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2007 Jeep Wrangler First Drive
The Rubicon Trail!

Story and Photos By Michael Cohn

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2007 Jeep Wrangler JK

Underneath, the new Wrangler is very different than the TJ. Its 100% stiffer frame is much wider - wider, in fact, than the Dodge Ram. This is to accommodate the gas tank between the rails in order to meet new regulations. Mostly because of the gas tank placement, the control arms now sit outboard of the frame, while the springs are inboard. Shocks are splayed and angled inward at the tops, to help maintain a more constant dampening.

Everything feels different on the trail, yet familiar. What I mean is that this definitely feels like a different beast than the TJ, yet I already felt like I knew how to drive it anywhere I wanted to. The suspension has a much softer feel when bounding over the rocks and the increased size of the Wrangler and the finer-tuned suspension and steering allow it to soak up whatever the trail throws at it. But don't take this as meaning that the Wrangler has gone soft. No way.

The Rubicon models feature upgraded Dana 44 axles with lockers in each end. They include larger pinion shafts and bearings, axle joints and ring gears, which should translate into more durability. But with that also comes more incompatibility with existing Dana 44 aftermarket parts, so don't expect to get a JK, lift it, throw larger tires at it and find lower gears on the shelf right away.

The lockers are now electrically-actuated, vs. the outgoing air-actuated models. They engage and disengage instantly, which is great news. There is no longer the need to greatly anticipate locker-engagement to allow them time to lock. You hit the switch and they are on almost instantaneously.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JKAlso switchable is the Active Sway Bar System (ASBS). Borrowed from the Dodge Power Wagon, the ASBS allows you to disconnect and reconnect your sway bar at will while on the trail. This can be a huge asset, not only because of the convenience factor of not having to mess with them, but I know that there are times on the trails when I'd like them to be connected for a little more stability. Now locking them in at any time is simple and quick (and you don't even have to get dirty). The ASBS worked perfectly. Engaging and disengaging is fast and unnoticeable. ASBS functions in 4x4 High or Low. At 18 mph, it will re-engage itself for safety reasons.

ASBS allows a 28% increase in wheel travel up front, which, according to Jeep, took their test vehicle from a 622 to an 838 score on a 20 degree RTI (Ramp Travel Index). Note: these numbers are from the press kit and anecdotal information. Our calculations of 622 to 838 = 26%.

The new Wrangler, though larger than the TJ, is a trail monster. Sure, it's got some plastic bits that will get dinged up, but the bottom line is, this is every bit a Wrangler and is still the best crawler on the market as far as we're concerned. It's a trail god right out of the box. Just wait for the aftermarket to get lifts and armor on the market. Even with 32" tires we barely scraped on our way through the Rubicon's back side.

Climbing Cadillac Hill was almost too easy. We had done it in a TJ Rubicon this time last year and I remember some tire spinning and higher speeds being required to climb it. This year, although drier, the JK never spun, never stuttered or anything. It just crawled up, effortlessly. I tried to remember what was so hard about it last year!

2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
2007 Jeep Wrangler JK

Driving out the last few miles of the trail really cinched the deal for me, though. There is a three mile stretch where the trail varies from two to four wheel drive, though 4 Low does seem to make the speed more comfortable. The trail is covered in rocks varying from pebbles to six inches or so. Coming out last year was a rough ride, to say the least. My back hurt, my head throbbed, my kidneys screamed. This year, in the JK, the trail was easy and a lot more enjoyable. It was downright civilized in comparison. It actually made me dread going home and driving my TJ, which drives like an apple cart after driving the JK.

So getting back to that whole change thing. Wouldn't you like the Jeep to ride better? Heck yeah. I sure would - and it does. But we didn't want it to change, right? Well, if it could ride this well and still climb the heck out of anything pointed it at, why not?

2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
2007 Jeep Wrangler JK

Oh, and before you think to yourself, "This new Wrangler is wider. It will have a hard time in tight trails," guess what - the two-door has got the same turning circle as the TJ. Obviously, the Unlimited's turning circle is higher.

The new JK is heavier, though. A Rubicon two-door manual soft top comes in at 4,104 lbs., while a similar TJ weighed 3,832 lbs. Chalk this up to the "$3000 of added content" of the new versions. Jeep was not specific on what exactly that new content is, but there are definitely more features and creature comforts than before, plus the obvious size differences.

Once we got off the trail, we had the opportunity to choose a different Wrangler for the ride back to Lake Tahoe and then again after lunch for a longer ride. Our ride back to town was in a two-door automatic X model. It didn't take long for us to miss a road and do a u-turn. Turning around in a cul-de-sac, it was obvious without even reading a spec. sheet that the JK's turning circle was tight. The ride back to town was an absolute pleasure. We got to take off from a few stops and the JK accelerated well. Yes, it can get out of its own way.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JKAfter lunch, we had a much better chance to put the JK through its paces on the road. We grabbed another two-door, this time a Sahara model with automatic transmission. Our designated route would be all the way around Lake Tahoe and back to Resort at Squaw Creek (JK HQ). The route was about 80 miles and we couldn't wait to get going.

