline 6 that went bye-bye, providing 205 HP (@5200rpm) and 240 lb.-ft of torque (@4000rpm). Digging deeper, though, reveals that while the horsepower and torque are a bit higher than the I-6, both come in at a much higher band than the old inline, which one would assume to be a deficit for off-roading.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JKWe were a little concerned about the new engine and how it would act off-road but we were very pleasantly surprised - at least with the manual tranny. We drove the auto later on-road but did not have the opportunity to drive it off-road, so we'll reserve judgement on that for later. The same goes for either transmission in the 4-door Unlimited in an off-road setting.

In the 2-door, manual configuration, the engine did just fine. In fact, at least with my driving style, it did great. Sure, we all would love a little more torque down low but I was never put in a situation where the engine didn't give me what I needed when I wanted it and it never petered out and stalled on me.

What was most notable about the engine off-road was how quiet it was. It sounded smooth and almost happy to be working on the trail. Unlike the noisy, sometimes angry sound of the inline six this guy whirred along the trail, just going about it's business.

Engine compression going downhill was comparable, as well, allowing us to go down most hills and obstacles without the use of brakes. On large steps, when we really wanted to creep down slowly and gently, I was literally able to floor the brakes - almost standing on them - and the Jeep continued on at a snail's pace, thanks to great gearing, and did not stall. Perfect. Just like my TJ. Incidentally, brake rotors have been upsized to 11.9" front and 12.44" rear from 11" and 11.2" on the TJ.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JKPerhaps the nicest thing about the new engine on the dusty Rubicon Trail was the new electric fan. You could hear it cycle on and off with a gentle buzz and it never had that high-revving roar the inline six had. Better yet, it also didn't fire a downward blast at higher rpm's. The TJ's fans would cause such a huge cloud of dust from underneath that the Jeeps looked like Peanut's Pigpen going down the trail. You'll be thankful for this, as will anyone behind you.

Inside, veteran Wrangler owners will immediately notice the 4.6 inches of additional hip room and 5.1 inches of shoulder room. Personally, as I age like a fine wine, I am becoming more - well - robust. My status as Daddy has allowed me to expand and I take up more space than I did in my younger years. To me, the extra width was greatly welcomed.

Another big hit is the new front seats. As the TJ got longer in the tooth, the seating position shrank - kind of like an old lady. The driver's seat had gotten lower in the last couple years of the TJ (again, due to Government regulations), making it where even us six-footers felt like kids behind the wheel - having to sit up straight to see over the hood (especially with the windshield down). The new JK's seats have a lever to raise the driver's seat up, allowing even shorter drivers to get a good view. I found myself jacking it all the way up for the most commanding view of the trail.

As pointed out by the Jeep execs back at camp (we won't repeat their joke), Rubicons and Sahara models have YES Essentials stain-resistant fabrics for easy cleanup. The seats were comfortable and nicely supportive for a stock, everyday seat. Our ride was so pleasant and smooth, however, that we never had the chance to spill anything on the seats to test the fabric out.

The interior layout of the JK made sense and all of the controls were where we expected them be with little hunting or fiddling about. The new 368-watt, seven speaker audio sysstem is of particular note. SIRIUS was enabled and a CD was in the changer so we could evaluate the sound. For a stock system - especially a Wrangler one - it sounded great. High end is handled by tweeter pods on the dash, larger-than-TJ speakers are in the dash for mid-range, and the subwoofer has been moved to the rear of the Jeep where it belongs, so the center console is still usable for storage. Another plus is that the EQ on the radio has a mid-range. Right on!

2007 Jeep Wrangler JKOne thing I noticed that was a little strange was that the tachometer and speedometer are reversed (like in the Liberty), meaning that the speedo is on the left and the tach on the right. I found myself having to train myself throughout the day to look at them correctly and often-times found my hand blocking my view of the speedometer.

Fit and finish in the Jeeps was good. The interior materials did look and feel plain and a bit cheap in some places, though, with flat and basic textures. The upside of this, of course, is that cleaning will be easy, which I think is probably the point. And yes, there are still plenty of water drain holes throughout the floor so with the carpets out, you can still hose the Jeep down after a good day on the trails.

So there we were, riding in the comfortable seats of our JK, working our way out of the Rubicon Trail. The Wrangler's ride has been greatly improved, due to many factors. Track width has been increased several inches to 61.9 making the JK more stable on side-hills. We had the Jeep laying very far over to its side and we never felt a bit of pucker. Having driven my own TJ's since 1996, my rear end was giving me much more confidence than before.

Wheelbase has been increased on both two and four door models. The standard Wrangler is up 2" to 95.4, while Unlimited is up 12.6" to 116". By way of comparison, a Commander's wheelbase is 109.5".

 

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Be sure to visit www.JKBOARD.com - All JK All The Time

Michael Cohn

Michael Cohn is the founder and Editor of ROCKCRAWLER.com. Michael has owned six Jeeps and was one of the few present at the introduction wearing shorts.

Contact Michael at comments@rockcrawler.com.