The Wrangler remains a familiar face even though almost every body panel has been redesigned. No vehicle is more instantly recognizable, and the folks at Jeep weren't about to change that.
The open fenders, flip-down windshield, big grille, plastic side curtains and exposed hinges and fasteners are still there to give the Wrangler that rugged, utilitarian, no-nonsense look that has appealed to us for over five decades.
But the edges have been softened ever so slightly. The old Wrangler had the aerodynamic efficiency of a brick. The new one has the aerodynamics of a brick with rounded edges.
The Wrangler comes with a choice of tops, both of which have been redesigned to simplify removal and provide better sealing. Purists prefer the soft top, a high-quality piece of equipment that can be configured according to the weather. Folding the top down takes only a third of the time it took before, and if a screwdriver is handy, the windshield can be flipped down for breezy, low-speed touring in the back country.
The side curtains, however, are a hassle in everyday use. And the soft top still generates a lot of racket at highway speeds. We think the $755 optional hard top is the better choice for real world driving, providing more security for expensive gear and better protection from weather. It comes with full-height doors and wind-up windows. Rearward visibility is aided by the rear-window defroster, wiper and washer. Wind noise is reduced.
Some 15 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the new hard top can be removed and stored when not in use. It can also be installed over the soft top.
The Wrangler is available in three models. The bare bones SE is attractively priced at $13,995. That figure rises rapidly, however, when carpeting, nicer seat fabric, a rear seat, a stereo, power steering and other options are added. The SE's four-cylinder engine is at its best teamed with the standard five-speed gearbox.
We recommend those who opt for the three-speed automatic transmission seriously consider the Sport and Sahara models, which come with the much more powerful 4.0-liter six-cylinder engine.
The $17,665 Wrangler Sport--our test subject--is a good choice for those who want more power and a higher level of standard equipment. The six-cylinder engine reduces fuel economy by two mpg around town, but it matches the four-cylinder engine's 21 mpg on the highway.
The Sahara comes with more standard equipment, more style and adds $2070 to the bottom line.
Regardless of model, buyers who contemplate off-road use should opt for the gas shock absorbers, locking rear differential, front tow hooks and heavy-duty battery and alternator. Three different tire sizes are available including our tester's huge 30x9.5x15 Goodyears, conceived for hard use in desert conditions. For all around use, especially snow and slush, skinnier tires are a better bet.
The new interior is a huge improvement. A modular instrument panel replaces gauges that were scattered across the front dash. A modern heating and ventilation system replaces the antiquated tacked-on system. New high-back front seats provide improved comfort and lateral support. And the driver looks through a taller--by three inches--windshield, where the wipers no longer rest at half-mast.
This is a small sport-utility. And it's more sport than utility. There's room for either four people or two people and their gear, but not both. For weekend excursions, the best bet is to leave the back-seat passengers behind, flip the rear seat forward or remove it, and head for the hills. There's enough space behind the rear seat for a fly fishing vest, waders, wading boots. Flip the rear seat down and there's plenty of room for a tent, a cooler, camping gear and way too much fishing equipment. It doesn't get much better than this.
Need to haul still more stuff? The Wrangler's modest towing capacity is sufficient for those who need to pull a personal watercraft or snowmobile.