The trek takes a couple hours, as most of the route is at moderate speeds, though a few spots let us really open it up. One of the biggest complaints we had with the 42RLE in the TJ was that it seemed anemic. We often-times would turn off the overdrive in order eek a little more power when going up hills or merging into traffic. This would be one of my most important tests of the new JK.

The winding road around Lake Tahoe had several great places to test the power on both winding uphill switchbacks and long, steep climbs. If I didn't know better, I would have thought this was a different transmission in the JK. The shifts were smooth and if you wanted more power, giving the pedal a little more gas would cause quick downshifts. Yes, it actually worked!

The only real difference between this driveline and the TJ's is the engine, and given the extra weight to carry, I was very surprised at how well this combination worked on the road. The electronic throttle response was accurate and the engine whirred along comfortably - never screaming in agony when we stomped on it. I know, right now you I-6 guys are all saying "yeah, right" but it really did drive very well. Obviously, more seat time without time constraints and on our home roads will allow a better long-term opinion but so far, so good. While not a racer, the engine is amply-powered for this application and I'm sure the aftermarket will figure out how to squeeze some extra power out of it. Hopefully, they'll figure out an electronic hand throttle for the trails, as well.

Driving the JK was wonderful. It was comfortable, smooth and quiet. The jacked-up seating position gave me a commanding view of the road and the large mirrors helped me see my sides and behind. The one real blind spot comes from the back seat headrests, which stick up in your rear view. Add this to the spare tire and you won't be seeing everyone behind you - especially if you lift your Jeep.

Once again, the Wrangler's extra size and new suspension setup proved itself a winner. Bumps in the road disappeared, while enough information was still transmitted to our hands and rear ends to feel the road. Steering was good and passed the no-hands test just fine. In fact, if you let go of the wheel, the Jeep automatically turns itself back toward the Rubicon. Seriously, though, if you let go, the Jeep still goes straight, even if you hit bumps. Excellent.

The next morning I requested some private time in the Unlimited. I was furnished an X model with automatic. The extra length was definitely noticeable and as you would expect, the four-door version felt very stable on the road. With a 173.4" length and 116" wheelbase, the Unlimited is big - real big.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JK
2007 Jeep Wrangler JK

While looking forward it is the same, looking to the rear reveals an enormous amount of cargo space. With the back seat up, you still have 46.43 cu. ft. of cargo space, compared to the two-door's 17.5 cu. ft. Fold the 60/40 back seats and you've got 86.75 cu. ft. of space to carry all of your gear. Wow!

The Unlimited model only adds about 211 pounds of extra weight. Empty, the 3.8L pulls it just fine. In fact, I spun the tires on several occasions. Turning left out of Squaw Creek sent me up some pretty good uphill grades and the Unlimited took the hills with aplomb. I was even ready to pass several slower movers who really weren't all that slow.

Unlimiteds are rated to pull 1,000 lbs. with the 3.21:1 gears found on X and Saharas or 3,500 pounds with the optional 4.10 gears (standard on Rubicons) with the optional towing packages. Having the extra long wheelbase really is nice for towing, generally speaking, though we didn't get to actually do any testing.

2007 Jeep Wrangler JKOne thing I took note of was how quiet it was with the top on and the windows up. Jeep uses plenty of PCL (Polymer Constraint Layer) to reduce road noise and resonance from the engine compartment. In addition, each of the 12 body mounts (10 on two-door models) is individually tuned for its position. This, combined with the new curved windshield and the latest soft top design results in a 20% quieter cabin. Now who wouldn't want that?

If you're daily driving requirements include carrying kids or cargo, the Unlimited may be the perfect vehicle for you. Now you can ditch the everyday SUV in favor of a true Jeep. It's size will certainly make it a bit tough to navigate super tight or boulder-strewn trails, but for most off-road excursions, it will still do fine - and keep you in a Wrangler.

Conclusion
Jeep had a huge task at hand when redesigning the Wrangler. They knew they were messing with an icon with 65 years of history behind it. You can't just throw a new design out there, slap a name on it and call it the next Wrangler. Lucky for us, there are still great engineers that are also real Jeepers in Auburn Hills. And luckier still, the brass at DaimlerChrylser has patiently heard them out and allowed them to still make the Wrangler a Wrangler.

The new JK is still the major player it has always been. Only now, it's more up-to-date looking, drives like it was built during the 21st century and comes in two sizes.

The Wrangler still rocks.

Long live rock!

 

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.

 

 

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