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.
Also 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!
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?
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.
After 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,
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
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.
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.
One 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.
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
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 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.
Michael at email@example.com.